Tuesday, 29 September 2015

"3-Track Shack" by LINK WRAY [including Mordicai Jones] (2015 Ace Records 2CD Set Remasters) - A Review by Mark Barry...


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"...Black River Swamp..."

Even as a veteran of secondhand record shops and a rarities buyer for nearly 20 years at the fab Reckless Records in London – I'm kind of shocked at the sheer undiscovered classiness of this Link Wray music. Truthfully I never gave it the time of day back in the day. In fact I can recall seeing British copies of 1971's "Link Wray" turn up in our busy Berwick Street shop in its American die-cut gatefold sleeve with his side profile face – and we’d all sigh. The same would apply to the other album culled from these sessions - the single sleeve UK issue of MORDICAI JONES by Mordicai Jones (a gatefold in the USA with different artwork). We knew from previous experience that these obscure LPs would sit in our racks for months on end - until eventually reduced to a nominal amount - someone would buy them as a curio rather than a sought-out deliberate purchase. How times have changed...

For this superb UK 2CD reissue the simplest comparison musically is The Band and Folk-Rock Americana. Most fans who worship the ground that The Band's "Music From Big Pink" (1968) and "The Band" (1969) walks on – they would never in their wildest dreams look at the Rock 'n' Roll guitar 'rumble' of Carolina Shawnee Indian LINK WRAY and think 'Americana' – the beginnings of Tony Joe White, J.J. Cale, Townes Van Zandt and then onwards into the Indi Folk-Rock of Ryan Adams, The Jayhawks, Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens and The Fleet Foxes. But that's what this rather brilliant little reissue contains. Simple but original Country, Folk, Blues and Roots tunes recorded live on guitars and upright piano in a converted Chicken Shack in Accokeek in the State of Maryland on his brother's farm (Doug Wray) with no overdubs and barely enough electricity. If they had no drums – they simply stomped feet hard and rattled those loose nails. If the song was quiet - it's said you can hear bullfrogs croaking and dogs howling outside the miked-up windows. Throw in Wray's strangely expressive Paul Siebel/Mickey Newbury twanging-voice and the results are earthy, real, simple and wonderfully melodic. Like classic J.J. Cale albums from the 70s – each guitar-chug and clever string-bend eats its way into your heart – each tune is simple and direct and warm and full of local stories ("Rise And Fall Of Jimmy Stokes"). I can even hear traces of a hopeful Rodriguez in his vocal style and lyrics - his commentaries on urban life and people trying to find their way in a mixed up world – elegant and truthful ("Fallin' Rain" and "Ice People"). There's a lot to get through so once more unto the backwater shed and that Ampex 3-track...

UK released August 2015 (September 2015 in the USA) – "3-Track Shack" by LINK WRAY on Ace Records CDCH2 1451 (Barcode 029667073820) offers up 3LPs from 1971 and 1973 onto 2CDs with one British 7" single edit as a bonus track. It plays out as follows:

Disc 1 (63:36 minutes):
1. La De Da
2. Take Me Home Jesus
3. Juke Box Mama
4. Rise And Fall Of Jimmy Stokes
5. Fallin' Rain
6. Fire And Brimstone [Side 2]
7. Ice People
8. God Out West
9. Crowbar
10. Black Rover Stomp
11. Tail Dragger
Tracks 1 to 11 are the album "Link Wray" – released June 1971 in the USA on Polydor 24-4064 and September 1971 in the UK on Polydor Super 2425 029

12. Walkin' In Arizona
13. Scorpio Woman
14. The Coco Cola Sign Blinds My Eyes
15. All I Want To Say
16. All Because Of A Woman
Tracks 12 to 16 are Side 1 of the album "Mordicai Jones" by MORDICAI JONES (featuring Link and Doug Wray) – released November 1971 in the USA on Polydor PD 5010 and March 1972 in the UK on Polydor Super 2391 010. The American hard-card artwork was a gatefold sleeve – its front, rear and inner is reproduced in full on Pages 16 to 18 of the booklet. The single matt sleeve issued in the UK has the photo of 'Wray's Shack 3 Tracks' (on the inner American gatefold) as the cover of the British LP.

Disc 2 (72:24 minutes):
1. On The Run
2. Son Of A Simple Man
3. Precious Jewel
4. Days Before Custer
5. Gandy Dancer
Tracks 1 to 5 are Side of "Mordicai Jones" as per tracks 12 to 16 on Disc 1

6. Beans And Fatback
7. I'm So Glad, I'm So Proud
8. Shawnee Tribe
9. Hobo Man
10. Georgia Pines
11. Alabama Electric Circus
12. Water Boy [Side 2]
13. From Tulsa To North Carolina
14. Right Or Wrong (You Lose)
15. In The Pines
16. Take My Hand (Precious Lord)
Tracks 6 to 16 are the album "Beans And Fatback" – released September 1973 in the UK on Virgin Records V 2006 (no US issue)

BONUS TRACK:
17. I'm So Glad, I'm So Proud (UK 45 Edit) – issued as UK 7" single in September 1973 on Virgin Records VS 103. Its non-edited B-side is the album track "Shawnee Tribe".

You can't argue that the chunky 28-page booklet scrimps it on details or photos – recounting his career from Fifties and Sixties 'rumble' style guitar Rock 'n' Roll into these three albums - a 70's change of gear into Americana where the loud guitars of old are replaced with downhome acoustic tunes. The fantastic DAVE BURKE and ALLAN TAYLOR liner notes (co-editors of the "Pipeline" Fanzine on Rock Instrumentals) also do a lot to unravel the mysterious 'Mordicai Jones' project issued only months after the failed "Link Wray" album of June 1971. It turns out that the stunning Terry Reid-type vocals by the fictional Mordicai Jones character are in fact by Gene Johnson and not the keyboardist in Wray’s band Bobby Howard (as had been presumed). But the big news for fans (apart from the availability of this music after decades in the wilderness) is the amazingly clear remasters by long-time Engineer NICK ROBBINS – a name that has graced hundreds of quality British reissues. There is nothing lo-fi about these transfers despite how the original recordings were laid down. The "Beans And Fatback" album from 1973 is notoriously known as no more than 'live outtakes' done at the Shack sessions and were considered by Wray to be inferior. They were then sold without Wray’s knowledge or permission to Virgin – but as luck would have it - the album was met with affection by fans (the rockier side of the recordings) and is revered to this day as a highlight in his career. A world away from his previous style of instrumental Rock 'n' Roll guitar – the two more Folksy albums were not well received at the time. "Link Wray" barely scraped into No. 186 on the American album charts in July 1971 (lasting only 4 weeks) - while the pseudonym "Mordicai Jones" project advertised in early June 1971 but not released until November simply confused people and most ignored it. Let's get to the music...

The openers "La De Da" and "Take Me Home Jesus" set the tone for the "Link Wray" album – The Band recording Americana with two-fingers held up to 24-track mixing consoles. There's Washboard melodrama to the catchy "Juke Box Mama" which Polydor USA put on the flipside of the 45 for the beautiful "Fallin' Rain" (Polydor PD 14096). We get a little Elvin Bishop and J.J. Cale with the very cool chugger "Rise And Fall Of Jimmy Stokes" which chronicles a boy with a shirt on his back trying to make it in the big city. It's amazing to think now that something as obviously lovely and topical as "Fallin' Rain" with lyrics like "...where kids lay bleeding on the ground...there's no place where peace can be found..." didn’t make an impression on the radios of the day – very Mickey Newbury and Eric Andersen. The hugely likeable "Fire And Brimstone" opens Side 2 in style – Jug Band music with a Mungo Jerry commerciality. "Ice People" bemoans the Red Man’s fate on the Reservation and again Link's vocals remind you of Levon Helm at his touching best. The ragged electric lead guitar in "God Out West" is the nearest nod to his loud 'rumbling' style of old (that guitar sound would turn up on the outtakes album "Beans And Fatback" in 1973). The acoustic-slide Blues of "Crowbar" reminds me of James Taylor's "Steamroller" on "Sweet Baby James" where Link tells his girl "...I'm a crowbar baby and I’m sure gonna ply you loose..." (how very gentlemanly of him). The opening flickering mandolin strums of "Black River Swamp" suit an impossibly laconic melody that’s full of Southern Soul (voices and guitars recorded for pure feel). Wray means it as he sings "...I can hear them bullfrogs croaking...calling me back to my childhood...down here in Black River Swamp..." The album ends on the only cover version – a fantastic Bo Diddley guitar chug at "Tail Dragger" (written by Willie Dixon for Howlin' Wolf). I'm a sucker for slide bottleneck guitar and this baby has guitars going on everywhere as Link does his best Chester Burnett vocal growl.

One of the Backing Vocalists credited simply as 'Gene' on the "Link Wray" albums turns out to be GENE JOHNSON – the principal vocalist for the Mordicai Jones album and project (not Bobby Howard as was long thought). The moniker of Mordicai Jones might have been Polydor's way of dealing with the fan backlash/indifference to "Link Wray" (hide him behind some other band). The booklet also reproduces in full the gatefold artwork of the American LP (the shack pictured in the woods nestled in a canopy of trees). The inside photo on the inner gatefold was used by British copies on their front covers and reduced to a single matt sleeve. The inner right side of the gatefold was used as the artwork for the rear of the British LP and the album didn’t show until early 1972 (about March) where it was met with as much non-interest as it had been in 1971 USA.

The Mordicai Jones album opens with "Walkin' In The Arizona Sun" which sounds like George Harrison circa "All Things Must Pass" doing a Countryish cover of Dylan's "If Not For You". But its darker subject matter turns out to be about black men walking in the chain gang – each step another closer to Hell. But its the funky Blues of "Scorpio Woman" that unleashes Gene Johnson's fantastic voice – his straining roars sounding more like Terry Reid fronting Grand Funk Railroad or The Guess Who doing "American Woman" than the Americana of Robbie Robertson of The Band. Polydor USA tried "Scorpio Woman" as a 45 Demo on Polydor PD-14112 but it seems DJs remained unmoved. They also worked the opener "Walkin' In The Arizona Sun" on Polydor PD-14105 - but again no interest. The acoustic slide blues of "The Coco Cola Sign Blinds My Eyes" again lets Johnson's voice rip for 6:21 minutes sounding not unlike a drunk Robert Plant doing a "Physical Graffiti" number unplugged. It's impressive and a wonder Rock guys haven't zeroed in on its great James Dewar/Terry Reid Rock feel. There's traces of Big Star vocals in "All I Want To Say" and yet more Acoustic slide ends Side 1 with "All Because Of A Woman" where his woman done up and run off and left him with one can of warm beer (enough of those bullfrogs I think).

Side 2 opens like Countrified Allman Brothers with "On The Run" – all slide acoustic guitars, Dickey Betts electric guitar licks and harmonica moans. Things become Elton John piano contemplative with "Son Of A Simple Man" where Link sings the praise of his earthy father who loved hard work, his family and his friends. We get a bit Dobro ramshackle on "Precious Jewel" where Gene Johnson thinks about a girl "...way back in the hills..." who has since gone to the angels. After the rocking "Days Before Custer" the album ends on the mandolin and acoustic guitars of "Gandy Dancer" where Link's group of musicians feel like The Ozark Mountain Daredevils in the making.

Mixed by Simon Heyworth at The Manor in the UK after the American tapes were delivered - the "Beans And Fatback" album feels like the boys goofing around in the shed - but heavier than before. Each ramshackle song is usually a mandolin/electric guitar romp with one snare drum and the occasional Jews Harp thrown in – bashing out whatever Country air took their fancy. The 6:23 grunge minutes of "I'm So Glad, I'm So Proud" sounds like the spirit of Rock 'n' Roll has possessed the shed. Suddenly Link Wray 'rocks' – a huge guitar riff is quickly followed by wild soloing - as the band chugs along to the almost indecipherable mumbled lyrics. This is Neil Young circa 1972 unleashed with his guitar and he doesn’t care – just rock that sucker out baby. It's fantastic stuff. Wray moans for the whole duration of "Shawnee Tribe” like an Indian brave contemplating too much history. "Hobo Man" is a simple "silver dollar” Mandolin melody that chronicles a life spent on hot cotton fields just before the train whistle blows and calls a restless soul away. I love the instrumental "Alabama Electric Circus" – again just the band enjoying an electric guitar romp – Wray creating a boogie out of nothing.

Side 2 opens with the stunning 6:15 minutes of "Water Boy" – a song that starts out like a chain-gang thump as they rhythmically smash the hammers down. Then the slide acoustic guitars give way to a Muddy Waters "Mannish Boy" electric guitar which keeps building. Wray is given the room to shine by the counting-time beat - and off he goes – attacking Guitar growling in the echo chamber of the shed. He eventually arrives at that huge 'rumble' as the tune fades out – wowser!  Of the remainder - the acoustic-backed "Right Or Wrong (You Lose)" again features some wild and loud guitar juts when you don’t expect it - while "In The Pines" is almost Foghat in its Bluesy Rock. It ends on the echoed and eerie "Take My Hand (Precious Lord)" where Neil Young's Crazy Horse has gone Guitar Gospel crazy by way of Phil Spector (if you can imagine such a thing).

So why did it all fail – why don’t you know about these albums? I suppose you could say that all three records lacked an overall impact to make them classics of the day – but in hindsight - these Countrified Americana albums by Link Wray make for a fabulous listen - offering up music that gets to you after repeated listens – music you want to champion and rave about.

A stunning release then from Ace Records of the UK and a reminder that there’s so much great music out there to still find and cherish. Properly impressed I am...

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