Sunday, 5 February 2017

"Original Album Classics" by AL KOOPER (September 2015 Sony/Columbia/Legacy 5CD Mini Box Set Of Remasters) - A Review by Mark Barry...



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"...It's A Brand New Day..."

Having 'played the organ' on Bob Dylan's 1965 and 1966 masterpieces "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde On Blonde" on your resume is probably not a bad start for most musicians. You then meddle about with Steve Katz and The Blues Project for more LPs. After that you form "Blood, Sweat & Tears" and punch out their equally stunning debut album "Child Is Father To The Man" in early 1968. You follow those accolades by having a "Super Session" with guitar wonder-kids Mike Bloomfield of The Electric Flag/Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield. Then you do a live double-album of that. And it's still only late 1968. So far so legendarily good. But then you get all bolshy and decide to do the dread deed - go 'solo'...

If I'm absolutely truthful and having bought them all down through the years (nine or ten albums in all if I recollect correctly) - I've always found Al Kooper's solo career somewhat patchy. There are moments of genius for sure but never a cohesive whole - expect maybe the criminally underrated and forgotten "Easy Does It" double-album from 1970 and 1972's "New York City (You're A Woman)".

And despite having charted oodles of LPs Stateside - his back-catalogue has always seemed to have had availability issues on CD - some making Columbia Remasters while others have only ever been reissued on expensive Japanese CD imports. But at last in 2015 – Sony's Columbia/Legacy branch sorts out a big chunk of it by giving us five of his most popular records between 1969 and 1972 clumped together in one handy "Original Classic Albums" buy-pack. And while there are no bonus tracks or annotation – we get a reasonable price tag, remastered audio and dinky repro singular card artwork. And with one of the CDs being a double-album onto one disc - you’re effectively getting six LPs worth of music for your 5-disc outlay.

There is a lot to process so let's get friendly once more with our favourite naked New Yorker - Al Kuperschmidt...

UK released 4 September 2015 (11 September 2015 in the USA) - "Original Album Classics" by AL KOOPER on Sony/Columbia/Legacy 88875099072 (Barcode 888750990723) is a 5CD Set of Remasters In A Card Slipcase and plays out as follows:

Disc 1 (41:32 minutes):
1. Overture
2. I Stand Alone
3. Camille
4. One
5. Coloured Rain
6. Soft Landing On The Moon
7. I Can Love A Woman [Side 2]
8. Blue Moon Of Kentucky
9. Toe Hold
10. Right Now for You
11. Hey, Western Union Man
12. Song And Dance For The Unborn, Frightened Child
Tracks 1 to 12 are his debut LP "I Stand Alone" – released February 1969 in the USA on Columbia CS 9718 and March 1969 in the UK on CBS Records S 63596. Produced by Al Kooper – it peaked at No. 54 on the US LP charts (didn't chart UK).

Disc 2 (44:10 minutes):
1. Magic In My Socks
2. Lucille
3. Too Busy Thinkin' 'Bout My Baby
4. First Time Around
5. Loretta (Union Turnpike Eulogy)
6. Blues, Part IV
7. You Never Know Who Your Friends Are [Side 2]
8. The Great American Marriage/Nothing
9. I Don't Know Why I Love You
10. Mourning Glory Story
11. Anna Lee (What Can I Do For You)
12. I'm Never Gonna Let You Down
Tracks 1 to 12 are his 2nd studio album "You Never Know Who Your Friends Are" – released October 1969 in the USA on Columbia CS 9855 and November 1969 in the UK on CBS Records S 63651. Produced by Al Kooper – it peaked at No. 125 in the US LP charts (didn't chart UK).

Disc 3 (62:30 minutes):
1. Brand New Day [Side 1]
2. Piano Solo Introduction
3. I Got A Woman
4. Country Road
5. I Bought You The Shoes
6. Introduction [Side 2]
7. Easy Does It
8. Buckskin Boy
9. Love Theme From "The Landlord"
10. Sad, Sad Sunshine [Side 3]
11. Let The Duchess No
12. She Gets Me Where I Live
13. A Rose And A Baby Ruth
14. Baby, Please Don't Go [Side 4]
15. God Sheds His Grace On Thee
Tracks 1 to 15 are his 4th studio set – the double-album "Easy Does It" – released September 1970 in the USA on Columbia G 30031 and November 1970 in the UK on CBS Records S 66252. Produced by Al Kooper – it peaked at No. 105 on the US LP charts (didn't chart UK). Note: his 3rd US studio set "Kooper Session – Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis" from January 1970 is not included in this package.

Disc 4 (43:00 minutes):
1. New York City (You're A Woman)
2. John The Baptist (Holy John)
3. Can You Hear It Now (500 Miles)
4. The Ballad Of The Hard Rock Kid
5. Going Quietly Mad
6. Medley: Oo Wee Baby, I Love You/Love Is A Man's Best Friend [Side 2]
7. Back On My Feet
8. Come Down In Time
9. Dearest Darling
10. Nightmare #5
11. The Warning (Someone’s On The Cross Again)
Tracks 1 to 11 are his 5th studio album "New York City (You're A Woman)" – released June 1971 in the USA on Columbia C 30506 and July 1971 in the UK on CBS Records S 64340. Produced by Al Kooper – it peaked at No. 198 on the US LP charts (didn't chart UK).

Disc 5 (37:15 minutes):
1. (Be Yourself) Be Real
2. As The Years Go Passing By
3. Jolie
4. Blind Baby
5. Been And Gone
6. Sam Stone [Side 2]
7. Peacock Lady
8. Touch The Hem Of His Garment
9. Where Were You When I Needed You
10. Unrequited
Tracks 1 to 10 are his 7th studio album "Naked Songs" - released November 1972 in the USA on Columbia KC 31723 and in the UK on CBS Records S 65193. Produced by Al Kooper - it didn't chart in either country. His sixth studio album was "A Possible Projection Of The Future/Childhood's End" from April 1972 (not included in this set).

It doesn't say where or 'who' remastered these albums (Vic Anesini maybe) - but given the versions I had before - these new Stereo transfers have been done very well indeed. Each of these albums has renewed punch and I'm thrilled to find that "Easy Does It" sounds amazing - as do the heavy-on-the-arrangements songs on his "I Stand Alone" debut. That keyboard funk on "New York City..." and "Naked Songs" – it's all good frankly...

As you can imagine across five albums there's a wad of choice and eclectic session-players - his cover of Traffic's "Coloured rain" on the debut album "I Stand Alone" features the Don Ellis Orchestra - falsetto backing vocalist Robert John is on "Lucille" and "You Never Know Who Your Friends Are" and Trumpeter Marvin Stamm guests on "I'm Never Gonna Let You Down". The "Easy Does It" double-album alone has a wad of guests - Fred Lipsius of Blood, Sweat & Tears fame gives a Saxophone solo on the Ray Charles cover "I Got A Woman" - Southern guitar rocker Charlie Daniels and Bassist Charlie McCoy of Area Code 615 and Barefoot Jerry are both on "Let The Duchess No" - future New Waver Peter Ivers blows Harmonica on the cover of James Taylor's "Country Road" - not to mention percussionist Milt Holland and uber-drummers Rick Marotta and Earl Palmer and Guitarists Dave Bromberg and Tommy Tedesco. Roger Pope and Caleb Quaye of Hookfoot play on the "New York City (You're A Woman)" album - as does Sneaky Pete Kleinow of The Flying Burrito Brothers while Barry Bailey of Atlanta Rhythm Section features on the "Naked Songs" LP.

The debut is a part Rock, part Psychedelic, part 60ts Pop smorgasbord where the pointless instrumental/noises "Overture" irritates - but that's soon replaced by his signature Brass and Melody sound on "I Stand Alone". He co-wrote "Camille" with Tony Powers - a wildly overproduced piece of echoed melodrama. Better is his cover of Nilsson's "One" - Jimmy Wisner arranged those lovely strings for the loneliest number. We go Psych for Traffic's "Coloured Rain" with every manner of instrument invading a flanged mix that feels very "Magical Mystery Tour". Columbia stuck the weird and cultish keyboard-instrumental "Soft Landing On The Moon" on the B-side of "You Never Know Who Your Friends Are" from the next album when they released it as a 45 in July 1969 (Columbia 4011).

A cop-car siren opens "I Can Love A Woman" - an ominous beginning to what turns out to be a happy tune complete with strings and backing ladies (lovely arrangements in the brass) and a train departing ending. It segues into a Rockabilly cover of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" made more famous by Elvis - in fact the tract feels like Al is channelling his inner Presley in a big way. Penned by Stax writing geniuses Isaac Hayes and David Porter - Johnnie Taylor's "Toe Hold" gets a funked-up work-over that sounds like a cool one which could easily have been on BS&T's "Child Is Father To The Man" debut in early 1968. Gunfire opens his own "Right Now For You" where he goes all Joe Meek on the keyboard with Nilsson acoustic guitars racing alongside the lyrics (neighbours hiding behind fences, howling at the moon). Proving his love of good Soul - he covers Jerry Butler's "Hey, Western Union Man" - another lovely groove (great bass on the transfer) that Columbia tried as a 45 in July 1969 (Columbia 4160) with "I Stand Alone" on the flipside. It ends on another Magical Mystery Tour sounding carnival - the very 60ts "Song And Dance For The Unborn, Forgotten Child" - where a woman's screams and a child-crying invade the strings. Personally it does my head in and I find it hard going...

We’re still very much in 60ts mode with the "You Never Know Who Your Friends Are" album that opens with the brassy "Magic In My Socks" - a tune that features some very Zappa guitar passages. Charlie Calello, Lou Christie, Mike Gately and Robert John provide the four-strong wall of Beach Boys backing vocals on "Lucille" - a beautifully inventive song with amazing vocal arrangements (conducted and arranged by Charlie Calello). This quartet - this wall of Spector-esque voices inform almost every song on the album. I can't quite make my mind up about his cover of The Temptations and Marvin Gaye classic "Too Busy Thinkin' 'Bout My Baby" - I prefer Marvin's beauty. The side ends on the 'would you tighten your foot' organ smooch of "Blues, Part IV" - my kind of improvised studio jam that produces an instrumental you return to again and again. Side 2 opens with the piano joviality of the album's title track where our Al sounds like he's The Monkees singing happy with the wildly upbeat music but actually waxing miserable. We go Scott Walker for the melodrama of "The Great American Marriage/Nothing" (all strings and strained words) which is followed by a Stevie Wonder cover of "I Don't Know Why I Love You" - an 'always treats me like a fool' song where our hero is resigned to his heart's fateful choices. Just like "One" on the debut album - the chorus of voices on "Mourning Glory Story" (yet another Nilsson cover) suit the song so well - even if its kind of ruined by too-clever-clever breaks in-between the wonderful Beach Boys voices.  The album closes on the impressive combo of "Anna Lee" and "I'm Never Gonna Let You Down" which sounds like our Al has been listening to The Band and Bacharach and David - in that order.

Before his next solo move - Kooper pushed out the Blues and R&B album belter "Kooper Session – Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis" in January 1970 where he was involved in the songwriting of four cuts (Shuggie's own debut proper "Here Comes Shuggie Otis" hit the US shops in February 1970 – both stormingly good LPs on Epic Records that mixed Funk with Blues and Rock-Soul). They seemed to change Kooper. His sound suddenly matured. Or maybe it's because he gets to stretch out on September 1970's "Easy Does It" - or his sound feels instantly 70ts and not 60ts even though its only the decade's first year - or that its got so much going on - a dip in and find something new event - whatever it is – I've always loved this forgotten and underrated double-album.

"Easy Does It" opens with a theme to "The Landlord" film which itself had been released on United Artists in 1971 (the UAS 5209 album also featured Soul artists The Staple Singers and Lorraine Ellison). There's an edited 45 of "Brand New Day" - but here you get the fabulous 5:19 minute full album version that feels like a rejuvenated Al Kooper telling us it's alright (yes it is children). A melodic solo grand-piano intro tinkles for a few minutes before introducing a truly wonderful stringed-up Soulful take on Brother Ray's Atlantic Records smash "I Got A Woman". Drummer Rick Marotta, Bassist Stu Cook with Peter Ivers on Harmonica liven up another clever cover – James Taylor's “Country Road” – a song Merry Clayton also did justice too over on Ode 70 Records that same year (see my review for her wonderful "Gimme Shelter" LP remastered for CD by Repertoire). David Bromberg plays Pedal Steel on the strictly Country "I Bought You Shoes" – an Al Kooper song that sees our hero discover what Bob Dylan felt about Leopard Skin Pill-Boxed Hats (only this it's her footwear).

Side 2 opens with a minute of studio chatter that leads into a big brassy guitar rendition of the title track – a ballsy guitars 'n' trumpets song that feels like a bit of 50ts 'shapely legs' naughtiness updated to 1970 with Kooper really letting rip on Guitar (could even be an outtake from the "Kooper Session" LP). A very cool chug comes at you for "Buckskin Boy" - a great little album rocker about 'robbed native Americans' that could have been a great 45 with a relevant message. It segues into a 2001: A Space Odyssey of voices giving you the decidedly film-epic "Love Theme From Landlord" - a superb little song that Columbia used as a B-side to the "Brand New Day" 7" edit in March 1971 on Columbia 5146). On Side 3 I love "Let The Duchess No" which was written by John Gregory of The Mystery Trend and the plucked-strings of "She Gets Me Where I Live". Took time but I also dig The Velvet Underground feel to "A Rose And A Baby Ruth" - a teenage quarrel waltz that sounds like acidic Lou Reed beneath all that prettiness. But best of all is his magnificent cover of the Big Joe William's old R&B classic "Baby, Please Don't Go". Covered by everyone from Muddy Waters to Them - here its 1970 twelve-minutes takes up most of Side 4 and is a very Traffic version - all keyboards - Kooper working that piano and organ like a man lost in his groove. It's Soulful, Blue Note Jazzy and Trippy with flanged Keyboards, Bass solos and Scat vocals – only to return to the famous lyrics as it crescendos. It's an indulgence for sure but one that works - what a blast.

The British LP for "New York City (You're A Woman)" adds on 'Excerpt From "New York City: 6 AM To Midnight" - A Symphony In Progress' as its full title (the US LP hasn't got this). But any idea that his opening salvo is going to be a homage to the ladylike delights of his home city goes out the window when he calls his hometown something that rhymes with twitch (and cold-hearted at that). Still he's drawn to NYC like a moth to a flame. Rita Coolidge and Clydie King are amongst the vocalists on the very Band-influenced "John The Baptist (Holy John)". The album was famously recorded in the USA and the UK (thanks to the band Spring for the lend of the Mellotron) and it shows. The wild slide-guitar playing of "The Ballad Of The Hard Rock Kid" sounds like Juicy Lucy returning to "Who Do You Love" (Vertigo 1970) while the gorgeous "Going Quietly Mad" sounds like a melodious Joe Walsh in The James Gang circa 1970's "Rides Again" or even 1972's "Barnstorm". His two covers are more obscure and better for it - Elton John's "Come Down In Time" - a slow/fast rival for the "Tumbleweed Connection" original - while Bo Diddley's "Dearest Darling" is given a spoken intro and a righteous Soulful treatment - like Bonnie and Delaney Bramlett giving it some white people on Stax (I gotta play for you now baby - it's alright). It then ends on a clever one-two of big melodies - the 'two days in my flat' pretty misery of "Nightmare No. 5" while we go full bombast on "The Warning (Someone's On The Cross Again)" which may or not be about a second coming that's a fraud.

The final album here "Naked Songs" picked up where "New York City..." left off but didn't even scrape Top 200 in the USA - apparently a contractual obligation album to Columbia. Maybe this explains the styles - he simply doesn't care what he's recording. But actually - it works. The Peppermint Harris cover "As The Years Go Passing By" is gorgeous Guitar Blues that feels like Gary Moore has been transported from 1989 into 1973 - a very cool song. Jazz Giant Annette Peacock gets a suitably synth outing on "Been And Gone" - a far more Soulful take than you would expect with weird vocal samples as it fades out. His version of Sam Cooke's "Touch The Hem Of His Garment" is a good old 'in church on Sunday morning' rendition - all piano and organ before the sisters take it to the rafters. Kooper then goes contemporary country with John Prine's amazingly realistic "Sam Stone" - a soldier coming home song - a wounded man with shrapnel in his knee and morphine in his veins. Typically brilliant in the lyrical department - "...there's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes...Jesus died with nothing I suppose..." - Kooper gives it his best Richard Manuel impression on vocals and pulls it off - sounding not unlike a sincere 00's Springsteen but in 1972. Columbia even tried it as the album's lone 45 in September 1972 with the opener "Be Real" as the B-side (Columbia 45691) - but no one was listening. Had either the poopy "Where Were You When I Needed You" or the ballad "Unrequited" finishers turned up on Todd Rundgren’s "Something/Anything?" double- album in 1972 - we would be pulling adjectives out of our ass in a frenzy of genuine musical affection. But not for NYC Al which don’t seem right.

For sure you can't say that everything on "Original Album Classics" is out-and-out magic - but when Al Kooper is good like on "Easy Does It" and "New York City (You're A Woman)" and even those glints on "Naked Songs" - you can't help but think that his solo career is ripe for rediscovery and renewed praise.

It's a brand new day people...and having spent some time with this wicked New Yorker...I'm up for it. Recommended...

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