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Conway Twitty – “Conway Rocks”

Conway Twitty - Conway Rocks (Bear Family Records, 2003)

Here are three words I never thought I would write or utter: Conway Twitty rocks. That’s right, the country crooner that churned out (million-selling) edge-less and saccharine pablum like “Tight Fitting Jeans,” “Slow Hand,” and “I’d Love to Lay You Down” began his career as a “Go, Cat, Go” rebel rousing, rockabilly greaser. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?

I discovered the semi-secret past of the founder of Twitty City when I picked up Bear Family Records’ 2003 disc “Conway Rocks,” a thirty-song excerpt from their eight-CD box set, “Conway Twitty: The Rock ‘N Roll Years.” That’s right, there are eight CDs worth of rock and roll material from the king of Brylcreem.

Here’s the story. Twitty, born a much more pedestrian Harold Lloyd Jenkins, found himself back in Helena, Arkansas with time on his hands in 1956 after a two year stint in the U.S. Army. While he was in the service, a dude with an unusual first name, Elvis, had cut a number of unusual and unusually successful sides for Sun Records in nearby Memphis. After hearing “Mystery Train,” the story goes, Conway decided what he wanted to do with his life – he wanted to be Elvis. So he formed a band and headed to Sun Studios.

There isn’t a lick of originality in the two songs Conway cut for Sun in 1956 show.

Conway Twitty – “Rock House

He sounds like Elvis’ drunk third cousin on his mother’s side. For obvious reasons, Sun dropped Conway and his band immediately after they recorded there in 1956.

Two years later, Twitty signed with MGM and had his first number one single – “It’s Only Make Believe,” a complete rip-of of “(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings.” The rawness and energy of the Sun sides are gone and replaced by a spare instrumental arrangement and polished backing vocals. The song is fascinating because it seems like it will fall apart at any moment because Twitty can barely pull off the high parts of the song.

Conway Twitty – “It’s Only Make Believe

Twitty found his style with “It’s Only Make Believe” – it was a polished, Nashville-tamed rock and roll that differed considerably from the Johnny Burnette Trio, Gene Vincent or even early Elvis. I prefer raw, classic rockabilly but songs like 1959’s “Foggy River” surprised me because I had no idea Conway played rock before “Tight Fitting Jeans.” (In fact, if you want some crazy rockabilly, check out Bear Family’s “That’ll Flat Git It” series).

Conway Twitty – “Foggy River

By 1963 when his MGM contract ran out, Twitty could see the handwriting on the wall that the rock and roll he was pedaling was on the way out in favor of the pop-like country sound known as the “Nashville Sound.” In 1965 Twitty reinvented himself as a country crooner and racked up hits for the next three decades.


Vern Gosdin – The Best Country Singer You’ve Never Heard of

November 3, 2011 2 comments

Vern Gosdin - "Chiseled in Stone" (1987)

There was a bar called the White Dot in Atlanta in the late 1980s. It sat on Ponce, one block west of Krispy Kreme and its “Hot Now” sign. The White Dot was a bar with two distinct shifts of patrons. The early shift was older, grizzled and they started drinking at 11:00 in the morning. This shift started to clear out around 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening when Gardens Of…, The Final Offering, Dead Elvis and other happening Atlanta bands started dragging their equipment in for sound check.

The White Dot had a juke box. It was set up for the early shift; it was chock full of 45rpm singles about hard luck and broken hearts – all accompanied by the twang and wail of pedal steel. The tunes in the juke box were the antithesis of the music pounded out by bands in the small stage at the back of the bar each night.

The juke box kept track of the most played song and, every time I went in there, “Set ‘Em Up Joe” by Vern Gosdin was always – and I mean always – the most popular song. It mystified me because I had never heard of Vern Gosdin and never heard “Set ‘Em Up Joe” even though I prided myself on being pretty plugged into music.

One day I decided to kill the suspense and dropped two bits in and pressed the numbers for the song. And I wasn’t disappointed what I heard was solid honky tonk gold. It was a song about drinking, a vintage Victrola, E.T. and easing the pain of loneliness. The song isn’t about Spielberg’s extraterrestrial but instead a tribute to country legend Ernest Tubb and his 1941 hit “Walking the Floor over You.”

Vern Gosdin – “Set ‘Em Up Joe

After hearing it, I had to go out and buy the album “Chisel in Stone” and find out all that could about Gosdin.

Here’s a little background information about the man who was simply known as “The Voice.” Vern Gosdin was born in Randolph County, Alabama. He headed out to California in the early 1960s and got involved with the proto- country rock movement out there by forming a band with Chris Hillman, who went on to play in a band called the Byrds. Gosdin “retired” from music in 1972 and moved to Atlanta. He never really quit singing, though. He had a couple of hits in the late 1970s, but he really came into his own in the 80s with a series of albums that culminated with his masterpiece “Chiseled in Stone.”

On the album, Gosdin turned out barroom hit after barroom hit from the Western swing of “Tight as Twin Fiddles” to the pain, regret and realization of “Chiseled in Stone” (which begins with the classic lines “You ran crying to the bedroom/I ran off to the bar”). As far as I am concerned, “Chiseled in Stone” and “Do You Believe Me Now” are right up there with George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” for heartbreaking pathos. The best word I can use to describe the album is timeless. It is filled with good, old fashioned country songs that sound as good today as they did twenty four years ago.

Pontiac Brothers – “Fiesta en la Biblioteca”

October 29, 2011 4 comments

The Pontiac Brothers - "Fiesta en la Biblioteca"

Have you ever been to a concert that you will never forget? One of my unforgettable shows was the Pontiac Brothers’ visit to the Uptown Lounge in Athens, Georgia on the “Fiesta en la Biblioteca” tour in either late 1986 or early 1987. Why was it so memorable? Because Matt Simon, the Brothers’ singer, was so outrageously and over-the-top drunk that he passed out on stage after three or four songs. The guitarist, Ward Dotson (of Gun Club fame), took over the vocal duties while Mr. Simon took a break. The singer woke up after a half dozen songs, pulled down his pants, and belted out a blazing cover of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds.” After channeling his best Bon Scott, Simon passed out for good and the show was over.

It was a memorable but disappointing evening. I was disappointed because I was a huge Pontiac Brothers fan, and I had literally worn the grooves out of my copy of “Fiesta en la Biblioteca.” The album has been out of print for a long time so I haven’t heard it in twenty years or longer. I just recently found it on Spotify and wondered how it held up.

Los Bros Pontiac were always described as a amalgamation of the Replacements and late 1960s-vintage Rolling Stones. That’s a bit generous; the Pontiac Brothers’ songwriting skills never reached the level of craftsmanship that characterized Jagger and Richard’s collaborations or Paul Westerberg’s songs. The closest the Brothers came was “Be Married Song,” a cynical masterpiece that would have slotted right in on “Beggars Banquet.”

I am happy to report that “Fiesta en la Biblioteca” is delightfully unfocused. It veers from proto-Americana songs like “She Knows It,” which sounds a bit like Green on Red, to the 70s stadium rock anthem, “She Likes to Rock,” which trots out Gary Glitter licks long before Glitter’s songs were ubiquitous at sporting events. The weirdest moment on the album is the cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Brown-Eyed Women.” It weird because I expected The Pontiac Brothers to put their own stamp on the song – to rave it up, to rock it and punk it up. What we get instead is a straight up cover of it. And even though Jerry Garcia couldn’t sing his way out of a paper bag, I am sad report that Matt Simon isn’t even in Jerry’s league on this one.

Overall, though, “Fiesta en la Biblioteca” holds up well. It is a straight up rock album – something of a rarity in the mid-1980s. Don’t forget about all the diverse styles that constituted “alternative” music in 1985-1986 – the genre consisted of everything from REM, the Cramps and Husker Du to Black Flag and Sonic Youth. It was hard to find just a regular kick ass rock n’ roll band. That was the reason I wore the grooves out of this album.

The Sensational Guitars of Dan and Dale – “Batman and Robin”

Sensational Guitars of Dan and Dale - "Batman and Robin" (1966)

You aren’t going to believe this one. In 1966 kids were going wild over ABC’s “Batman” television show. A New Jersey toy company wanted to cash in on the craze and rip off kids by releasing an album called “Batman and Robin.” This slab of vinyl had nothing to do with the t.v. show even though it was chock full of tunes like “The Penguin Chase,” “Robin’s Theme,” “Batmobile Wheels,” “Flight of the Batman” and “The Bat Cave.”

Here is the unbelievable part: Producer Tom Wilson hired Sun Ra and several members of his immortal Arkestra (including supposedly John Gilmore, Marshall Allen and Pat Patrick) to collaborate with members of the New York-based rock and blues band, The Blues Project (best known as Al Kooper’s band even though he wasn’t an original member) and record the sides as The Sensational Guitars of Dan and Dale. Why is this unbelievable? Because Sun Ra,  the otherworldly jazz composer, band leader and musician, was better known for bringing Outer Space and big band-tinged compositions into the experimental frenzy and fun of free jazz.

The Sensational Guitars of Dan and Dale – “Batman Theme

The album features twelve songs – ten instrumentals and two songs with vocals. It’s obvious that this was a quickie – something they churned out in a day or two. The rfiffs are simple and repetitive and many of the tunes consist of the Arkestra horns turning out recycled classical melodies (like Tchaikovsky’s “Fifth Symphony,” Prokofiev and Chopin) so they wouldn’t have to pay licensing fees.

“Batman and Robin” features pretty traditional instrumentation, especially for a Sun Ra session, of organ, guitar, bass, drums and horns. The album is pretty dang groovy actually. Because it is a record for kids, you won’t find any atonal experiments or any of Sun Ra’s infamous counter melodies layered over big band-like melodies here. It actually sounds like a Southern R&B instrumental combo in the vein as Booker T. & the MGs. Even though the riffs are simple, there is a surprisingly joyful aspect to the playing. It’s obvious they had fun at the sessions. It is also obvious that Sun Ra did in fact play on part of the album as you can tell by the organ blast at the beginning of the album’s first song, “Batman Theme.”

The real star of the record is the uncredited guitar player – it could be The Blues Project’s Danny Kalb or it might not be him. The “Sensational Guitars” is actually it pretty apt title because I imagine the album sounds like what would happen if Steve Cropper was given free reign to rip fractured, Yardbirds-like solos over every one of Booker T.’s song.

The verdict: An interesting and unexpected addition to the already eclectic Sun Ra catalog.

A View from the Other Side: Brother Claude Ely – “Satan Get Back!”

October 8, 2011 1 comment

Brother Claude Ely - "Satan Get Back!"

Pitch Black Brigade usually trucks and traffics in the dark side of music, heaviness and the metals. Today, though, in the interest of providing equal time, it’s time to shine a light and hear from to the other side, as it were. So today we are going to consider Brother Claude Ely’s fine gospel platter, “Satan Get Back!” (Ace Records, 2011).

Let’s get this straight at the start – I have little patience for the Satanic stuff in black metal, as I have written before. Black metal fixation with Beelzebub isn’t sinister – it’s stupid. For example, the band Gorgoroth has a song called “Procreating Satan.” Now, I can’t tell from the title or the lyrics what the song is about but if it is about “procreating” the Dark One then it should be titled, “Doing Satan’s Mom.” At best, black metal’s subject matter is sophomoric and stupid and at its worst it reeks of older dudes that know dawning corpse paint and playing paens to darkness is a cheap way to make a depressing and cynical living. Enough about the darkness, now we go towards the light.

I feel like singing today – don’t feel much like preaching

Claude Ely grew up amongst the hollers (hollows) and hills of southwestern Virginia. He was called to preach full time in 1949. Ely preached in a Holiness church. Now why is that important? It’s important because ministers and congregations at Holiness churches “get happy.” The services are raucous, emotional and passionate. Other denominations disparagingly called them “Holy Rollers.”

“Satan Get Back!” is a compilation of three separate recordings that were initially released by the mighty Cincinnati-based King Records (home to a diverse and powerful roster that included James Brown, the Stanley Brothers, and Charlie Feathers). The first seventeen songs were recorded live at two separate revivals held in front of the Letcher County Courthouse in Whitesburg, Kentucky in 1953 and 1954. The last eight songs come from a 1962 studio session.

The revival recordings are frantic; they crackle with a live wire-like intensity – just what you would expect from a tent meeting. Here is a taste of it – make sure you stick around for the last two minutes of preaching:

Brother Claude Ely – “I’m Crying Holy unto the Lord

As you can tell, the best part of the revival recordings on “Satan Get Back!” is Ely’s furious and propulsive guitar playing. Scotty Moore and Carl Perkins can’t touch him and his rhythmic technique (and that’s saying a lot because I think Scotty Moore hung the blue moon of Kentucky). Ely is known as the “Gospel Ranger,” but I am convinced that we should change his nickname to the “Rockabilly Ranger” because of his intense guitar work. His rhythm work is so propulsive that no matter which gospel gem he plays the tempo is almost exactly the same. And after a while, like most black metal songs, the revival songs begin to blur together because they are characterized by the same things – Ely’s chugging guitar, his powerful but unsubtle voice, and the backup singers answering his calls and cries.

The studio songs couldn’t be more different than the material from the revival. For starters they feature a traditional hillbilly band backing up Brother Claude.

Brother Claude Ely – “You Took the Wrong Road Again

The studio sides are sedate; they lack the energy and the conviction of the live material. The songs also have a mournful quality that contrasts sharply with the exuberance of the revival. Even though the studio studio stuff was better recorded and more professionally played, the songs felt lifeless after 40 minutes of the live material.

The verdict: Brother Claude puts a smackdown on Satan.

Light: 1

Darkness: 0

At the Gates – Glorious Swedish Death Metal

September 25, 2011 Leave a comment

At the Gates - "Slaughter of the Soul"

[Editor’s note – I am going to spend the next week or two doing something different here; I plan to plow through my record collection where I have all kinds of metal treasures languishing in un-listened obscurity. Some of them are old and some of them are (relatively) new, but all of them are neglected slabs of vinyl that I need to tackle – to listen to and write about. So I am going to try to crank out one short post every day about some of these albums.

This exercise will not only give me the opportunity to listen to some new stuff, but it will also allow me to explore the origins of today’s wild and wooly contemporary metal scene. In other words, it will help me figure out how we got Maldavian progressive death metal, Greek operatic metal, Israeli Oriental metal, Chilean doom metal, and Bulgarian dark industrial metal.]

At the Gates – “Slaughter of the Soul” (Expanded Edition) (Earache Records, 1996)

First up is At the Gates’ 1996 masterpiece of Swedish melodic death metal “Slaughter of the Soul.” This album confirmed that At the Gates weren’t like other death metal bands. Sure, the disc is chock full of thrash tempos, crunching guitars, and  Maiden-like melodic riffs and solos, but it also featured several developments that set it apart from ye olde generic Swedish death metal.

At the Gates – “Slaughter of the Soul” <>

The first innovation I notice was Tomas Lindberg’s vocal style. He doesn’t bark, growl or vomit – pick your verb – the usual Cookie Monster style of death metal vocals. Instead he sings at a higher pitch that sounds like Kermit the Frog would sound like if Kermit tried to sing while Miss Piggy wrung his neck. I didn’t say it was better than the Cookie Monster type; I just said it was different. And, honestly, there has to be a happy middle ground between these two Muppet-derived vocal styles.

The second difference between At the Gates and the rest of Swedish death metal is the lyrics of their songs. Let’s face it, the last thing heavy metal needs is more songs about wizards and demons and, thankfully, “Slaughter of the Soul” confounds the death metal stereotypes by not including a single song about swords, trolls, halberds, dragons, dwarves or Satan. The album consists of paens to existential dark nights of the soul instead of songs about their dark overlord. And I, for one, cheer this innovation.

At the Gates’ album “Slaughter of the Soul” is glorious Goteborg death metal at its best.

Nick’s Condensed Metal Reviews: Liberté, égalité, le mal!

September 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Wolves in the Throne Room - "Celestial Lineage"

Here are some random observations on the HEAVY:

Wolves in The Throne Room – “Celestial Lineage” (Southern Lord Recordings) – Balanced on the knife’s edge of transcendent impulse to one side and embarrassing pretension to the other this somehow works – even the blackened Windham Hill interludes. Not quite genius, but close. I hope that the fact that “Woodland Cathedral” was featured on NPR made some pockmarked basement dwelling kvlt fuckwit’s head explode.

Liturgy – Aesthethica (Thrill Jockey) –  Too much of a good thing. It is funny how I liked this so much more before I heard all of it. It’s not bad at all, it just reminds me of Yngwie Malmsteen – in that 13 year old locked in a bathroom kinda way. I’m glad they are doing what they are doing, particularly that drummer – jerk-off or not. I just can’t listen to the whole thing. Small doses.

Brett Easton EllisImperial Bedrooms – Darker and immeasurably more disturbing than the blackest of black metal. Suffocating. Brilliant.

Asva – “Presences of Absences” (Important Records) – Along with Earth, Sunn ((O)) and Wolves this guy is pushing the boundaries. On my first listen I was non-plussed – the vocals grated – but I keep coming back. Arvo meets metal. interview with Leviathan – Can he really be as stupid as he comes off ? Probably. He was right about:

Deafheaven – “Roads To Judah” (Deathwish Music) – Of all the Metalish bands to discover their older siblings My Bloody Valentine records these guys may be the best. Nothing groundbreaking, but solid workmanlike novel combinatory action.

In a previous installment I praised Deathspell Omega‘s “Paracletus.” After living with the record for a few months it occurs to me that one of the things that sets them apart is funk. Sweaty crotched, syncopated, dynamic, able to perform sexually funk. They are French so this is no huge surprise. These Gallic freaks seem to be a microcosm of their proud culture and make a music that in spite of their silly satanic posturing seems to be, at least in part, about sense gratification. Bless their blackened berets. Liberté, égalité, le mal!