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Archive for February 12th, 2013

Review: “Classic Singles” of Merle Haggard, George Jones and Wanda Jackson

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Merle - SinglesWhat makes a (living) legend most?  Based on the label’s three most recent releases, Omnivore Recordings certainly has some ideas.  Omnivore has just issued singles anthologies from three tried-and-true country titans: Merle Haggard’s The Complete 60s Capitol Singles, George Jones’ The Complete United Artists Solo Singles, and Wanda Jackson’s The Best of the Classic Capitol Singles.  All three titles reiterate the eclectic label’s commitment to reissuing some of the most significant C&W music of all time.

Like another Omnivore favorite, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard epitomized the “Bakersfield sound” of country music, a style rooted in pure honky-tonk.  Unlike the Texas-born and Arizona-raised Owens, Haggard was actually born in Bakersfield, California and raised just across the river from that country capital.  Owens played a major role in his career, though, when he hired Haggard as his bass player; Haggard also would make Buck’s ex-wife, Bonnie Owens, his second of five wives.  The penultimate track on The Complete 60s Capitol Singles (OVCD-57) is “Okie from Muskogee,” the controversial song that catapulted the singer-songwriter to superstardom.  But the 26 tracks before “Okie” (and one after!) show why he’s one of the most revered names in country music, and are much more straightforward than that oft-misunderstood classic.  These songs are built around themes familiar to any country fan: the twin temptations of women and drink, the outlaw life, solitude, the love of a mother, all rendered with the piercing honesty on which Haggard built a still-formidable reputation.

And though misery and sadness do frequently prevail, Merle evinced a keen sense of humor as far back as his first Capitol single “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can” (“I’m gonna travel all around the worl’/I’ll be a threat to the sweetest girl/I’m gonna break every heart I can/Or my name ain’t Merle!”).  2010 Kennedy Center Honoree Haggard called Capitol home from 1965 to 1977, where he notched an impressive string of hits including many country No. 1s.  Many of the best are here.

Haggard wrote most of the As and Bs here, but also paid tribute to Hank Cochran and Jimmie Rodgers with covers, and his first Country No. 1, “The Fugitive,” was the work of Liz and Casey Anderson.  December 1966’s release of “The Fugitive” began Haggard’s impressive run of chart-topping hits, all of which dealt with the themes of the outlaw life, drawing on the singer’s own time spent in prison.  “Branded Man” (No. 1, June 1967: “No matter where I’m livin’, a black mark follows me…”) was followed by death-row anthem “Sing Me Back Home” (No. 1, October 1967) and then by the bluegrass-flavored “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” (No. 1, February 1968).  Unbelievably, “Mama Tried” followed on the same theme (No. 1, June 1968).  Music may have saved Haggard from a life of crime; as an inmate at San Quentin, he was inspired by seeing Johnny Cash perform there.  Clearly, he grasped the humanity of the characters he wrote in song and much like Cash, had a great deal of empathy for those who didn’t always “walk the line.”

Some of the all-time great drinking songs are here, including Merle’s first Capitol hit “Swinging Doors” (No. 5 Country) (“I’ve got swinging doors, a jukebox and a bar stool/And my new home has a flashing neon sign/Stop by and see me any time you want to/’Cause I’m always here at home ‘til closing time”), as well as “The Bottle Let Me Down” (No. 3) and “I Threw Away the Rose” (No. 2).  These 1966 hits could be maudlin or cliché as rendered by other voices.  But the emotional directness of Haggard’s resonant baritone keeps them rooted in reality, with those deep, low notes that seem to have come from the earth itself.

Many might be unaware of the role of Glen Campbell in Haggard’s recordings.  While serving as a session stalwart in the L.A. “Wrecking Crew,” Haggard’s Capitol labelmate Campbell was frequently called upon to provide both guitar and background vocals to Merle’s recordings as produced by Ken Nelson and Charles “Fuzzy” Owen.  When Campbell’s soaring tenor blended with Haggard’s lead and Bonnie Owens’ harmony vocal, the result was pure magic.  Drummer Jim Gordon and guitar legend James Burton also made their mark on these singles.  Their elegant musicianship and the singer’s own agreeable twang often masked the lyrical anguish.  Even the stellar recording of Hank Cochran’s “Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive” conjures a jazzy mood; the Haggard/Bonnie Owens co-write “[Today] I Started Loving You Again” is gorgeously understated.

If the balance of the material on Complete ‘60s Singles wasn’t presented so compellingly, it would be easy for “Okie from Muskogee” to cast its long shadow over every other song here.  The topical, politically incendiary song’s power might have even taken its author by surprise.  The song is seemingly a condemnation of “long [haired] and shaggy” hippies who smoke marijuana, practice free love and burn their draft cards, but in recent years, Haggard has taken to interpreting it ironically.  Regardless of his intentions writing the song, many took its “patriotic” message to heart, and it thrust Haggard to the next stage of fame and success.  The B-side of “Okie,” “If I Had Left It Up to You,” is the concluding track on the compilation, and a much more traditional tune.  How appropriate that Haggard closed out the 1960s with the “Okie” single; how appropriate that Omnivore has left us wanting more from Merle Haggard, posed for greater crossover success on the heels of a rather atypical song.

Deke Dickerson has written the copious liner notes, and every track has been remastered from the original single masters (most in mono) save one which could not be located, 1969’s “California Blues.”

After the jump: we check out companion volumes from George Jones and Wanda Jackson! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

February 12, 2013 at 13:12

Grammy Winners, Alt-Rockers Go Deluxe At Target

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BabelTGTHaving blanketed Sunday night’s Grammys telecast with ads and promotions (including heavily discounted prices on Grammy-nominated artists and exclusive promotions on recent and upcoming LPs by Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake), American retailer Target has partnered with a recent Grammy winner and an upstart rock group to expand and reissue two albums.

Babel, the sophomore album by folk-rockers Mumford & Sons, and Night Visions, the studio debut by pop-rockers Imagine Dragons, have both been repackaged with retailer-exclusive content.

The British-born Mumford & Sons have eked out quite the niche performing dusty, banjo and acoustic guitar-laden folk rock that’s taken them from small clubs to arenas in only a few short years. They’ve established themselves as a Grammy favorite, earning a nomination for Best New Artist in 2011 and both Record of the Year and Song of the Year in 2012 for “The Cave.” In 2011, they also earned high marks for their performance on the award show broadcast, sharing the stage with fellow folk-rockers The Avett Brothers and a young upstart named Bob Dylan.

Second album Babel continues the long list of achievements for the group: it was the fastest-selling album in England in 2012, was the second-highest selling album in America the same year, and was nominated for four Grammys this week, taking home a trophy for Album of the Year. This new reissue includes three bonus tracks from a previous, non-exclusive deluxe reissue – including a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” with bluegrass musician Jerry Douglas and Paul Simon as featured guests – and adds three new live renditions of songs from both of their studio albums.

After the jump, “It’s Time” to check out a hefty deluxe edition by Imagine Dragons!

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Written by Mike Duquette

February 12, 2013 at 11:41

Esoteric Offers Southern Comfort with Two Ian Matthews Reissues

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Ian Matthews - If You Saw Thro My EyesIan (later Iain) Matthews has had a place in the rock pantheon since his debut with Fairport Convention on the band’s very first, self-titled album.  Matthews only remained with Fairport for two albums (and one song on the group’s third effort) before departing to craft his own Matthews’ Southern Comfort.  The title of that LP soon morphed into a band name for a new Matthews-fronted outfit, and Matthews Southern Comfort (no apostrophe) released two more albums before the band splintered from the frontman.  Cherry Red’s Esoteric Records imprint picks up Matthews’ story with reissues of his first two post-Comfort albums, both of which were originally released on the Vertigo label: 1971’s If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes and 1972’s Tigers Will Survive.

Matthews Southern Comfort didn’t last long, but did leave a mark on the charts when the band’s recording of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” topped the U.K. pop chart.  (It also reached No. 5 in Canada and No. 23 in the United States.)  For his first proper solo album, Matthews contributed nine original songs alongside two from the pen of Richard Fariña and one from Jerry Burnham and Allan Jacobs.  Though Matthews planned on engaging Paul Samwell-Smith (Cat Stevens, Carly Simon) as producer, he ended up helming the sessions himself.  The cast of musicians included Fairport’s Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny, future Fairport member Gerry Conway, Keith Tippet, Pat Donaldson, Andy Roberts and Tim Renwick.  In his new liner notes written for Esoteric’s reissue, Matthews confirms that there were “no outtakes, no unfinished tracks, no abortions, just the eleven songs” that made the final LP.  But what eleven songs!  The album has a beautiful (and largely acoustic) folk-rock feel, anchored by the tight guitar interplay between Thompson, Roberts and Renwick, and naturally, it shows off Matthews’ vocals to their best advantage.

It wasn’t long before Matthews began work on a follow-up.  Hit the jump to read on!  Plus: track listings and order links! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

February 12, 2013 at 10:02

Posted in Ian Matthews, News, Reissues