The Best Under-the-Radar Reissues of 2011
by David Fricke/Rolling Stone
Robin Trower – 'At the BBC 1973-75'
There were true prizes – the Beach Boys' Smile sessions unleashed; Bear Family's complete survey of country music's Ground Zero, The Bristol Sessions – among the Cadillac boxed sets that overwhelmed the end of 2011. There was great discovery in smaller reissues too, the kind that fit in the palm of one hand. The following are all solid-value history lessons that won't break your bank.
Robin Trower – At the BBC 1973-75 (Chrysalis)
These radio sessions feature the British guitarist in the first few years after he left Procol Harum, as he pursued his obsession with Jimi Hendrix's galactic blues with his own Experience-like trios. Trower never reached the same heights as a composer, but his spin on Hendrix's sound and attack was strong pleasure, with an emphasis on fluid melody and a throaty-treble tone lightly scuffed with distortion. The best material from Trower's first three albums – including "Day of the Eagle," "Bridge of Sighs" and "Gonna Be More Suspicious" – is here: basically his greatest hits in meaty no-frills performances.
Rory Gallagher – Notes From San Francisco (Capo/Eagle)
This two-CD set by the Irish cult-hero guitarist, who died in 1995, combines a previously unissued cache of tracks recorded with producer Elliot Mazer (Neil Young, Janis Joplin) in 1978 in San Francisco with a typically feral live show from the following year, in the same city. The canned material is more country than power-blues, taken at a Northern California pace; it is also better than Gallagher deemed it at the time, with hardy versions of subsequent gig standards such as "Brute Force and Ignorance." The concert is Gallagher's high standards in action, a full hour of his unmistakeable weathered-Stratocaster lightning.
Van Dyke Parks – Arrangements Volume 1 (Bananastan)
Parks is pop's great enabler, a master producer-arranger whose astonishingly varied work for others – from the Byrds, Randy Newman and Brian Wilson to singer-harpist Joanna Newsom and the Australian hard-rock trio Silverchair – would take several box sets to cover with any authority. This single disc is a mere dip in the ocean, but it's grand fun and diverse entertainment. There are early solo singles (the sparkling surrealism of "Donovan's Colors" and "Come to the Sunshine"), his Seventies studio aid for Arlo Guthrie, Ry Cooder and Little Feat's Lowell George and a slice of Parks' commercial work – Moog music for a 1967 Ice Capades ad that makes you wonder what the Mad Men were smoking that year.
Can – Tago Mago (40th Anniversary Edition) (Spoon/Mute)
Issued in 1971, the German band's third release – and second with singer Damo Suzuki – was Krautrock's "White Album," four sides of improvisation, trance and radical sound construction bound and driven by the group's exploratory empathy and strange melodic sense. There are songs, such as "Paperhouse" and "Mushroom," built after the fact from jams edited into eccentric jarring purpose by bassist Holger Czukay. A second disc of live recordings from 1972 (including a 30-minute blowout of "Spoon" from that year's Ege Bamyasi) give you a good creepy idea of the raw materials, the sprawl before the form, with Suzuki's incantations in heavily accented English hovering over the thrust like a smoky coat of menace.
Human Switchboard – Who's Landing in My Hangar: Anthology 1977-1984 (Bar/None)
This Ohio band's only studio album, issued in 1981, humanized – literally – the angular tension and narrative confrontation of the Velvet Underground with a mid-American-Nuggets racket and a confessional vulnerability that peaked and still pricks, hard, in the despairing detail and mounting boy-girl vocal debate of "Refrigerator Door." Singer-guitarist and primary writer Bob Pfeifer, organist Myrna Marcarian and drummer Ron Metz recorded enough single-and-EP tracks, demos and live items to double that LP's 10 tracks here. And this collection comes with a free-download card that adds another double-album's worth of material – a short life of provocative class, retold in full.
Kool and Together – Kool and Together (Heavy Light)
Kool and Together were a stubbornly productive Seventies-funk band from South Texas that never scored big but released one stone classic in "Sittin' on a Red Hot Stove," a 1973 single of saucy-Meters gait and big doses of Funkadelic voodoo in the vocals and wah-wah guitar. This album includes later rides on the disco bandwagon, but the meat of the tale is the stark swagger'n'roll of the early Seventies material, when Kool and Together were sounding a lot like a black Grand Funk Railroad with more limber in the rhythm and gospel suggestion in singer Tyrone Sanders' high firm belting.
Michael Chapman – Rainmaker; Fully Qualified Survivor (Light in the Attic) and Trainsong: Guitar Compositions (1967-2010) (Tompkins Square)
This singer-songwriter-guitarist, a British folk-blues icon, turned 70 this year. He celebrated by issuing five albums: the two reissues and the instrumental survey above, plus a rarities collection, Growing Pains 3(Market Square), and an experimental-guitar LP, The Resurrection and Revenge of the Clayton Peacock(Ecstatic Peace). Rainmaker, Chapman's 1969 debut for Harvest Records, and 1970's Fully Qualified Survivor are his essential early masterpieces: acute emotional reporting in a gruff seaman-poet's voice, supported by the quiet ingenious strength of Chapman's acoustic-guitar motifs. Survivor includes his signature ballad, "Postcards of Scarborough," and ideal lead guitar by the pre-David Bowie Mick Ronson.On Trainsong, the modern Chapman revisits more than two dozen pieces of guitar meditation from across his career, as far back as Rainmaker's "Thank You PK 1944" and Survivor's wryly titled "Naked Ladies and Electric Ragtime" – solo, in single takes, as he still plays them live.
Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM (Dust-to-Digital)
The title, which means "be strong" and "resist" in the Bantu language Lingala, is a proper homage to the everyday life and cultural expression preserved in these popular songs, instrumental showcases and lyric parables, many set down for posterity under imperial rule and conditions. Opening with a stirring solo performance of a Muslim hymn by the Egyptian singer Cheikh Amin Hasanayn, recorded around 1925, these four CDs are handsomely packaged and thoroughly annotated, and they cover the entire continent in a delightful itinerary of rhythms, voices and party time, a distant history that comes alive in brass-band music from Ghana, a rough solo-accordion disc cut in Kinhasa, and the bright Zulu-girl-group sway of the Flying Jazz Queens.
Hot Knives – Hot Knives (Grown Up Wrong/Fuse)
The Flamin' Groovies were the giddy imps of San Francisco's psychedelic age, firing up rock's Fifties fundamentals with white-R&B guitar flash, the pop-roots sense of the Lovin' Spoonful and cartoon flair. When the Groovies' original lineup cracked in 1971, guitarist Tim Lynch and drummer Danny Mihm started Hot Knives, a group that barely attained Bay Area-footnote status with two self-released singles. Hot Knives deserved much better, based on the resurrection of these mid-Seventies recordings, most previously unreleased. "I Hear the Wind Blow," "Around the World" and the brisk cover of Moby Grape's "Omaha" are true to the spirit and jangle of the Groovies' early delirium, with some extra country inflection. "Maybe we should have had our own category, like 'hard folk-rock,'" Mihm says in Jud Cost's liner notes. That sounds just right.
The Rationals – The Rationals (Big Beat)
The Rationals – Ann Arbor, Michigan's reliably killer answer to the Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things in the Sixties – were another of rock's baffling what-if stories, a quartet whose white-soul weapon, singer Scott Morgan, and regional success on 45 didn't earn them a shot at a full-length album until the near end. And then the producer stuck love-in flute segues between each track. They are still here, on this reissue of the Rationals' first and last LP, from 1970. So is the Detroit-hardened quality in the R&B-connoisseurs' covers – the Knight Brothers' "Temptation's 'Bout to Get Me," Dr. John's "Glowin'," Robert Parker's "Barefootin'" – and the riff-party politics of the Rationals' original anthem "Guitar Army." "Some folks talkin' 'bout burnin' down . . . I'm just talkin' 'bout gettin' down," Morgan howls like it's preachin' time at the Grande Ballroom. You have no choice but surrender.
Can – Tago Mago is a great album, still sounds fresh 40 years on.