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Review: Shuggie Otis, “Inspiration Information/Wings of Love”

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Inspiration Information Wings of LoveHow to describe the career trajectory of Shuggie Otis?  The son of Johnny Otis, the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues,” Shuggie (born Johnny Alexander Veliotes Jr.) displayed prodigious talent on the guitar from an early age.  He began performing with his father before he reached his teenage years, played for the likes of Al Kooper and Frank Zappa, and even joined with dad Johnny in 1969 for some off-color ribaldry as two-thirds of Snatch and the Poontangs. Otis then landed at Epic Records for a three-album stint between 1970 (Here Comes Shuggie Otis) and 1974 (Inspiration Information).   Inspiration registered as barely a blip in the lower reaches of the Billboard 200.  In 1977, he scored a hit via The Brothers Johnson’s recording of his “Strawberry Letter,” introduced on 1972’s Freedom Flight.  But then he was gone.  In 2001, David Byrne championed his lost musical hero with the reissue of Inspiration Information on his Luaka Bop label. The idiosyncratic amalgam of funk, soul, jazz and blues attracted a new generation of fans, but Otis didn’t capitalize on its newfound notoriety with any new music.  Flash forward to 2012.  Otis embarked on a tour and confirmed the expanded reissue on Epic and Legacy Recordings of Inspiration Information.  It’s finally arrived, paired in one package with Wings of Love, a new album of thirteen previously unreleased songs recorded between 1975 and 2000 (88697 74700 2).

Whereas Otis’ previous two albums were produced by his father and featured musicians including Plas Johnson, Wilton Felder, Al McKibbon, George Duke and Aynsley Dunbar, Inspiration found Otis acting as a one-man band in the style of Todd Rundgren, Stevie Wonder, Emmit Rhodes, Paul McCartney, and later, Prince.  (Only strings and horns were supplied by outside players.)  To compare Otis to any of those gentlemen, though, is doing a disservice both to them and to Otis.  Inspiration is, undoubtedly, a singular album.  Yet this doggedly non-commercial sonic fantasia doesn’t quite fit into any one musical genre and even today plays like a patchwork quilt, albeit one crafted by a creative, preternaturally gifted artist.

Lyrics take a back seat to music on Otis’ obviously personal journey, and indeed, a number of the album’s tracks are pure instrumentals.  On the songs with both music and lyrics, the vocals are often buried in the mix, making them difficult to completely decipher.  And even melody is subordinate to arrangement on many tracks here.  Pop likely wasn’t Otis’ aim, and he wasn’t a natural melodist like Rundgren or McCartney.  The title track of Inspiration, perhaps the album’s strongest, is a funk tour de force of intertwined lead and background vocals, organ, guitar, bass and drums, a spacey ode to one who is “making me happier…now I am snappier.”  What gives Inspiration a sound unlike almost any other circa 1974, though, is Otis’ extensive use of the Maestro Rhythm King analog drum machine.  His wasn’t the first use of the device in soul music; Sly and the Family Stone famously employed it on 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On.  On the sweetly-sung, lyrically-epistolary “Island Letter,” the Rhythm King lends a near-bossa nova feel that turns exotic with layers of strings, percussion, guitar, organ and electric piano.  It’s easy to see why these liquid, fantastically illusive grooves became so attractive in later years to artists utilizing samples.  Like “Island Letter,” “Sparkle City” is transporting, in this case to an urban dreamscape that might exist only in Otis’ head.  When he sings, “Now come time for me to run/Sorry people, but I’m not the one/So I think I’ll have to split and let you think about it,” was he matter-of-factly previewing his retirement from the musical rat race?

A reggae-ish vibe pervades “Aht Uh Mi Head.”  The lyrics are simple (“Aht uh mi head/It’s glowing…Aht uh mi head ‘cause I heard something said in a word/From your voice did I hear/Only choice dear?”) but strings lend it a majestic if unsettling feel.  “Happy House,” the original Side Two opener, is a little over a minute long but is a trip through the radio in Otis’ head, switching from style to style with brief snatches of funk.  The rest of the side is dominated by instrumentals in a sort of fusion suite.  “Rainy Day” is the most evocative.  It’s quite lovely, as Otis’ fluid and soulful lead guitar lines are supported by snatches of lush orchestration.  (There’s a touch of Wes Montgomery or George Benson in his style here.)  “XL-30” is leaner and tougher, with its insistent beat and stabs of organ.  “Pling!” is almost ambient music, emphasizing the hypnotic, repeated beat with subdued brass and burbling keys.  The album closer, “Not Available,” has Otis’ guitar at the fore, but is as shifting in tone as the earlier “Happy House.”

Inspiration Information demands repeated listens and still isn’t wholly satisfying, with all-too-brief compositions and lyrically-undercooked songs both seeming to cry out for further development.  But it’s subtly fascinating, and ephemerally beautiful.  It’s also a vivid portrait of where Shuggie Otis was in 1974: ahead of his time and aht uh his head.  The first disc of Legacy’s reissue appends four previously unissued bonus tracks recorded between 1971 and 1977.  “Miss Pretty” is another slight, lean song, but “Magic” (1971) is a delicious funk brew with Otis drawling over a typically taut track with a bit of Allen Toussaint style.  “Things We Like to Do” (1977) expands Otis’ sound palette when he marries another exotic beat to high harmonies that could have been influenced by Brian Wilson in trippy, lo-fi mode.  “Castle Top Jam” isn’t really a jam in the improvisational sense, still seeming tightly arranged, but its musicianship and whispered vocal groove are as worthy as any cut on Inspiration proper.

For those disciples of Shuggie who already owned the Luaka Bop reissue of Inspiration, the main attraction here might be Wings of Love, a collection newly curated by Otis of his previously unreleased music.  It’s heartening to know that when Otis dropped off the radar, he was still creating music and beating (literally and figuratively) to his own drummer.  We take flight on these Wings after the jump! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

April 23, 2013 at 13:17

Posted in Reissues, Reviews, Shuggie Otis

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The Second Disc’s Record Store Day 2013 Essential Releases

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RSD 2013

Raise your hand if you’ll be joining 2013 Ambassador Jack White tomorrow to celebrate Record Store Day 2013!  Yes, on Saturday, April 20, independent record stores everywhere will offer an eclectic roster of limited edition releases of all kinds – most on vinyl, but some on CD, too.  As usual, the labels participating in RSD ’13 have a number of surprises on the way, previewing future releases, revisiting past titles and even curating completely new packages.  As is our tradition here, we’re taking the occasion to count down the titles to which we’re most looking forward! I’ll take my turn first, and then after the jump, you’ll find Mike’s picks for some of the finest offerings you might find at your local independent retailer!  Around these parts, of course, every day is Record Store Day – so, after you’ve picked up your share of the year’s collectible releases, don’t forget to browse the regular racks, too…you never know what you might find!

You’ll find more information and a link to a downloadable PDF of the complete Record Store Day list here, and please share your RSD 2013 experiences with us below. Happy Hunting!

Miles Davis - Someday My Prince

1.            Miles Davis, Round About Midnight / Milestones / Someday My Prince Will Come (Columbia/Legacy)

Last year, the team at Legacy feted the famous trumpeter with Forever Miles, which collected rare sides recorded between 1956 and 1970.  This year, Davis is the recipient of three 180-gram mono vinyl reissues from his classic early Columbia Records period.  1956’s ‘Round About Midnight, Davis’ label debut, showcases the artist at the epoch of his hard bop period.  His Quintet includes John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Philly Joe Jones on drums and Paul Chambers on bass.  Davis’ muted horn makes magic on Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” which remained in his book for years, and breathes new life into “Bye Bye Blackbird.”  For 1958’s Milestones, Davis foreshadowed the modal jazz breakthrough of the following year’s Kind of Blue with his title track as well as with another Monk composition, “Straight, No Chaser.”  The sextet recording adds Cannonball Adderley to the lineup on alto saxophone.  Milestones marked the final time Jones, Garland and Chambers would play on a Davis album.  Lastly, 1961’s Someday My Prince Will Come blended Davis originals (tributes to producer Teo Macero, Columbia President Goddard Lieberson and wife Frances) with standards including a blazingly reworked title tune from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Though credited to the Miles Davis Sextet, only “Someday” featured all six players – Davis, Chambers, Hank Mobley and John Coltrane on tenor sax, Wynton Kelly on piano, and Jimmy Cobb on drums.  Coltrane made a cameo on tenor on “Teo” (dedicated to Macero) with Mobley playing the instrument on the album’s other songs.

These three LPs remain among Davis’ finest accomplishments.  With crispness and clarity, they pack quite a punch in their original mono sound.  Legacy has lovingly recreated the original artwork for each individually numbered release.  There’s still quite a thrill in holding these objets d’art from a master at the top of his game, restlessly conquering each stylistic shift even as he planted the seeds for the next revolution in jazz.  These small group records, which alternated with the big-band sessions teaming Davis with arranger Gil Evans, shouldn’t be missed.

Van Dyke Parks - Song Cycle

2.            Van Dyke Parks, Song Cycle (Reprise/Rhino)

Composer, arranger, producer, singer, musician, actor, author, historian, raconteur and bon vivant: Van Dyke Parks has carved out a niche in popular music truly unlike any other.  The renaissance man comes to RSD 2013 both with a new release (Super Chief: Music for the Silver Screen) and a 180-gram mono vinyl reissue of his solo LP debut, 1968’s Song Cycle.  As produced by the great record man Lenny Waronker, Song Cycle was a natural progression from the modular songwriting of Parks’ storied collaboration with Brian Wilson, SMiLE.  Creative, offbeat, and altogether unencumbered by any notions of conventionality, Song Cycle took in Parks’ varied originals along with compositions from Randy Newman and Donovan.  The cinematic, orchestral tour de force is played by a stellar cast of musicians including Wrecking Crew pros Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco, Lyle Ritz, Earl Palmer, Jim Gordon and Jay Migliori, plus Newman and The Beau Brummels’ Ron Elliott.  A kaleidoscopic journey through California pop, Song Cycle retains its power to surprise and enchant, and those hearing it for the first time in mono will be in for a mind-expanding treat.

McCartney - Maybe I'm Amazed single

3.            Paul McCartney and Wings, Maybe I’m Amazed (Hear Music)

Last year, Macca used the annual Record Store Day campaign to preview his deluxe Archive Collection release of 1971’s Ram with a vinyl replica single of “Another Day” b/w “Oh Woman, Oh Why.” This year, the RSD reissue of the 12” “Maybe I’m Amazed” live EP previews this year’s Archive presentation of Wings Over America.   As on the original 12” release, Side One includes “Maybe” in full and edited versions in mono, and Side Two presents the full and edited versions in stereo.  When “Maybe I’m Amazed” first appeared on 1970’s McCartney, a lush standout on a rather spare collection of homemade songs, it quickly gained popularity, but McCartney declined to officially release it as a single. It wasn’t until the 1976 live version from Wings Over America came along that McCartney relented. His ode to the lovely Linda then scaled the charts to No. 10 in the United States and No. 28 in the United Kingdom.

And Hear Music’s replica “Maybe I’m Amazed” isn’t the only offering this year to excite Beatlefans.  Universal Music is collecting three vintage Ringo Starr singles in a lift-top box.  Ringo’s Singles Collection includes 7-inch editions of “Photograph” b/w “Down and Out,” “It Don’t Come Easy” b/w “Early 1970,” and “(It’s All Down To) Goodnight Vienna” b/w “Oo-Wee.”  All singles are packaged in replicas of their original artwork!

Old 97s and Waylon

4.            Old 97’s with Waylon Jennings (Omnivore)

Omnivore’s 2012 reissue of 1997’s Too Far To Care from Old 97’s added more than a disc’s worth of bonus tracks from the Rhett Miller-fronted alt-country band, and now the group returns to Omnivore with more previously unreleased goodies. And they’ve brought along a guest: the late, great Waylon Jennings.  Way back in 1996, Jennings joined Ken Bethea, Murry Hammond, Rhett Miller and Philip Peeples in Nashville to cut two tracks. Yet “Iron Road” and “The Other Shoe,” the two songs completed by Jennings and the 97’s, never saw the light of day…until now.  This RSD-exclusive release offers the Jennings/97’s collaborations plus the band’s demos of “Visiting Hours” (a live version of which appeared on 2011’s The Grand Theater Vol. 2) and “Fireflies” (re-recorded by Rhett Miller for his 2006 album The Believer). All four songs will be available as a double yellow vinyl 7-inch release, housed in a gatefold sleeve with art from Jon Langford and even liner notes from Rhett Miller! The package also includes a download card, offering digital files of the four tracks.  For an opportunity to hear an iconic talent paired with some of his most authentic heirs, Old 97’s with Waylon Jennings is a rare pleasure, indeed.

Jimi Hendrix - Hey Joe Mono

5.            Jimi Hendrix, Hey Joe b/w Stone Free (Experience Hendrix/Legacy)

Jimi Hendrix isn’t one to be left out – so he’s joined the “back to mono” revolution, as well, with Legacy’s individually numbered reissue of The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut U.K. single!  This 45 features the explosive trio of Hendrix, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, backed by the trio of British songbirds The Breakaways.  Originally released in December 1966, “Hey Joe” rose to No. 6 on the U.K. chart; the U.S. release failed to chart, replacing “Stone Free” with B-side “51st Anniversary.”  This single represents the ground floor of Hendrix’s blazing, all-too-short career, and makes a fine companion to Legacy’s recent mono LP reissues of the U.S. and U.K. editions of the 1967 debut LP Are You Experienced.

Honorable Mentions: Frank Zappa’s “I’m the Slime/Montana” 7-inch (Zappa Records/Universal) is newly remastered from the original 1973 analog source.  “I’m the Slime” is presented in a single edit, and “Montana” is a 2013 edit with 25 additional seconds.  Grateful Dead’s Rare Cuts and Oddities 1966 compiles, well, rare cuts and oddities from that year in early Dead history!  Originally released on CD in 2005, it’s making its vinyl debut on two 180-gram platters for RSD!

After the jump: Mike has another five titles for ya!

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Release Round-Up: Week of April 16

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Inspiration Information Wings of LoveShuggie Otis, Inspiration Information/Wings of Love (Epic/Legacy)

Nearly 40 years after Inspiration Information, Shuggie Otis’ second and most recent LP, the R&B singer/songwriter/guitarist returns with a greatly expanded double-disc edition of that album featuring material recorded in the intervening years. (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Aladdin Sane 40thDavid Bowie, Aladdin Sane: 40th Anniversary Remaster (EMI)

Ziggy goes back to America in this newly-remastered straight reissue of the 1973 classic. (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Blind Melon 20Blind Melon, Blind Melon: 20th Anniversary Edition (Capitol/UMe)

The alt-rock album that gave us “No Rain” is remastered and expanded with several unreleased studio tracks. (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Sun Ship Complete SessionJohn Coltrane, Sun Ship: The Complete Session (Verve Select)

One of ‘Trane’s last quartet recordings, released posthumously, is expanded as a two-disc set that covers every last second of the session that birthed the album. (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Frankie Valli - HitsFrankie Valli, Hits (Rhino Flashback)

A budget reissue of Valli’s solo hits compilation from 1978. (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Dust - Hard Attack and DustDust, Hard Attack/Dust (Kama Sutra/Buddah/Legacy)

A newly-remastered single CD collecting both albums by the proto-heavy metal band (featuring a young Marc Bell, who ended the 1970s as Marky Ramone). (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Jack Jones - Our songJack Jones, Our Song/For the “In” Crowd and Lady/Jack Jones Sings (Zone)

Four Kapp Records albums between 1966 and 1968 on two CDs from the crooner who welcomed us aboard The Love Boat later in his career!

Written by Mike Duquette

April 16, 2013 at 07:29

Information on “Inspiration”: Shuggie Otis Returns with New Tour, Expanded Album with Unreleased Songs (UPDATED WITH TRACK LIST)

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Shuggie Otis was born into a musical family, the son of Johnny Otis, the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues.”  Bandleader, songwriter and performer Johnny (real name: Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes) scored successes with Etta James, “Little” Esther Phillips, Big Mama Thornton, Johnny Ace, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and more, so it could have been no surprise that Shuggie (born Johnny Alexander Veliotes Jr.) would follow in his father’s footsteps.  A multi-instrumentalist primarily known for his work on guitar, Shuggie began performing with his father before he reached his teenage years, played for Al Kooper and Frank Zappa, and even joined Johnny in 1969 for some lyrically explicit ribaldry as two-thirds of Snatch and the Poontangs.  Shuggie hit his stride, however, with a series of albums for Epic Records beginning with 1969’s Here Comes Shuggie Otis and ending with 1974’s Inspiration Information.  And that was it for Shuggie Otis as a solo artist; he has not released a solo album since.  The reclusive artist is about to return, however, and Legacy Recordings isn’t sitting idle for the occasion.

Otis is returning to the concert stage for The Shuggie Otis Rite tour which hits Los Angeles on December 5 after a run of dates in Europe.  To mark the occasion, 2013 will see the release of an expanded 2-CD edition of Inspiration Information.  The release, slated for April 16, 2013 from Epic and Legacy, has been prepared under Otis’ supervision and offers no fewer than 18 unreleased tracks of prime Shuggie Otis!

After the jump, you’ll find plenty of details on this upcoming release, including the new cover art and track list for this set! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

January 4, 2013 at 13:11

Posted in News, Reissues, Shuggie Otis