March 2024 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

John Prine: John Prine
APA/Atlantic 004-45 (2 180gm, 45rpm LPs). 1971/2023. Arif Mardin, prod.; Stan Kesler, eng.; Dale Smith, asst. eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Judged by none other than Bob Dylan to be "Pure Proustian existentialism, Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree," the late, great Prine's enduring debut remains a landmark of musical Americana and one of the finest collections of original folk songs in popular music. Fresh from the Chicago folk scene, where he befriended Steve Goodman, who plays on two of the tracks, Prine's tales are filled with unforgettable characters: the broken junkie in "Sam Stone"; the philosophical "topless lady" of "Spanish Pipedream"; the aging couple in "Hello in There" and their touching need for kindness. Prine was expert at mixing humor and sadness. This marvelous album will forever be his masterpiece.

While the quality of the material is remarkably consistent, two tracks stand out. "Paradise," with Goodman on harmony vocals, is a finely etched portrait of Prine's childhood. "Angel from Montgomery," told from a woman's point of view, has an enchanting melody and evocative lyrics that Prine never bested: "If dreams were lightning/And thunder were desire/This old house would've burned down/A long time ago." "Paradise" was recorded in New York City, but the rest was recorded, at Atlantic's insistence, at Chips Moman's American Sound Studio in Memphis. Thrown off at first by the simplicity of Prine's arrangements, American's funky studio players like guitarist Reggie Young, pianist Bobby Wood, and drummer Gene Chrisman—all of whom played at the studio just two years before on Elvis Presley's career-changing Memphis sessions—eventually locked on to Prine's spiritual universe.

While his voice can be an acquired taste, this warmer, fuller 45rpm cut gives it a touch of extra resonance. Instrumental details, like the pedal steel in "Illegal Smile," have never been more prominent. This is a 45rpm audiophile cut that's a clear audible improvement over the original.—Robert Baird

Bob Dylan: The Complete Budokan 1978
Sony Music SCIP 6540-3 (4 CDs). 2023. Heckel Sugano, Tetsuya Shiroki, prods.; Tom Suzuki, remix eng.; Akihito Yoshikawa, remaster eng.; Yuta Yoneyama, asst. eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Over the years, rearranging and reorchestrating his songs has become the game Bob Dylan loves to play. When his two-LP set Bob Dylan at Budokan, his third live album in five years, was released in 1978, two years after his Rolling Thunder Revue tour had concluded, the reaction was very mixed, thanks to the radically different arrangement choices. Originally a mix of tracks from two nights, February 28 and March 1, 1978, this new reissue contains both shows in their entirety. Remixed and remastered from the original 24-track tapes, The Complete Budokan 1978 now contains 36 previously unreleased performances.

The sound is much improved; there's no doubt that the fresh mix brings a new, appealing energy to some of these songs.

Bob is in reimagining mode throughout. Some of the changes, as in the February 28 version of "Simple Twist of Fate," do feel arbitrary and without a musical justification—just Bob being mischievous and doing it because he can. Most jarring of all are the all-instrumental versions of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," which have been E Street Band–ized with electric guitar, lots of organ, fiddle solos, and passages where the high-hat cymbals go into disco mode.

On the other hand, a smooth, beautifully paced version of "Just Like a Woman," from the March 1 set, with Dylan adding a harmonica solo, is powerful.

When they work, these changes add a bounciness and accessibility that he and his music are often justifiably accused of lacking.

The saving grace of the entire package is his voice, which has never been better. And much to his credit, he avoids the trap, inherent in many live albums, of replicating the better-known studio versions. Eternally controversial, but now even more essential for Dylan fans.—Robert Baird

Jimi Hendrix Experience: Jimi Hendrix Experience: Hollywood Bowl August 18, 1967
Legacy Recordings (auditioned as LP). 2023. Janie Hendrix, Eddie Kramer, John McDermott (Experience Hendrix, L.L.C.), prods.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

It took only nine dates as The Monkees' opening act for the Jimi Hendrix Experience to realize that the teenage audiences coming to those shows weren't going to help them leverage the success they'd just earned playing throughout Great Britain. They dropped off the tour and quickly scrambled to find new dates. John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas stepped up and saved the day by inviting The Experience to open for his group at the Hollywood Bowl. Now an album documenting that event has been released, Jimi Hendrix Experience: Hollywood Bowl August 18, 1967.

It's the first official release of a show that fans and collectors have been waiting a long time to own. The two-track tape was restored by long-time Hendrix producer Eddie Kramer, and it sounds outstanding.

The concert opens with an explosive rendition of The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," a song and album released only a few months earlier. It was a bold way for the band to introduce itself—an act so recently added to the bill that it didn't even appear on most tickets—to an American audience.

The nine-song, 45-minute set includes fiery renditions of songs like "Foxy Lady" and "Fire" that would help define their signature sound. There are also covers of "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Wild Thing" that present arrangements that often rival the originals. There's only one outright jam, the band's blistering eight-minute cover of Muddy Waters's "Catfish Blues."

Mastery of the guitar sits at the center of these songs, as you would expect, and on Howlin' Wolf 's "Killing Floor," the set's second track, Hendrix reimagines the blues through a psychedelic lens and sets in motion an American guitar renaissance that has never been matched.—Ray Chelstowski

The Johnny Winter Story (The GRT/Janus Recordings)
Omnivore Records (auditioned as CD). 2023. Cheryl Pawelski, prod.; Michael Graves, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

In 1969, when Columbia Records introduced Johnny Winter to the world as "the next Jimi Hendrix," they gave him possibly the largest advance anyone had ever received and supported the investment with a good amount of promotion. GRT and then Janus Records responded by releasing compilations of material he recorded over several sessions in Houston when he was a studio player. Now Omnivore Recordings has packaged them as a complete set: The Johnny Winter Story (The GRT/Janus Recordings). It's the first-ever collection with all of the tracks, 33 total, from compilation albums The Johnny Winter Story (1969), About Blues (1969), and Early Times (1970).

Recorded in multiple sessions throughout Houston, these songs present a different performer than the one who arrived at Woodstock. This artist is more refined, with songs fully orchestrated, often with nightclub-slick arrangements and a voice focused more on nuance and delivering an authentic sense of soul than the full-throated blues belting he'd become known for.

At times, it's impossible to fathom how these vocals and the remarkable speed and precision he brought to his guitar playing could have been so fully developed at such a young age. The songs have been remastered, and there's a sound clarity to be found here that balances the vintage footing of the writing with a crispness and separation that makes this one of Winter's most compelling releases ever. Pay close attention to songs like "Gangster of Love" and "Kind Hearted Woman," where the essence of who he would become as an artist begins to be revealed. But then dig in deep to instrumentals like "Harlem Nocturne" and "Take a Chance on My Love." There the jazz chops he rarely revealed present an artist whose range was never quite fully explored.—Ray Chelstowski

Anton's picture

I don't think I can be seduced away from the original, however.

I promise to give it a try!