Category Archives: Review

Review – the Thomas Group

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

The other day a much anticipated package from Spain arrived at Cue Castanets headquarters. The contents? The new CD release ‘Hollywoodland, 1966-1969’ by Hanky Panky Records which collects both released and unreleased recordings by the Thomas Group.

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The Thomas Group?

Some readers may scratch their heads upon meeting this unfamiliar band. However, if you are as much of a fan of 60s songwriting duo PF Sloan and Steve Barri as I am, the “blink and you’ll miss ‘em” career of the Thomas Group will be something you are well aware of.

I have already written here before about my appreciation of PF Sloan. As far as I’m concerned, PF Sloan, Brian Wilson and, you guessed it, Phil Spector make up the holy trinity of 60s pop. But where Brian Wilson and Phil Spector both carved out a very distinctive style and approach for their recordings, PF Sloan was much more adventurous or exploitative depending on how you look at his recordings. A musical chameleon with a capital C, Sloan and his songwriting partner Steve Barri could jump on any bandwagon and write tailormade songs for the latest dance or music craze. They dabbled effortlessly in vocal surf pop, merseybeat, girl group records, folk rock,… You name it, Sloan/Barri could write it!

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Steve Barri & PF Sloan working up a song.
The interesting thing is that as cynical as this may sound like, the duo churned out the most jubilant, first class pop records anyone’s ever likely to make. They were bonafide pop commandos. Need a hit? Call these guys! They may have written songs to order, but my god, the care, love and quality they instilled in their songs is in the grooves.

You can pick up a Sloan/Barri song a mile away; catchy riffs, clever word play, dreamy harmonies. Yet, despite knocking up hit records for a bunch of artists including the Turtles, Johnny Rivers and the Grass Roots, PF Sloan and Steve Barri have unfairly stood in the shadows of other, more celebrated 60s songwriters such as the husband & wife teams of the Brill Building.

Maybe Sloan/Barri just didn’t write enough monster hit records to get fully recognised? Maybe they were too young and inexperienced to really make their mark in the business? Or maybe they were held somewhat back because they were tied to a second-tier record label like Dunhill? We’ll never know for sure and it doesn’t really matter. The music speaks for itself and it speaks volumes in terms of the sheer talent on offer by these two young songwriters.

Sloan, of course, later went solo issuing a couple of brilliant albums until his career fell on the wayside due to personal problems. Steve Barri ventured into production work.

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Where does the Thomas Group fit into all of this? Well, seeing that the Sloan/Barri story is filled with examples of upcoming groups or one-off Sloan/Barri singles by established artists, the Thomas Group is a prime example of the former. 

The band came together in 1965 at the behest of drummer Tony Thomas who was the son of the TV producer and comedian Danny Thomas. Enlisting some friends to form a band, Thomas & friends were inspired by the current chart success of Gary Lewis & the Playboys, yet another band formed around the drumming son of a comedian, Jerry Lewis.

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Back then things happened fast. Almost immediately after getting together, the band was snapped up by Dunhill producer Lou Adler and assigned to Sloan and Barri leading an assortment of Wrecking Crew regulars in the studio. In typical mid-60s pop fashion hardly a Thomas Group member played on the resulting singles. Lead vocals on all were sung by Thomas Group keyboardist Greg Gilford, often sounding uncannily like Sloan. This also occurred with the Grass Roots where lead singer Rob Grill closely followed Sloan’s vocals on the songwriting demos.

Back to the Thomas Group; over a short time span 6 Sloan/Barri songs were recorded and issued on Dunhill but inexplicably none of them saw any notable chart action. However, the recordings are stellar and from a moment in time where Sloan/Barri had truly perfected their catchy formula.

Take a bit of Four Season-ish falsetto for the chorus, some jangling guitars, a heavy dose of Merseybeat-styled energy and, at times, even a pinch of garage group shakeup and you’ll get some idea of what these records sound like. To these ears, songs like ‘Penny Arcade’, ‘Ordinary Girl’ and ‘Autumn’ are among Sloan/Barri’s very best songs. Fun fact; Gary Zekley was so floored by ‘Penny Arcade’ that he by his own admission ripped off the opening verse melody for his own verses to Bonnie’s Wall of Sound classic “Close Your Eyes.”

Sloan/Barri fans have of course known and cherished these pop gems for decades but what’s special about this new release is the fact that we now have the 6 Sloan/Barri songs in crystal clear, glorious stereo for the first time. And it is a revelation to hear these recordings with fresh ears! The lead vocals and cool backing harmonies especially benefit from stereo.

These new mixes are basically a must-hear for any pop fan. You’ll also get your hands on a wealth of unreleased songs by the Thomas Group recorded while at Dunhill or later on while shopping for a deal under the new name Morning Sun. These tracks are interesting and include some really good songs overall, though none come close to the Sloan/Barri singles.

‘Is Happy this Way’, released as a single by Dunhill, is prime sunshine pop and a really strong recording and you’ll also get two versions of Greg Gilford’s catchy ‘Someone’. He turned out to be an interesting songwriter himself as songs such as ‘Is it Over’ and ‘New People’ show – maybe he learned a trick or two from Sloan/Barri?

You need this release for the 6 stereo Sloan/Barri songs alone! And better place your order now since the print run by Hanky Panky Records is limited to 500 copies.

Now, if some enterprising label out there could only do something similar with Sloan/Barri’s remaining 60s songwriting demos or the two albums with a wealth of Sloan/Barri songs by Canadian singer Terry Back? (hint hint)

Read more about the new release and order your copy here: http://hankypankyrecords.bigcartel.com/product/thomas-group-hollywoodland-1966-1969-cd-digipack

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Review – Bobby Hatfield, The Other Brother

****½ (4½ stars out of 6)

Confession: when I first fell head over heels in love with the wall of sound in the early 00s, it was by way of the Righteous Brothers. Being a die-hard soul fan, it took me a little longer to warm to the other parts of the Philles catalog. However, those glorious, soulful vocals by Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield?… Pure bliss! I was hooked rightaway. To this day, ‘Just Once in my Life’ is probably my favourite Spector production.

When singing together these guys were incredible but they could also pack a punch on their own as plenty of tracks on the various Righteous Brothers albums prove.

Allegedly, Bobby Hatfield was frustrated by the immediate attention bestowed to Bill Medley by Spector on follow-ups to ‘You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling’, but luckily Hatfield was given quite a few opportunities to shine amid shimmering, echo-soaked backing tracks. ‘I Love You (for Sentimental Reasons)’ and ‘Ebb Tide’ have always been especially dear to me, even more so than the iconic ‘Unchained Melody.’ (and let’s skip the discussion of who really produced that gem!)

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“Dammit Bobby. This is your final chance, or I’ll have Bill sing it!”
It’s about time Bobby Hatfield got his proper due and what better company to do his musical legacy justice than the fine folks at UK label Ace Records? They have just released a superb compilation with the apt title ‘The Other Brother’ that is a must-buy for any Cue Castanets reader.

The compilation displays the high standard we’ve come to expect from Ace projects; well-chosen tracks – including never before released recordings, beautiful cover artwork and very informative liner notes as well as top-notch sound quality. Believe me, ordering this release is a no-brainer. Your ears will thank you!

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There can be no doubt that Bobby was an extraordinary singer who made the most of the songs he was given, even though the material at hand on occasion was of lesser quality. There are a few instances of this on the disc but it doesn’t mar the overall listening experience. Bobby could obviously inject life and drama into even the most mediocre songs.

Having said that, there is an overload of great recordings on ‘The Other Brother’, none the least a smattering of previously unreleased songs of high quality which makes one wonder why they never saw the light of day. I’m especially fond of Bobby’s velvet-soft take on ‘Crying in the Chapel.’

Of particular interest for Spector connoisseurs is a hitherto unreleased version of ‘Paradise’; here reimagined as a mid-tempo soul song with a James Jamerson-type bass line, punchy horns and strings that bring forth a bit of the grandeur we know from the Spector-produced version with the Ronettes. Even though Bobby and the uncredited mystery producer involved do not achieve the same level of sophistication as the Tycoon of Teen, theirs is still a very good version – and one that’s very refreshing to hear after having played the Ronettes track to death.

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Besides this song and a few other nice, unreleased recordings, Bobby also turns in a fine version of ‘See that Girl’, which of course graced side 2 of the ‘Just Once in my Life’ Philles album by the Righteous Brothers.

Outside of recording as a Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield wasn’t really that prolific. Eventually only issuing one album, the soulful ‘Messin’ in Muscle Shoals’ from 1971, his career was dogged by lukewarm reception to singles that were meant to test the waters for album projects.

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A planned solo album for 1969 fell on the wayside after slow ’45 sales which is a shame; two of the songs for planned inclusion on this scrapped album is on ‘The Other Brother’, but it’s a shame that Ace hasn’t included strong cuts like ‘My Prayer’ and ‘Answer Me’ since they showcase Bobby at his best.

On the other hand, the whole ‘Messin’ in Muscle Shoals’ album is included – if you like southern soul, this album is right up your alley. You could argue that some of these later songs could have been left off to make room for more 60s Hatfield-leads like the Righteous Brothers take on ‘I Believe’ or the sublime ‘Answer Me’, but that’s all a matter of taste.

Personally, I was glad to have ‘Hang-Ups’ as the collection’s lead off track since it’s probably my favorite solo Hatfield recording and thus makes for the perfect opener. When released as a single it was paired with the groovy ‘Soul Café’ which is also a welcome inclusion on the disc.

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All in all, this is a great and long overdue set highlighting different parts of Bobby’s career. Tip of the hat to compiler Tony Rounce and the rest of the team at Ace for continuously documenting the best pop of the 60s with care and affection.

You can order your own copy and listen to sound samples here:

https://acerecords.co.uk/the-other-brother-a-solo-anthology-1965-1970

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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!

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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.

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‘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.

Review: I Am Brian Wilson

**** (4 stars out of 6)

In case you’re wondering what to put on your Christmas wish list, you could consider adding the two Beach Boys-related autobiographies that have come out; ’I am Brian Wilson’ by, you guessed it, Brian Wilson and ’Good Vibrations – my Life as a Beach Boy’ by Mike Love.

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‘Battle of the books!’ – Cousin Mike and Brother Brian compete at telling the story of the Beach Boys.
I’ve had both books for about a month but have so far only completed Brian’s book. I reckon I’ve read one third of Mike’s book as of writing this blog post.

I’m sure that both books would be of interest to most Spector fans seeing that there are many ties between the Beach Boys and Spector. Both competed for chart placings during the 60s, were based in LA and as such utilized the same Wrecking Crew musicians and recorded at Gold Star. (Though Western was Brian’s preferred studio.)

Famously, Brian Wilson only really found his feet as a producer in the modern sense of the word after hearing Spector’s initial Philles releases and picking up the inspiration. ‘Be my Baby’ remains Brian’s favorite song ever and listening to his early to mid-60s output, notably the productions he made on the side for Glen Campbell and Sharon Marie, it’s clear how much he enamored the wall of sound.

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A few collections have come out gathering the few outside productions Brian Wilson worked on during the 60s.
The releationship between Brian Wilson and Phil Spector was complex. Did they respect each other? Were they friends even? Or did they look at each other as foes, both wanting to outdo the other in the studio and get the next no. 1 on the charts? All of these probably applied in equal measure, really, and to this day Brian seems to have conflicting feelings about Spector. Here’s a revealing excerpt from his book where he talks about the voices he still hears in his head from time to time:

“I hear Phil Spector, who did all those great records in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Phil’s voice is scary, always challenging me, always reminding me that he came first. “Wilson,” I hear him saying in my head, “you’re never going to top ‘You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling’ or ‘Be my Baby’, so don’t even try.” But maybe he wants me to try. Nothing is ever simple with him, not when he’s in my head. Simple isn’t what he’s about. People say that we named Pet Sounds partly as a tribute to him: check the initials. “

Phil Spector In The Studio
Brian Wilson at a Spector session in 1965 – others present are Mike Love from the Beach Boys, Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield and in the background with Shades, Jack ‘Specs’ Nitzsche.
Pet Sounds, 1966. Always near the top or indeed topping the lists for best ever album. As far as I’m concerned, by 1966 Brian Wilson had eclipsed Spector as the world’s most original producer.

‘I am Brian Wilson’ is an easygoing account of Brian’s incredible career told in a way that seems really true to the way Brian comes across most of the time. Quirky, childlike and aloof – and as such this book is a very welcome replacement for Brian’s notorious ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ 1991 autobiography. It has long been established that this book was written by hired writer Todd Gold without in-depth collaboration by Brian Wilson. The book also whitewashed Brian’s therapist Dr. Eugene Landy who at that point had all but brainwashed his client, keeping him under heavy and, according to some sources, damaging medication as well as isolating him from his family and former Beach Boys bandmates.

As much as I love the music of Phil Spector and associated acts, the Beach Boys remain my favorite act ever and through the years I have tracked down almost all books on the subject. I know all the stories, – I’ve read them all a gazillion times. And even though Brian’s book offers a few new and refreshing perspectives, I was a little disappointed after finishing reading it.

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Brian during the sessions for Pet Sounds.
For hardcore fans like myself ‘I am Brian Wilson’ is a nice read, though without much new information. For new fans, i.e. general music lovers who’d like to know more about the main Beach Boy, the book must seem pretty tame and only touching on the surface. A lot of the times, I thought the various highs and lows in the career of the Beach Boys was told in such a way as to imply that Brian and his people assume that only knowledgeable fans who know all the facts already will read along.

In the book, Brian sidesteps really giving his take on the inner dynamics of the group and his account of his years recording with his brothers, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston therefore feels somewhat one-dimensional and sparse. You certainly don’t get a deep understanding of the personalities within the group. It’s as if Brian hasn’t felt the need to go into much detail on the matter – which is ok, I guess. For me this fact definately made the reading experience less exciting than it could have been.

Mike’s book seems to also be constructed a bit along these lines but so far I feel he reaches more out to the casual fan with more detailed descriptions and personal takes on why things happened like they did along the way.

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Don’t Worry Baby / I Get Around – how’s that for a killer single?
Anyways, all this shouldn’t keep you from seeking out both books if you’re as much into the Beach Boys as I am. The best book on the subject though remains Peter Ames Carlin’s ‘Catch a Wave – The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys.’

Review: Turn Up the Radio

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

To tell the story about Phil Spector, his use of the Wrecking Crew and Gold Star studios is also to tell the story about the dawning of 60s Los Angeles as one of the world’s premier pop capitals.

This, and much, much more, is at the heart of a very entertaining book by music journalist Harvey Kubernik that I’ve just finished reading. I got ‘Turn Up the Radio – Rock, Pop and Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972’ as a Christmas present but it’s only now, during the summer holiday, that I’ve taken the plunge and read this lengthy, coffee-table format book.

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Kubernik may be familiar to Cue Castanets readers in that he has often championed Phil Spector in his writing and also been within Spector’s actual inner circle. Allegedly, Kubernik was even featured on percussion on some of Spector’s late 70s sessions with Leonard Cohen, the Paley Brothers and the Ramones.

Before I proceed further, allow me to point readers towards a great four-part Kubernik article on Spector published by Goldmine Magazine. Believe me when I say it’s worth your time:

http://www.goldminemag.com/features/phil-spector-the-musical-legacy-part-one

http://www.goldminemag.com/article/phil-spector-the-musical-legacy-part-two

http://www.goldminemag.com/article/phil-spector-the-musical-legacy-part-three

http://www.goldminemag.com/article/phil-spector-the-musical-legacy-part-four

The Spector connection, though, is but only one strand in Kubernik’s interesting career; besides working as a music journalist since 1972, he’s produced records as well as dabbled in A&R for the West-coast division of MCA Records.

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Seeing that Kubernik grew up in LA and had his teenage years played out to the music by Spector and his contemporaries, it’s only natural for him to go back and try to explain the sort of cultural and audio revolution that happened in town during a timespan of little more than 15 years.

In doing this, the book serves as a very nice companion to Barney Hoskyns’ ‘Waiting for the Sun – Strange Days, Weird Scenes and the Sound of Los Angeles’ and Domenic Priore’s ‘Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock’n’Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood’ – both great books that contextualize Phil Spector and Philles Records as well as give readers a good, basic understanding of LA’s rise to pop prominence.

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Whereas Hoskyns and Priore both use the tried and tested chronological narrative written in their own words, Kubernik has chosen another path – that of oral history. Spread out throughout the nearly 300 pages is only a limited amount of writing by Kubernik himself. His own words either only serves to set the scene as each new chapter begins or shift the focus within a chapter.

Basically, the majority of the text is made up of quotes from people who were present themselves back in the day and whom Kubernik have interviewed over the years – some of the excerpts may also come from interviews conducted by other journalists. In any event, it makes a basic storyline which is well-known to anyone who’s read up on the recording history of Los Angeles come alive in an engaging and down-to-earth manner.

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60s session; Darlene Love, Phil Spector & Jack Nitszsche.

Reading the book, it’s as if all these icons, heroes and out-of-this-world characters parade into your living room and regale you with stories from a sizzling hot bed of recording creativity the likes the world will probably newer hear again. Everyone you can think of have a say throughout the book; Phil Spector, Jack Nitszche, Brian Wilson, LaLa Brooks, Sonny Bono, Russ Titelmann, Terry Melcher, Stan Ross, PF Sloan, Andrew Loog Oldham, Lester Sill, Carol Conners, Kim Fowley, Don Randi, Dan & David Kessel, Bones Howe, Jimmy Webb, Don Peake, Lou Adler etc. You get the drift – it’s very entertaining to hear all these talented people tell how they remember things happened,… or at least what they’d like us to think happened.

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Brian Wilson at a Spector session in 1965 – others present are Mike Love from the Beach Boys, Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield and in the background with Shades, Jack ‘Specs’ Nitzsche.

As with every book that is based solely upon oral history, one must remain sceptic. No doubt some of the claims and stories should be taken with a grain of salt. Music lore is notorious for people trying to talk up their importance and it’s difficult to tell while reading when this occurs since conflicting accounts don’t pop up during the storyline. Kubernik could have played the devil’s advocate by questioning the validity of some of the statements but has chosen not to. It means that readers have to take everything at face value and take it from there.

Having said that, the only obvious, factual error I picked up while enjoying the book was this comment by Henry Dilz about the Modern Folk Quartet and Spector: “We later recorded ‘Night Time Girl’ with Phil at Gold Star, with Jack Nitszsche’s arrangement.” Nitszsche had the production credit on the single and I find it very hard to believe that Spector had anything to do with this recording. Dilz also couldn’t have mixed up the song with ‘This Could be the Night’ because he talks about the production of it just before ‘Night Time Girl.’ Strange indeed!

Besides all sorts of interesting stories, and just the sheer joy of reading personal thoughts by people you know from label credits, ‘Turn Up the Radio’ also stands out by virtue of lots and lots of interesting photographs.

There were many shots I hadn’t seen before and Spector’s productions are nicely covered with some cool images. The book is definitely eye candy for any serious lover of 60s pop and the smorgasbord of photos makes the book ideal for casual browsing, reading a little bit here, a little bit there. Hence, I guess, the choice of the coffee-table book format.

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My only gripe with the book is that the format makes it difficult to read lying down as I always do, – its size and weight makes that a bit trying. But that aside, I’d really recommend getting your hands on this fun and entertaining read. Preferably along with the aforementioned books by Hoskyns and Priore. Those three titles together will give you a much broader understanding of the LA pop landscape.

Review: Together

The Explorers Club – Together (2016)

*****½ (5½ stars out of 6)

Consider this; if you think about the phenomenal success the Beach Boys had in their hey-day – and the esteem in which Brian Wilson is still held by today’s musicians – the lack of modern bands playing original music easily recognizable as ‘Beach Boys-like’ is puzzling.

Whereas you still have a gazillion bands mining the Beatles-sound, it’s much rarer to find new and original releases mirroring the sunkissed harmonies and playful pop perfection of Hawthorne’s finest.

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Brian during the sessions for Pet Sounds.
Sure, there are tribute bands out there performing Beach Boys or Jan & Dean hits, but only a few bands seem to have truly based their very existence on the sort of golden 60s California sound the Beach Boys perfected; Britain’s Surfin’ Lungs have been at it for decades, Italy has the aptly named Sunny Boys, the Dukes of Surf out of Hawaii give Mike Love a run for his money and there’s my own band, Surf School Dropouts from Denmark.

All of these have come up with cool songs in a Beach Boys-vein but in my humble opinion none can touch the incredible enigma that is the Explorers Club.

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I first came across these guys in 2006 – or was it 2007? – when a few songs on their MySpace account got the attention of hardcore Beach Boys fans. To this day, ‘Don’t Forget the Sun’, which graced their 2008 debut album ‘Freedom Wind’, is one my all-time favorite songs. ‘Freedom Wind’ was a fantastic first offering from the talented band and the 2012 follow-up ‘Grand Hotel’ didn’t disappoint either.

What was so great about the second album was the fact that the band broadened their sound to also encompass the late 60s & early 70s soft pop sound that followed in the wake of the Beach Boys glory days – think the type of stuff A&M Records put out as an example. In time, the more diverse ‘Grand Hotel’, sound- and genre-wise at least, has become my favorite of the two albums. But both are must-hears for any connoisseur of great pop, Beach Boys fan or otherwise.

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And now,… finally!… we have a third Explorers Club album coming out! I’ve been looking so much forward to this release ever since I got a bit of background info on it from main songwriter and band leader Jason Brewer in an interview for Cue Castanets last year. You can read our discussions here:

https://cuecastanets.wordpress.com/2015/08/28/jason-brewer-interview/

So,… the album,.. how is it?

Well, for one thing, it’s clear that the current incarnation of the Explorers Club has returned somewhat to the familiar grounds of the debut album, their feet firmly planted in Brian Wilson’s sandbox, ready, willing and able to delight listeners with hooks and glorious harmonies.

The sounds contained within the album rarely veer off the path laid out by the Beach Boys, but not in a way that makes the songs come across as mere pastiches. I’ve always been extremely impressed by the way the band picks up on the best parts of the Beach Boys oeuvre and puts its own unique spin on it.

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It’s also clear that the band has been very hard at work recording these songs – lots of things going on in every song and neat little details popping up in the mix upon close listening.

And those harmonies,… stunning harmonies sounding so effortlessly and naturally yet undoubtedly must have required a lot of fiddling around to come up with the perfect vocal wrapping. I know – I’ve been there with the Dropouts! It’s an integral element for the song with the harmony arrangement somehow almost taking up as much time to come up with as the song itself! For this third album, the Explorers Club has concocted some stellar vocal arrangements that are guaranteed to bring a smile to everyone in love with vocal harmony.

Although the album works really well as a whole and the quality is top notch throughout, there are a few stand-out tracks I’d like to highlight in my review.

For starters, lead-off single ‘California’s Callin’ Ya’ is so Brian Wilsonesque it’s almost eerie. It has the same type of modern take on the doo wop sound as can be found on Brian’s ‘Soul Searching’ or ‘That’s Why God Made the Radio.’ Catchy with a capital C then; it’s no wonder this was singled out for a release on its own.

I’m also very fond of the extremely catchy ‘Once in a While’ which has a tag to die for. A tag, of course, was the Beach Boys’ own term for a type of ending that twisted the melody of the song in question a little bit, ensuring that the dying 10-30 seconds had a distinctly different feel than what had gone before,… and was all the more memorable for it. It’s something the Explorers Club has done to perfection on many of their past songs and it works great again here.

‘Perfect Day’ breezes by in less than two minutes but you’d be hard pressed to find a classier, more beautiful little number with close harmony all the way through as its backbone. Close your eyes, listen and dream away – this is timeless in much the same way as those iconic Four Freshman records, Brian Wilson wore out the grooves on in his room before changing the pop game.

Another gem is ‘Quietly’ which comes with yet another tag with tasty falsetto and some dreamy sections throughout the song where the drum fills give off a distinctive ‘Pet Sounds’-vibe. It’s difficult to point out a truly favorite track among all these songs, but this may be the one for me. Fantastic stuff!

If you’re a fan of the cosmic fart-synth sound of ’15 Big Ones / Love You’-era Beach Boys, you’re bound to love the pop grandeur that is ‘Don’t Waste Her Time’ which features longtime-Brian Wilson band member Darian Sahanaja joining the band on keys. This majestic song, which Jason Brewer co-wrote with the great Andy Paley, has come out earlier in a more classic 60s pop arrangement. I do prefer this earlier version, but the song is clearly too good to just gather dust as a single-only release so it makes sense that it’s on here – and it works very well in its updated setting.

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Jason Brewer of the Explorers Club.
If I should offer a bit of criticism, it would be that some of the songs at times reveal their inspiration a little too obviously; title-track ‘Together’ is clearly modeled after ‘Wild Honey’-era Beach Boys while ‘Be Around’ oozes ‘Friends’-vibes right down to its waltz-tempo. It doesn’t ruin my listening experience, but some may find that this sense of ‘what is it this song reminds me of…’ can be a bit overwhelming.

Also, parts of the production can at times sound a bit slick and polished compared to the previous two albums – ‘Gold Winds’ is a good case in point. But who am I or anyone else to judge that, really? I’m sure that the Explorers Club has succeeded in getting just the sound they set out to nail in the studio, – like it or not. Above all, this is clearly a labor of love.

A fantastic release then and one that doesn’t let down. Any fan of good pop music should really check this out.

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The current Explorers Club in the studio.
Please, support the band so that we can begin to look forward to a fourth record from them. Hopefully sooner than later! We need someone to fly the flag for classic 60s pop and timeless harmony in the music world today.

Besides buying the album at the usual outlets, you can order it directly from the band here:

www.timetogettogether.com

Review: Wasting Away and Wondering

In the early months of this blog I published a post about Welsh pop band the School and their fab blend of 60s retro pop, twee and indie pop. Go here for two superb examples of their more Spectorious offerings highlighted in my ongoing series on modern Spector soundalikes.

https://cuecastanets.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/the-school-i-dont-believe-in-love-2010-you-make-me-hear-music-2012/

Last year the School issued their much awaited third longplayer and it’s been on my to-do list ever since to post a short review on here. I’m really bummed I didn’t get to do so earlier, but better late than never, I guess.

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As expected, ‘Wasting Away and Wondering’, the third offering from this great band, is every bit as enjoyable as their first two albums. And I recommend both highly!

Lead vocalist and main songwriter Liz Hunt is the band’s focal point and she really has a knack for churning out catchy melodies that could easily have emanated from the legendary cubicles of the Brill Building. The material is that good and really shows her appreciation for and understanding of that bygone era’s wide-eyed romanticism.

This is classic pop then, with a capital C. As such the album picks up right from where the second album left off.

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You can’t claim that the School reinvent themselves with this release but hey,… if it ain’t broke and all that.

For some, Liz Hunt’s vocals will undoubtedly prove a bit bland and undistinguished – she’s no Darlene Love, that’s for sure. But even though she’s not a soulful belter by any means, her pure, whispering tone is strangely comforting once you get used to it.

A song like ‘Don’t Worry Baby (I Don’t Love You Anymore)’ will have you check credits to see if you’re listening to a hitherto unknown Goffin-King song. Beautiful arrangement on this tearjerker that wouldn’t have been out of place on, say, a Shirelles album.

Then there’s the title track which is a more upbeat girl group-type track, right down to its faux Steve Douglas sax solo! It is also no surprise that the School throws in a fitting tribute to the Northern Soul sound by way of the snappy ‘Do I Love You?’ (not the Ronettes song, nor the Northern floorfiller by Frank Wilson.)

Sadly, this time around the School hasn’t recorded the type of full-on Wall of Sound tribute that graced their other albums, so we’ll have to do with the gloomy, Shangri-Las like ‘He’s Gonna Break Your Heart One Day.’ In spirit, I’m sure ‘Shadow’ Morton taps his foot approvingly.

The stand-out track for me though is ‘Put Your Hand in Mine’ with its pretty melody and a breathy Liz Hunt vocal that fits the mood of the song perfectly. Nice string arrangement too!

I can’t say enough good things about this band and I’m just happy that there are still musicians out there putting out heartfelt tributes to the girl group sound, the wall of sound and 60s pop in general. I’ll advise all Cue Castanets readers to check out all three releases by the School – I’m sure you’ll find something to your liking.

****½ stars out of six.

Review: You’ve Heard these Hands

You may already have read my lengthy interview with legendary Wrecking Crew pianist Don Randi which was published here a while ago, – if not, click the link below to learn about Don’s time in the studio with Spector and read some of his great stories about the 60s LA studio scene.

https://cuecastanets.wordpress.com/2015/08/10/don-randi-interview/

The interview came about because I learned Don had a book coming out, the aptly titled ‘You Heard These Hands’ detailing his many musical adventures. As I recently got my own hands on Don’s book, I thought a review would make for a nice follow-up to the interesting interview Don was kind enough to do for Cue Castanets.

Review: You’ve Heard these Hands

****½ (4½ stars out of 6)

I was really looking forward to this book and sure enough, once I picked it up it was hard to put down again. ‘You’ve Heard these Hands’ turned out to be a very worthwhile read, although I have a few points of criticism which I’ll get to later. Overall though, this book is sure to interest not only any fan of the Wall of Sound but also the casual music fan leaning towards classic 60s and 70s music. Name a US hit artist or iconic single and there’s a good chance Don and his golden piano-playing hands have been involved. The guy’s résumé is nothing short of impressive which applies to the Wrecking Crew in general of course.

Cover for Don's book. A must-read for fans of the Wall of Sound.
Cover for Don’s book. A must-read for fans of the Wall of Sound & 60s LA pop..

What’s a bit unusual about ‘You’ve Heard these Hands’ is the structure which at least for me took some getting used to. Normally, a ‘my life in music’-type book like this will organize the career-spanning narrative chronologically, typically starting out with a chapter about one’s family background, first forays into the music business etc. Not so with Don’s book. We’re talking page 146 and chapter 37(!) before we get to that! Leading up to this are a lot of chapters that are organized around specific producers Don has worked with, sessions he’s played on, clubs the various incarnations of the Don Randi trio has played etc – basically, the chapters are all over the place with significant jumps back and forth in time.

For some this lack of a chronology may irritate – it certainly took some getting used to when I read the book as I felt it made the storyline feel both disjointed and rambling. A bit like “oh, there’s this story, and we also have this story,… and we can’t forget this one” basically organizing the chapter outline of Don’s book as the various anecdotes popped up in quick succession. But then, as I read on, the format started to make more and more sense once I began to sense what kind of person Don is through reading his stories. I should add, by the way, that Don’s collaborator Karen ‘Nish’ Nishimura has put Don’s many stories into words in a very thoughtful and easy-flowing manner. She avoids the pitfalls of ghostwriting that can often be painfully obvious when reading collaborative music books like this.

The end result then, with the jumpy narrative and the warm, personal tone of the text, makes reading ‘You’ve Heard These Hands’ feel like the written equivalent to walking into Don’s LA-based jazz club the Baked Potato, grab a drink with Don at the bar and have him regale you with funny, interesting stories – the sequence of them changing by the day as he has so many to choose from. Keeping that picture in mind, this particular way of structuring the book, however intentional or not, turned out to make perfect sense to me despite my initial reservations.

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I won’t get into great detail with Don’s actual stories in this review because I’d rather encourage you to seek out the book yourself and imagine that you take a trip down memory lane with him. Don offers a variety of interesting stories that give you an impression of the frantic pace and hustling nature of the record business during the 60s and 70s. Many of the stories are hilarious and told in a colorful way which gives the book an easygoing, down-to-earth vibe that seems to correspond well with Don’s personality.

One minor criticism though; for all the interesting anecdotes in the book, it’s a shame that Don and Karen didn’t include a bit more about Phil Spector and the Wall of Sound specifically. There are a few chapters on the topic in the book, and those certainly make for great reading, but the potential for insights could have been pushed much more.

Even though we’ve had many eye-witness accounts from other wrecking crew members and Philles artists about the various Spector sessions, it would have been nice to learn a bit more about how Don remembers the recording of this and that iconic song or other interesting tidbits. Then again, having participated in so many sessions, often not knowing even the song title or artist designated for the recording, it is understandable if Don’s recollections about all this may be a bit blurry. Luckily, I got him to elaborate on some of his Spector stories in my interview.

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The Spector stories that are in the book are interesting though. Some of them because they seem to supplement or even challenge a few of the widespread Spector anecdotes; for instance, Don reveals that he actually befriended Spector several years before being called in for his first Spector session, ‘He’s a Rebel’, even forming a short-lived band with Spector, Steve Douglas and Mike Bermani. Don also claims that Sonny and Cher met while both worked Spector sessions and not, as has often been told, before Cher sang her first backgrounds at Gold Star. Elsewhere, Don tells about a late 70s session with Spector and other Wrecking Crew members that was supposed to result in four recorded songs for a mystery artist. That session sadly went nowhere because Jack Nitzsche, who was battling drug use at this point, hadn’t finished the charts for the songs as promised. If only he had, who knows what could have been?

All in all, ‘You’ve Heard these Hands’ needs to be on your bookshelf next to Hal Blaine’s book if you’re a fan of the 60s LA studio scene and beyond. Don’t expect that much info on Spector, because in all honesty it’s less in depth on that topic than I thought it would be. On the other hand, you get to learn a lot about less recognized producers and arrangers on the scene, many of whom haven’t really been afforded that much attention in music books.

****½ stars out of six for ‘You’ve Heard these Hands.’

Review: Introducing Darlene Love

It’s been a day since the worldwide release of Darlene Love’s new album and I am now able to publish a review of it, a little earlier than I had anticipated.

The review comes courtesy of fellow Spector-fan and Cue Castanets reader Bob Condren who has graciously offered to don the ‘guest blogger’ cap and offer another perspective on here. Which is something I’m very pleased with as I’m of the opinion that the blog will only benefit from other fans having their say. Remember, my vision for Cue Castanets is for it to be a kind of online fanzine devoted to all things Spector & the Wall of Sound. So if you have a good idea for an article, an interview, a review or something else you’d like to pitch, do contact me. You can reach me at cuecastanets(((@))))gmail.com and I’d love to hear from you.

I’d like to thank Bob for the fine review which is perfectly in line with my own initial reaction to the album; great to hear Darlene again; some of the new songs are stellar, some are pretty good, a few are so-so with the River Deep cover being pretty pointless and lame in my opinion. With this, I’ll let Bob talk us through the album and give his verdict.

Review: Introducing Darlene Love

**** (4 stars  out of 6)

Darlene Love’s new release, “Introducing Darlene Love,” may sound like an unusual title for an artist who has performed on so many legendary projects in the past 50 years or so. But for all her notoriety, including her work with Phil Spector, Elvis Presley, movies, TV and Broadway, she has never had a hit album. Steve Van Zandt has recruited an all-star list of veteran A-listers, including Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Jimmy Webb to try to turn that around.

Van Zandt has arranged and produced the songs filling them to the brim with horns, strings and a myriad of background singers. To most singers this would be overwhelming but not for Love… her voice is strong enough to break down the walls of Jericho!

Darlene & Little Steve - Building walls together
Darlene & Little Steve – Building walls together

The first song, “Among The Believers,” written by Van Zandt, initially sounds like a late 70s disco song, not unlike Donna Summer, with Asbury Jukes style horns. The next song is the Elvis Costello penned “Forbidden Nights” that also has an Asbury Park sound, though this time with a late 50s/early 60s rock ‘n roll feel.

A few more songs in, there is another Elvis Costello song called “Still Too Soon to Know.” This is a duet with her old friend Bill Medley, and it sounds as if it would work well on the Broadway stage. They are quite charming together. The Jimmy Webb tune, “Who Under Heaven,” is curiously similar at times to his classic, “MacArthur Park.” This may not be a coincidence as Van Zandt has been quoted as, somewhat jokingly, I think, asking Webb for another “MacArthur Park” for the project.

Van Zandt’s partner in rock ‘n roll crime, Bruce Springsteen, writes two songs for the project. The first one, “Night Closing In” is a full-blown homage to The Wall of Sound. It starts with a Clarence Clemons style sax solo (played by Clemons’ nephew, Jake Clemons) and builds with strings, Hal Blaine style drums, glockenspiel and I think, I may also hear some castanets in the mix. It is a great tune with haunting lyrics and if it had been written back in 1962, may have been a Philles hit, who knows? Springsteen’s other contribution “Just Another Lonely Mile,” while ambitious, is not as successful as “Night Closing In.”

Van Zandt’s fellow disc jockey on Sirius Radio’s Underground Garage, Michael Des Barres, wrote the powerhouse rocker, “Painkiller” with Paul III, and Love belts it out of the park. Love also does a great job with Van Zandt’s signature style soul ballad, “Last Time.” It is followed by a remake of “River Deep, Mountain High.” Love’s powerful vocal is a good fit but Van Zandt’s production does not have the unique quality of Phil Spector’s version with Tina Turner.

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After 12 songs dealing with affairs of the heart, the final two are in the Gospel mode, something that Love, whose father was a preacher, is familiar with. The penultimate song “Marvelous” is a simmering, slow tempo, powerhouse. The clarity, power and honesty of Love’s voice is at its peak on this one. On a roll, the final song, “Jesus Is the Rock (That Keeps Me Rollin”) is is an up-tempo number, that just about levitates the whole production.

If you’re a fan of the Jersey Shore sound, Spectoresque productions, or more to the point, a fan of Darlene Love, there is something for you on “Introducing Darlene Love.” 4 stars out of 6.

Bob Condren