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So the dust has settled, so to speak, on Ryan Adams’ cover version of 1989. Its due on LP soon, but likely reached its largest audience when first released online last month. Taylor Swift called it “an honor,” and reviews were mostly kind, if skewed in a sexist direction. Everyone has something to say about the best selling album of the past year. We did, but it was mostly that we love it. And Ryan Adams’ version, eh… it’s not all bad, but its missing something.

We have an on-again, off-again relationship with Adams, who is as prolific a songwriter as he is a producer of successful cover versions. He’s one of those artists where a fan could get frustrated, and spend a fortune, collecting the discography. We’ve been fans since we first bought Whiskeytown’s penultimate disc because it had a brief appearance by Alejandro Escoveda, but Adams’ solo records are a disappointing mixture of gems and duds.

You can’t entirely separate Adams’ output of albums from the entertaining drama to which he seems attached. Between his hostile retirement announcement and the “Summer of ’69” incident, his esoteric side projects like Werewolph and Sleazy Handshake, and his frequent changes of direction, Adams sometimes seems like a relic of the seventies, when rock stars were larger than life. It definitely makes us interested in each new album.

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As the title of today’s post suggests, we’ve been thinking about one particular seventies singer, who bounced from band to band, and whose albums were a similar combination of compelling originals and clever covers. Ian Matthews first performed as a member of Fairport Convention, a British group featuring folks who clearly loved California bands like the Byrds or the Grateful Dead. At one point Matthews was sort of un-invited to a recording session, leading him out in to the wilderness of a solo career where he never settled in one place for long.

Matthews’ work included stints in short-lived bands, some of which are occasionally revived: No Faith, More than a Song, Matthews Southern Comfort, Hi Fi, and Plainsong. With these, and under his own name, he’s appeared on at least thirty albums, but even a seasoned collector would be confounded by a quest to find them all.

For today’s post we’ve recorded a few songs from Matthews’ early albums which we have enjoyed. These first two are from his 1974 album, Some Days You Eat the Bear, which is mostly covers. In addition to Tom Waits (whose “Ol’ 55” seems to have been ubiquitous on albums issued by Elektra and Asylum around the time) and Steely Dan, there’s an early cover of “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It,” which was written by Danny Whitten for the first Crazy Horse album. The song later appeared on Rita Coolidge’s best-selling Anytime…Anywhere and Rod Stewart’s Atlantic Crossing, both albums which certainly eclipsed anything Matthews recorded, but we really love his take on this beautiful song. The second tune from this album is one of the songs Gene Clark wrote while performing with the Flying Burrito Brothers.

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These next selections are from the single album by Plainsong, a band which Matthews founded with Andy Roberts, whose previous work included playing guitar arrangements to accompany poetry in esoteric English acts the Liverpool Scene and the Scaffold. In Search of Amelia Earhart is heavily influenced by Fred Goerner’s 1966 conspiracy theory book, but isn’t entirely a concept album (not all the songs are about the famed pilot’s mysterious disappearance). Matthews’ fans consider this one of his best albums, and while it received positive reviews and they toured that year, the band didn’t last.

Matthews and Roberts revived Plainsong in the 90s and released several CDs, each of which were all but un-available here in the states. A 2005 double-disc collected the original 1972 album and also songs recorded for what would have been their second LP.

A cover of “Shake It” by Terrance Boylan (no, not “Shake it Off”!) was the only hit of Ian Matthews career. A single from his sixteenth album, Stealin’ Home, it reached #13 here in the United States. With Hi Fi he released a couple albums in the early 80s, exploring his songwriting in power pop instead of folk rock and also covering Prince’s “When You Were Mine.” For a while after this he worked in the A&R department at Island Record and then at new age staple Windham Hill. He has, on more recent solo records, used the original spelling of his name, Iain Matthews.

Here are two songs from Tigers Will Survive, Matthews’ second solo album, on which his Fairport Convention bandmate Richard Thompson appeared as “Woolfe J. Flywheel.” This album is much more directly connected to his roots in the English folk scene, but the title tune seems like a fitting theme song for the singer, who at sixty-nine is still performing infrequently. His last album, The Art of Obscurity, was released a few years ago on a fittingly unknown label called Fledg’ling, and billed in the notes as his last.

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This last song, “Please be my Friend,” reminds us of “Friends” from Ryan Adams’ ’05 album with the Cardinals, Cold Roses. This is the sort of song that makes us think of the two as similar — in their original songs, both are often reaching out for the connection of a friendship. The Plainsong album is deeply concerned with what we do to get through disillusionment in a way that several songs on Adams’ solo debut, Heartbreaker, is as well.

…just seem to make for a sad song.

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Some years ago a customer posted something on the Hymie’s facebook page about wishing they could make mix tapes on vinyl — and moments later another customer commented, “They exist! They’re called K-Tel compilations!” Over this long weekend we realized how many are scattered all around the 4000 square feet of your friendly neighborhood record shop and had a great time listening to them.

The history of K-Tel International seems like a Coen Brothers film waiting on a backer. The ubiquitous bargain bin label’s US distribution was based here in the Twin Cities (with addresses in Minneapolis, Hopkins, and most recently Plymouth) but it began up in Winnipeg, Manitoba in the 60s. Its founder, Philip Kives, began his career marketing products like the Veg-O-Matic and the Feather-Touch Knife. Their primary market was “As Seen On TV” advertising and promotion.

In 1966 K-Tel released its first album, 25 Great Country Artists Singing Their Original Hits. Kives has claimed, incorrectly, that his business invented the compilation album. They had healthy success in the competitive country compilation market, but it was really in producing pop collections that the label found a mass market. Eventually, K-Tel collections acknowledged (although didn’t always accurately represent) everything from disco to metal and punk rock.

lolliwinksThe label branched out into original recordings a few times over the years, including the original “classical gasp” mashup, Hooked On Classics, which was distributed by RCA, and a UK-only spoken word album about the Loch Ness Monster by Alex Harvey. On a local note the label also reissued Distortions by the Litter in 1990 with three extra tracks, but only pressed 500 copies making it as rare as the original album these days ’cause who on Earth was buying records in 1990 besides weird-o’s like us? K-Tel also issued a super bizarre kids album called The Loliwinks which has a cult following.

While K-Tel collections are found all over the world, we in Minnesota seem to have more of them than any other record collectors. If you don’t pay attention to your record collection they just seem to appear between other albums over time like mildew. And when you go to get rid of some albums to make room for more, you can’t toss out the K-Tel comps, because they’re just so wonderful.

Here are nine favorites of ours…

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20 Great Country Artists Singing Their Original Hits may have been K-Tel’s first record, but Country Roads is their greatest country collection. The collection includes two of country music’s best songs of all time: “Stand by Your Man” and “Behind Closed Doors.” It also pretty well known hits by Ray Price (the awesomely honky tonky “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You”), Johnny Horton and David Houston. Our favorite tracks are by two Carls — Carl Smith’s “Hey Joe,” which is not to be confused with the rock standard introduced by the Leaves and by Jimi Hendrix in the 60s, and “Don’t Let Me Cross Over” by the great Carl Butler

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Heavy Metal starts with so much promise: the first two tracks are the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” and “Iron Man.” Sure, it’s the censored “Jams” but at least its not the single edit of the Black Sabbath classic — and no other collection is going to put these songs alongside Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen.” The whole first side rocks, but then the double album devolves into what your mom called “heavy metal.” Songs like “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Ramblin’ Man” are great 70s jams, but they don’t belong on this album.

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With its Happy Days-themed selections and jukebox-shaped jacket, Jukebox Jive must have been very successful. It’s one of the most common K-Tel collections these days. The television commercial from the famous “as seen on TV” label celebrates its selection:

Jukebox Jive offers a few deep cuts not often found on 50s collections, making it more interesting than Fonzie’s Favorites or the American Graffiti soundtrack. It’s also the first of two collections on this list to contain “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

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Like the budget disco collections which were probably sold more in gas stations and drug stores than record shops like ours, there are so many truck driving collections its hard to choose a favorite. 20 Great Truck Drivin’ Songs doesn’t have a cover as awesome as Gusto Records’ Road Music or Starday’s Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves and Other Truck Drivin’ Favorites. but it does contain a box of “CB-Trucker Talk” on the back. This is how we know the classy gal on the cover of Road Music is what’s called a “pavement princess.”

K-Tel proves their licensing prowess by proffering the best collection of truck drivin’ jams: “Convoy” and “Truck Drivin’ Cat with Nine Wives” make appearances, as do lesser-known classics like “Give Me 40 Acres to Turn This Rig Around” by the Willis Brothers.

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Released by K-Tel subsidiary Dominion Music in 1984, Electric Breakdance is the most progressive collection the Minnesota label produced. Sadly, we have never found a copy which still has the “giant detailed poster on how to break,” so we have yet to learn the hard way about the warning on the back of this album:

If you have any ankle, knee back or other physical problems, you should have a medical checkup before attempting the dances described in these materials. Parental supervision is advised for children who attempt these dances.

The album’s notes (uncommon for a K-Tel release) remind listeners that breakdancing had a decade’s history before Michael Jackson did the moon walk on Motown’s 25th anniversary special. In spite of this claim the tracks are mostly pulled from early 80s electro and hip hop records, but the collection contains tunes you’d otherwise spend a couple hundred dollars to collect. The only song on Electric Breakdance which wouldn’t cost you $20 on a playable 12″ single is Run DMC’s “It’s Like That.” The rest of the album represents the grey area that existed between hip hop, electronic music, and rhythm and blues on the sweaty streets of New York, including the Double Dee and Steinski debut “Play that Beat Mr DJ,” performed by GLOBE and Wiz Kid, and the Grandmaster Flash standard “White Lines.”

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Goofy Greats isn’t as manic as the Dr. Demento collections, but it is far more fun than Ronco’s inferior Funny Bones compilation. Many aren’t really intended to be novelty songs, but just have a silly bend, such as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Two local bands make an appearance (the Fendermen and the Trashmen) and it’s probably the only way you’ll find Piero Umiliani’s original “Mah-Na-Mah-Na,” which made its first appearance in the score to Sweeden: Heaven and Hell, a 1968 Italian documentary about the wild sexual behaviors of Swedes.

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There are so many disco collections in the K-Tel discography its difficult to choose a favorite. Let’s Disco! is unique in that it contains a side of instructions. The b-side offers a short selection of “non-stop disco” highlighted by Foxy’s “Get Off Your Aaah! and Dance.”

DISCO, A single word has captured a nation’s imagination. No longer thought of as an amusement strictly for the “beautiful people,” DISCO has become a national entertainment. People from 6 to 60, tired of watching a select few have all the fun, are shedding their 9 to 5 humdrums, donning their dancing shoes and stepping out!

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Our copy of Street Wave was released by K-Tel’s Canadian subsidiary based in Mississauga, Ontario, so maybe this album wasn’t intended for the American market. We can’t say we’ve ever looked at the notes on the back of another copy — who looks at the notes on a K-Tel compilation? Street Wave seems like it would be a lot more fun based on the cover, but when you play the album you’ll be disappointed to find the selections, with the exception of Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right,” represent the softer side of these acts on the fringes of K-Tel’s usual landscape. The Talking Heads’ weirdly soulless “Take me to the River” is included, as is Pat Benatar’s “We Live for Love,” which is absolutely the lightest song on In the Heat of the Night. Our assumption this album was intended for the Canadian market is solidified by the inclusion of Teenage Head, whose “Somethin’ on my Mind” was a minor hit in the great white north in 1980. Where Street Wave succeeds is in capturing the 60s pop influence on new wave, with bubble gum-y tunes like “Somethin’ on my Mind” and the Ramones’ cover of “Baby I Love You.”

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Super Bad is the single best K-Tel compilation in spite of its faults. The 1973 collection does not contain “Super Bad,” and offers “Good Foot (Part One)” in its place, which was only James Brown’s first single certified gold because previous successes were not accurately reported by King Records. It’s not a bad song, but it’s no “Super Bad.” The album is actually less heavy fun and more heavy soul, with funky jams from soul standards like the Staple Singers (“Respect Yourself”) and Joe Tex (“I Gotcha”). With a copy of Super Bad you can sample primordial disco in the form of Jerry Butler’s “One Night Affair” and a cover of “Give me your Love” by Barbara Mason, as well as the borderline acid jazz of Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together.”

The tracks on Super Bad are dramatic (though the Dramatics do not appear) and dynamic (though the Dynamics do not appear). Barry White’s “Walkin’ in the Rain” and (a Love Unlimited single) and Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft” are exceptional three minute epics, and “I’ve Been Lonely for so Long” just hits a sweet spot around here.

The Hymie’s crew is DJing a wedding tonight for a local musician who is a friend — so we’ll be zipping out of the shop right away today to the reception. We didn’t have time to find something new for the blog today because we’re busy picking records our friends will enjoy, so here’s a silly rerun from earlier this year…

Don’t hire this guy.

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The Hymie’s blog is taking a couple days off to go camping with the kids. We’ll return to our regular programming on Thursday. Until then we found a few nature-themed posts from the past.

Here, from 2013, is a post about frogs…

Our three year old daughter is really into The Muppets’ Frog Prince album, which is getting a couple spins a day in our house. It’s actually an adapted soundtrack from a 1971 TV special produced by the Sesame Street crew, featuring (in some cases introducing) several Muppet mainstays, like Kermit’s nephew Robin and the delightful Sweetums. Nova doesn’t know there’s a video yet, so she put the album on her Fisher Price player nearly every day.

The Frog Prince is interesting in that it’s one of the very first times Kermit is identified as a frog. When you think about it, he could be all kinds of things, like a lizard, a salamander, or even … “a hoppy toad!” It’s also got a lot of frog jokes, like how they are disgusted by the idea of sleeping in a bed and wearing clothes, and how much they love the stagnant waters of their swamp.

So here is a playlist of songs for our little girl who loves frogs…

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We all know the twist the funky chicken and the electric slide  – most of us have probably done at least one of them at a wedding  Here are some dances that may be unfamiliar to you (although Laura and Dave danced all of them at their wedding)

THE BUMP

(as introduced by Alvin Cash and the Crawlers)

“Bumpity bump bump…”  Sounds pretty good to us.

THE TURTLE

(as introduced by Ichabod and the Cranes)

This seems like it would be the perfect hipster dance because all you do is stand there.  If only you could also talk about the time you saw the band before they were cool.

THE PIGEON

(as introduced by Bert)

Sesame Street Fever is not the first time Bert did the pigeon.  Its just the funkiest.

THE STRAND

(as introduced by Maureen Gray)

Must have been a slow dance.

THE HUMPTY DUMPTY

(as introduced by Bobby Pickett)

This is the B side of a single that came out a year after the million-seller “Monster Mash” (credited to Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt Kickers).  Like everything Pickett recorded after his smash hit debut – even the 2005 protest song “Climate Mash” – it never escaped the shadow of the perennial Halloween classic. Still, we love to do the Humpty Dumpty.  Let’s all do the Humpty Dumpty!

 

Mary Lou Williams, who refused to be bound by a contract and even once founded her own independent label, is one of our favorite figures in jazz history. Her career outlasted the swing era and included collaborations with beboppers and free jazzers, and she was beyond simple ahead of her time. Her music was in many ways timeless.

She was connected to so many seminal moments in jazz history, performing with an early version of Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians (at the age of thirteen) in 1924. A year later, while playing with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in Harlem, her playing so pleased Louis Armstrong that he paused in his tracks to listen before kissing her.

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Williams is best known to swing aficionados for her work with Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy in the 1930s. She was originally brought to Kirk’s orchestra by her first husband, John Williams, who was a saxophonist in the group. By the time she left, about a decade later, she was the primary reason for their success, which you can quickly tell from any compilation of their singles (the ones arranged by other members simply don’t swing the same). “Walking and Swinging” (1936) and “Mary’s Idea” (1938) are two of our favorites.

She began her freelance career while working for Kirk’s Clouds of Joy, who had taken a long engagement in Kansas City. She did work for Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, and for Benny Goodman. One track Goodman was especially pleased with was “Roll Em.”

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The King of Swing was so pleased with the theme she wrote for his NBC Radio program, sponsored by Camel cigarettes, that he tried unsuccessfully to pin Williams down with an exclusive contract. She refused and continued to work for a variety of bandleaders.

Her second husband was trumpeter Shorty Baker, and when he was briefly engaged with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, she came along and arranged her version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” for the Duke (as “Trumpet no End”), as well as adding “Walking and Swinging” to his prestigious repertoire.

One distinctive talent she shared with Ellington was an ability to arrange music to bring out the best in a specific performer. While still working for Kirk she produced “Floyd’s Guitar Blues” for Floyd Smith with the intention of highlighting his Hawaiian style on the lap steel guitar. The result is one of the earliest hit records to feature an electric guitar.

Williams made a number of her own recordings during these productive years, including a couple solo sides for Brunswick in 1930 which we would sure like to find one day. She was not, however, completely rooted in the swing era and became a close associate of Dizzy Gillespie and his wife Lorraine. Bebop musicians, notably Thelonious Monk, held her in high esteem. She had a regular program on New York’s WNEW (Mary Lou’s Piano Workshop), broadcast from Barney Josephson’s influential Cafe Society club. “During this period Monk and the kids would come to my apartment every morning around four or pick me up at the Café after I’d finished my last show, and we’d play and swap ideas until noon or later”, she explained to Melody Maker in a 1954 interview. Williams’ remarks reflected a welcoming attitude towards bebop and other developments in jazz not always held by members of her generation.

Right from the start, musical reactionaries have said the worst about bop. But after seeing the Savoy Ballroom kids fit dances to this kind of music, I felt it was destined to become the new era of music, though not taking anything away from Dixieland or swing or any of the great stars of jazz. I see no reason why there should be a battle in music. All of us aim to make our listeners happy.

Mary Lou maintained this attitude throughout her professional career, collaborating with free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor in 1978 on one of the most unexpectedly moving jazz albums of its era. Williams seems like one of those musicians who was capable of playing just about anything, but had the dedication to take her talent where she felt inspired.

Williams wrote or arranged a few songs for Gillespie’s experimental big band, which was one of the most interesting groups in the history of jazz (we last listened to them here, in a post about percussionist Chano Pozo). One of these songs was “In the Land of Ooh Bla Dee,” featured a fun vocal by Joe Carroll and, naturally, a great solo by Diz.

It was Gillespie who convinced Williams to come out of her brief retirement with a performance at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival — she is featured on his live album of the performance. Her life thereafter was focused on liturgical music and charitable work, and her compositions during this time blend jazz with choral arrangements and traditional blues. The most famous of these is her Mass for Peace, commonly called “Mary Lou’s Mass,” which was recorded in 1970.

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“I am praying with my fingers when I play,” she once said, adding that she hoped to inspire people’s spirituality with her music. Williams performed her Mass on The Dick Cavett Show in August 1971. Sadly, while you’ll have no trouble finding footage of John Lennon’s jackassery on the same program, nobody has posted Williams’ performance online. Priorities, huh?

Williams’ work involved at one time operating thrift stores which supported musicians and supporting children’s music education through programs like Billy Taylor’s Jazzmobile — in fact, one of her many fans was no less than Mr. Rogers, who had her as a guest on his show in 1973. And that was a clip we were happy to find.

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