Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
This might be the quirkiest batch of one-and-done albums so far, but I enjoyed revisiting them as much as anything I’ve covered in this series so far. There was no plan in place when I chose these records. I simply looked at my master list and picked the titles that made me think, “Oh yeah, that’s a good one. I should listen to it again.” Please let me know which of these you’re familiar with (and hopefully enjoy), and maybe you’ll discover a future favorite as well.
Album Title/Year Of Release: MUDCRUTCH (2008)
In the first half of the 1970’s, before there was Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Petty and future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell & Benmont Tench were members of Gainesville, Florida band Mudcrutch along with drummer Randall Marsh and guitarist Tom Leadon, brother of one-time Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon. Other than a couple of independent singles and one recording showing up on a Tom Petty box set, Mudcrutch was merely a musical footnote until Petty reunited the group in 2007 and they released this self-titled album the following year. On the surface it could easily be mistaken for a TP & The Heartbreakers record, and I would likely include this album whenever I revisit Petty’s discography, but there are folk & country influences throughout the record which aren’t always apparent in his work. It’s also nice to hear Leadon sing lead on a couple of tracks, and even Tench takes a turn behind the microphone on one song. Anyone who enjoys Tom Petty’s music beyond the hit singles would find plenty to love here, including personal favorites “Bootleg Flyer,” all 9+ minutes of “Crystal River” and album opener “Shady Grove.” They released a live EP later that same year but this remains their only studio album, hence its worthy inclusion in this series. My only complaint is the hideous cover art, although I’ve slowly softened to its ugly charms.
Artist: JACKSON C. FRANK
Album Title/Year Of Release: JACKSON C. FRANK aka BLUES RUN THE GAME (1965)
Several years ago I read the interesting story of Jackson C. Frank, whose young life was defined by a furnace explosion at his school when he was 11 years old, resulting in the death of many of his classmates and burns over 50% of his body. During his recovery he learned to play the guitar and when he was 21 he received a large insurance check & immediately flew to England. It was there that he met Paul Simon, who was on his own British sojourn at the time, and the pair struck up a musical friendship that resulted in Frank’s only album, which was produced by Simon. The rest of his life story is a sad one that ended in his 1999 death, but I want to focus on the wonderful music he recorded five decades ago. There are elements of Simon & Garfunkel and, of course, Bob Dylan (who wasn’t being influenced by him back then?), but his voice reminds me more of Phil Ochs and his guitar work is in a similar vein to British guitar whizzes Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Davy Graham. Everything here was written by Frank, and it’s a case of one gem after another, notably “Yellow Walls,” “Milk And Honey,” “My Name Is Carnival” and the song that became his calling card, the much-covered “Blues Run The Game.” His backstory might have piqued my interest but the music is what made me a fan.
Album Title/Year Of Release: THE GRAND PECKING ORDER (2001)
One of my biggest drumming heroes, The Police’s Stewart Copeland, makes his second appearance in this series (following his album as Klark Kent included in Part 2) with this trio that also included Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Primus’ Les Claypool. If ever a supergroup matched the sum of its parts it was Oysterhead, which blends the free-ranging jam-band vibe of Phish with the quirky, angular approach of Primus, all held together by the brilliant reggae-inflected percussion flourishes of Copeland’s best work. Some tracks lean in one particular direction, but most of my favorite songs somehow combine the seemingly disparate sounds of these distinct songwriters into something more cohesive than it would be in less capable hands. Highlights for me are “Oz Is Ever Floating,” “Army’s On Ecstasy,” “Birthday Boys” (all subtle percussion & nice acoustic picking) and “Rubberneck Lions.”
Artist: IMPERIAL DRAG
Album Title/Year Of Release: IMPERIAL DRAG (1996)
I previously mentioned short-lived early-‘90s power-pop icons Jellyfish in my discussion of The Grays in Part 1 of this series, since that group featured one-time Jellyfish guitarist Jason Falkner. Jellyfish, however, was the brainchild of two musicians, drummer/vocalist Andy Sturmer and keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr. While Sturmer has kept a very low profile since the demise of Jellyfish, Manning has stayed more active with a handful of solo albums, a couple of collaborations with Falkner, touring work with Beck and Air, and this one-off album. Imperial Drag was essentially the work of Manning and singer/guitarist Eric Dover, who was previously the touring guitarist for Jellyfish as well as lead vocalist for Slash’s Snakepit. Although this record sounds nothing like Jellyfish, it does continue that band’s knack for memorable melodies & clever arrangements. Imperial Drag, though, has a much harder edge, with glam and pop-punk (a la Redd Kross) more on display than Beatles or Queen influences. Until last week I hadn’t played this album in many years, and I was pleased to discover how fresh it still sounds. Highlights include the stomping “‘Breakfast’ By Tiger (Kiss It All Goodbye),” the acoustic & bluesy “Dandelion” and the super-funky “Playboy After Dark.”
Artist: NEW RADICALS
Album Title/Year Of Release: MAYBE YOU’VE BEEN BRAINWASHED TOO (1998)
I still vividly recall the time I was browsing the record bins of an HMV store and heard New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” for the first time. I don’t think I bought the album that day but I immediately knew I had to hear more from them. It turned out that I already owned the 1989 debut solo LP by the guiding force behind the band, Gregg Alexander, a record I remember enjoying but couldn’t recall much about it. New Radicals was something far different and much more instantly accessible, the huge production and sing-along choruses making them sound like the American equivalent to British band World Party. They may be a one-hit wonder but that doesn’t make this album any less impressive than other more well-known releases from that era, its mixture of power-pop, ‘70s rock ‘n soul (they’re often compared to Todd Rundgren) and alternative resulting in a unique sound that’s held up extremely well. Alexander had big themes on his mind, and apparently his disillusionment with stardom is the reason he’s remained such an enigmatic figure in the intervening years, mostly working behind the scenes with other artists. Fortunately he left behind this fantastic album with classics like the aforementioned “You Get What You Give,” “Someday We’ll Know” (later covered by Hall & Oates), “In Need Of A Miracle” and the soulful, slow-building “I Hope I Didn’t Just Give Away The Ending.”
Artist: ON THE AIR
Album Title/Year Of Release: READY FOR ACTION AGAIN (Recorded 1980, CD Released 2002)
I’m not sure if I’ve previously mentioned this here at KamerTunesBlog but Scottish/English group Big Country is my favorite artist of the last 30+ years. In fact, I rank them up there with the artists I discovered in my formative years (Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Yes, The Who, The Beatles, etc.) as one of my most important musical influences. Their songs were consistently incredible thanks to the talents of late singer/guitarist Stuart Adamson, but their rhythm section of drummer Mark Brzezicki and bassist Tony Butler was just as important in making their music have such a huge impact on me. Both Brzezicki & Butler had done numerous sessions prior to joining Big Country, most notably on Pete Townshend’s early-‘80s solo albums, but they were also members of the trio On The Air with Pete’s brother Simon Townshend. I had heard about this group during the ‘80s but it wasn’t until seeing a revamped lineup at a club in New York in 1990, with Townshend, Brzezicki (during a brief period when he left Big Country) and a different bass player, that I heard any of their music. It would be another 12 years until I finally heard the recordings made by the trio in 1980 when they were finally reissued on CD. Fans of The Jam would find a lot to like here, as Townshend’s voice bears a striking resemblance to their singer, Paul Weller, and I hear a lot of Graham Parker influence as well, especially in the song “Typically English.” Townshend’s falsetto reminds me of his older brother on “Comeback,” and “Going For Your Guns” & “Another Planet” are also perfect entry points into this overlooked band.
Album Title/Year Of Release: KEATS (1984)
Until it was reissued on CD in 1996 I had no idea this existed, but I quickly made up for lost time. Keats was a one-time collaboration between three members of The Alan Parsons Project (two of whom had been in the ‘70s band Pilot…remember the song “Magic”?), keyboardist Pete Bardens (formerly of progressive rock band Camel) and one of the all-time great vocalists, Colin Blunstone of The Zombies (who had already contributed his vocal talents to several Alan Parsons Project records). The album was immaculately produced by Parsons, and only the prevailing technology of the time date-stamps it. At times it comes across as a lighter, less-progressive version of Asia’s first couple of albums, with a slick, airy sound that might scare off traditional prog fans or anyone with an aversion to mid-‘80s pop. It’s far from a perfect record but I’ve enjoyed it since the first time I played it. Hearing Blunstone’s voice in this setting is a special treat and I wish they had worked together again. Some of my favorite tracks are “Tragedy,” “Fight To Win” and “Turn Your Heart Around,” all of which deserved mainstream radio play.
Artist: BETH GIBBONS & RUSTIN MAN
Album Title/Year Of Release: OUT OF SEASON (2002)
I wasn’t always a fan of British trip-hop group Portishead. When they burst onto the scene with their multi-million-selling debut in 1994 I had no interest in that style of music, but a few years later I was won over by their slinky rhythms, jazzy melodies and the fragile, heartbreaking vocals of frontwoman Beth Gibbons. I can’t say I’ve ever become a massive fan of their music but I like them enough to own (and enjoy) all of their albums, and to be interested in this collaboration she did with Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb (as the mysteriously-named Rustin Man). Out Of Season received a lot of positive press in several UK music magazines, which cited the more organic musical surroundings (versus the programmed sounds of Portishead) as a unique setting for Gibbons’ vocals. She’s always in complete command even though it often sounds like her voice is on the verge of cracking with emotion. I love the combination of jazz & folk elements throughout the record, accompanied by strings & other orchestral instruments. Key tracks for me are “Romance,” where you hear an obvious Billie Holiday influence along with hints of Burt Bacharach in the music, the muted intensity of “Sand River,” the melancholy “Drake” with its sweet harmonica refrain and “Tom The Model,” which simply sounds like no one else but Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man.
Artist: THE THORNS
Album Title/Year Of Release: THE THORNS (2003)
Brendan O’Brien has been one of the most successful producers of the last couple of decades, putting his huge sonic stamp on albums by Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen and many others. At times I’ve described his work as “over-production” since nearly every record has the same massive sound, even when it doesn’t necessarily suit a particular artist (Michael Penn, for example). Occasionally, though, he can pull back the reins and allow the music & vocals to do all the work, and this album is a perfect example. The Thorns consisted of three well-respected songwriters: Matthew Sweet (I own all of his albums), Pete Droge (I own his first three albums) and Shawn Mullins (I’m only familiar with his 1998 hit single “Lullaby”). Their self-titled album is a throwback to the ‘70s Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter sound, with obvious nods to Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Eagles, and studio pros like Jim Keltner, Greg Leisz and Roy Bittan are on board to flesh out the sound of the three frontmen. Other than one cover (the exquisite “Blue” by The Jayhawks) and one Matthew Sweet song, all three are credited as co-writers on the remaining tracks. It’s mostly slick, mellow, acoustic, jangly, folky soft-rock with smooth harmonies, and there are plenty of highlights: the modern-day CSN of “Think It Over,” the quirky Tom Petty-ish rock of “Dragonfly,” the beautifully melodic “I Told You” and the should-have-been hit single “I Can’t Remember.” All three of them are still active so I continue to hold out hope that another Thorns album will appear someday.
Album Title/Year Of Release: FEAR OF SUCCESS (2000)
If I remember correctly, it was my friend Rick who suggested I check out this album by the apparently surname-free Caleb at the turn of the millennium, which was around the same time we were learning about similar melodic rock singer/songwriters like David Mead, Gus Black and John Mayer, only one of whom would achieve mass commercial success even though they all deserved mainstream recognition. Until recently I didn’t know much about Caleb beyond this one superb album, but apparently his full name is Caleb Heineman and he’s a New York City-based musician who must have had some friends in high places when he signed his deal with Universal Music. The album was produced by Kevin Killen, who has worked with U2, Peter Gabriel, Bryan Ferry, Elvis Costello and dozens more, and it features the talents of studio legends like bassist Tony Levin and drummer Shawn Pelton. Of course, none of this background information would matter if the songs weren’t good, but fortunately he wrote a slew of great ones like “Pick Yourself” (funky with a Police/reggae vibe), “These Four Walls” (moody, sparse pop), “Throw Down Your Weapons” (another Police-inspired light-reggae tune that reminds me even more of Colorado-based band The Samples) and “Welcome” (the opening track that’s a perfect gateway into his music). With credits including guitar, bass, piano, synth, percussion loops, electric sitar and programming he’s clearly a talented musician, and it’s a shame that this is the only record he’s made. Apparently he’s recorded a handful of digital-only songs in recent years but Fear Of Success remains his only official release.
Although I have dozens more one-album artists I’d like to revisit & share with you, I will be putting this series to rest for a while. Next time I need a break after completing a series on a particular artist’s discography I will continue the one-and-done theme with Part 6. I originally expected this to be a nice little diversion but it’s been so much more fun than I had expected. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.