June 2023 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

Laurie Styvers: Gemini Girl: The Complete Hush Recordings
High Moon (auditioned as CD). 2023. Various prods., engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

High Moon Records is on a mission. Used-record crate diggers and musical anthropologists at heart, they have introduced lost artists like Ace of Cups and Sons of Adam to a new audience of fans. Their latest project may be their best yet.

Gemini Girl augments the out-of-print Laurie Styvers releases Spilt Milk (1971) and The Colorado Kid (1973) with previously unreleased material including demos, alternate takes, and original songs thought long lost. The 36 tracks reside in a deluxe package with a 48-page booklet that includes liner notes by compilation producer Alec Palao. They delve deep into Styvers's singer/songwriter legend via recollections of those who knew her, with never-before-seen photos, rare memorabilia, and more.

Laurie Styvers wouldn't become a household name, but her sound is as well-crafted as the music produced by peers like Carole King and Carly Simon. The songs are piano-based with lush, breezy arrangements that judiciously deploy horns, strings, and loose drum fills with a majesty that will leave the listener wondering how these songs never took air on mainstream radio. Every musical detail appears carefully planned and is executed with a casual sense of confidence.

Born in Texas, Styvers was raised in London, where she returned after college to embark on a musical career, signing with Hush productions. She made these two studio records, produced by Hugh Murphy (known for his work with Gerry Rafferty) and arranged by Tom Parker (Apollo 100) and David Whitaker (Nico, Marianne Faithfull), featuring some of the best British session talent of that time.

This music has been remixed and remastered, giving the songs a depth and weight that hit all the right sonic notes, making the package feel contemporary without distorting the music's 1970s time stamp. The result is stunning.—Ray Chelstowski

A Certain Ratio: 1982
Mute (auditioned as 24/44.1 WAV). 2023. A Certain Ratio, prod. & eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Ponos was the Roman god of hard labor. Other mythologies have similar deities; 1982 is only the third album from A Certain Ratio (ACR) in this century, so if post-punk has such a deity, it's probably not them.

A Certain Ratio has gone through several incarnations since their post-punk/funk origins. Gone is the dancing in the shadows of the days of Factory Records. Modern ACR still has the funk, and there's a touch of that old post-punk edge, but generally it's shiny, bright, and light.

I doubt many folks are drawn to ACR primarily for the vocals of Jez Kerr, nor, indeed, the lyrics. The guest vocalist, Ellen Beth Abdi, adds her sweet neo-soul vocals; she sounds delightful on "Afro Dizzy" and on the stand-out number, the disco-tinged "Constant Curve." Rapper Chunky's dead-pan delivery provides a touch of variety, combining and contrasting with Abdi on "Waiting on a Train" and sounding like he's having a great deal more fun than is usual on the British railway system.

Kerr's slap bass and Donald Johnson's explosive percussion combine to create the funk beat, which is what grabs the attention. On "Holy Smoke," Johnson sounds great, bouncing through the speakers. The focus throughout 1982 is on a dance-floor sound. Mixed in are Kraftwerkesque electronics and nods toward Talking Heads and the late 1970s New York underground scene of Material, et al. There is a definite NYC vibe to 1982, and the great city gets name-checked on the opening and closing numbers. As do, on the opening track,

NYC figures Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Fab Five Freddy; is that an homage to Blondie's "Rapture"?

Whatever different elements ACR combines into its sound—others include Afro-dance and even a touch of jazz here and there—this is vibrant dance music distilled through the sensibilities of three sons of Manchester. Worth the wait.—Phil Brett

The Wood Brothers: Heart Is the Hero
Honey Jar Records (auditioned as CD). 2023. Chris Wood, Oliver Wood, Jano Rix, and Brook Sutton, prods.; Sutton, Rix, Evan Wilber, Dan Davis, Daniel Thiels, Trina Shoemaker, Eric Conn, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics *****

The Wood Brothers have built a remarkably loyal fan base through endless touring and music that often moves beyond the group's Americana roots. Their special ability to live without musical borders is wonderfully present on their latest release, Heart Is the Hero. For this, their eighth studio record, the Wood Brothers (Chris Wood, bass; Oliver Wood, guitar; Jano Rix, percussion and keyboards) have embraced the chemistry of their live shows. The album was recorded quickly, with miking that was simple and spare. The engineers captured the performances in real time, direct from the studio floor to 16-track analog tape. They did it that way not only—or not directly—for the sonics, but also as an intentional constraint, to limit what could be done to the music later, to prevent the application of endless digital studio efforts intended to perfect but ultimately sanitizing the sound. The result is a record that feels in the moment, perhaps weightier than it actually is, with a vibe that centers itself to a groove instead of computer-driven nuance.

The album begins with a jam called "Pilgrim," which kicks the door open and, with a steady stomp, sets the table for the rest of what's to come. The title track and the soulful "Worst Pain of All" follow, establishing a steady cadence at a high level that proves difficult to maintain. The final seven tracks go down easily and are easily forgotten.

Yet, sound is substance, and the sound they capture has more character than any recording the Wood Brothers have released to date. This new approach proves to be much more than a gimmick or a gesture; it's an expression of a seasoned act that has shown how much they've learned from the road. Heart Is the Hero is a big step forward, in a direction I hope the Wood Brothers will keep taking.—Ray Chelstowski

The Damned: Darkadelic
Absolute Records BOBT893CR4 (auditioned as 16/44.1 WAV). 2023. Thomas Mitchener, prod & eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

Almost a half-century after the release of The Damned's debut single, "New Rose," which heralded English punk's noisy arrival on record, Darkadelic proves that they are still producing music that's exhilarating, theatrically campy, and energetic in approximately equal measures. This album should further increase critical respect for this band, which has been rising since their earliest days, when they didn't receive the respect they deserved (though audiences always loved them).

The Damned never conformed to punk orthodoxy. When they made Music for Pleasure in 1977, they were hardly toeing the anti–Pink Floyd line!

The '60s have always been a strong influence, and so it is here: Darkadelic is a glorious mashup of psychedelic rock, goth, pop, and imaginary horror soundtrack. Dave Vanian's magnificent baritone is pushed forward. It has rarely sounded stronger. On "Follow Me," the nod to swamp rock, he sounds like Elvis back from the grave to mock celebrity culture. Darkadelic has songs that switch between dramatic ballad and straight-on rocker within four minutes; the opening track (and single), "The Invisible Man," is an example. Alongside Vanian's voice is Captain Sensible's sharp guitar, which can create a still night or a torrid storm. Always self-deprecating, here, Sensible shows that he is, in fact, a skilled musician.

"Beware the Clown," a standout track, has Sensible in fine form. Also great is "Western Promise," which is simply lovely—something few would have said about The Damned in 1977. The album closes with "Roderick," which is epic: over-the-top narration, superb vocals, strings, and gothic choral chants. Thomas Mitchener's production adds a deeper dimension to their sound. The rose may no longer be new and fresh, but it has matured to a dark, edgy beauty.—Phil Brett

Stephen Stills: Live at Berkeley 1971
Omnivore Recordings (auditioned as CD). 2023. Original production by Stephen Stills. Reissue produced by Kevin McCormick & Stephen Stills.
Performance ****
Sonics *****

In the summer of 1971, Stephen Stills headed out on his first solo tour, supporting his second solo album. He opened each show with a solo acoustic set and closed each night with a set that was fiery and electric. Then known as "The Memphis Horns Tour," those dates found Stills at the top of his game, in great voice and musical form. Even his stage banter was upbeat and fun.

This is all captured on Stephen Stills Live at Berkeley 1971, a 14-track collection of previously unreleased live performances from that tour, recorded at the Berkeley Community Theater in Berkeley, California, on August 20 and 21, 1971, available on CD, LP, digital, or in a signed limited edition. This recording documents that special Stills dynamic with terrific pacing and generosity, allowing even a few rare musical missteps to make the final cut. "It was my first tour as a solo artist, and these shows were raucous and unrestrained," Stills offers in the liner notes.

Stills hand-picked these performances from his personal archives. Stripped-down, acoustic versions of some songs, including "Love the One You're With"—the opener—and "Do for the Others" radiate new energy. He plays and sings some of his best-known songs in constructs that are new and exciting. ("For What It's Worth" is played on piano, for example.) At the grand old age of 25, Stills was already a 9-year performing veteran.

Stills seems to delight in leading this packed, 3500-person room on a musical journey that's filled with surprises. Most touching are two tracks featuring the late David Crosby, singing harmony, a reminder of what made this combination of voices so special no matter where and how they were paired.

The recording is crisp and clean start to finish and possesses a special sense of intimacy.—Ray Chelstowski

ok's picture

..of Laurie Styvers. This is an extraordinary compilation. A female Nick Drake no less.