Must-Hear Vinyl Reissues for April 2014
What’s old is new, especially if you’ve never heard it in the first place. That’s the apparent mantra of reissue labels like Numero Group, Sublime Frequencies and Soul Jazz, all of which dig deep into basement crates and storage units, sweep away the dust and bring back the dead (or at least the forgotten). The music they release is just as compelling and often further off-the-grid than today’s new releases. To boot, most of these labels take great care in assembling intricate packaging and extensive liner notes to guide listeners through a trip into the obscure past. We took the liberty of culling all the new reissues of the past month – compilations, underground records, unreleased tracks – to recommend five vinyl reissues you should pick up right now.
In the early '80s, Johnny Cash's marriage was on the rocks, his drinking problem was flaring up and his entire career was in stasis. A stint in rehab salvaged the marriage and cleaned up the bad habits; a new album, produced by Billy Sherrill in 1984, was ostensibly his answer to problem number three. But the album was never released, and Cash's stalled career didn't budge until 1994, when producer Rick Rubin hooked him up with a collection of murder ballads and stories for the comeback LP 'American Recordings.' Unlike the classic Rubin albums (there were several sequels), Out 'Among the Stars' sits more comfortably next to records made by Cash's fellow outlaw-country travelers at the time. A few cuts sound like solid-gold country classics. 'Out Among the Stars' earns shelf space next to late-period Merle Haggard records, but fans spoiled by Rubin's gutsy makeover of the Cash myth won't find anything so compelling here.
Numero Group recreates entire worlds out of forgotten music with so many of their releases, combining cuts ripped from dug-up cassette tapes with meticulous liner notes. 'Darkscorch Canticles,' the latest compendium of forgotten proto-metal bands from the '70s, includes some surprisingly enjoyable 'Dungeons and Dragons'-inspired scrapyard rock from the era. Liner notes tell mythic tales of stolen equipment, hastily assembled record labels and the lure of that ages-old band-destroying temptress: college. It's all inspired by an elixir of Black Sabbath, boredom and good grass. North Carolina's Wizzard King offer a fuzzed-out, 'Nuggets'-worthy stomper; Chicago's Medusa checks in with a mace-swinging epic. Numero's Cities of Darkscorch board game comes out this May (not a joke).
'Rajasthan Street Music' is a modern-day field recording acquired by Seattle's Sublime Frequencies from Belgian road-tripper Seb Bassleer, who made the recordings while on a personal quest to document the folk music of Rajasthan, India's desert-dominated northern state. The music is at once familiar, twanging and circular, with simply arranged songs both short and extended that capture a kind of reverent stasis. The centerpiece is a prolonged call-and-response between two elderly men in Pushkar, seemingly recorded over dueling megaphones that, according to the liner notes, tells the story of an ancient battle. The song satisfies in that world-music kinda way, but it's also a deeply satisfying listen.
Decades before Seattle was a trendy corporate haven, and even before it found itself suddenly awash in grunge, the city was an outpost for fringe weirdos, off-work lumberjacks and the tired engineers of Boeing's jet-assembly fields to the south. That subversive environment gave rise to anarchist bookstores, mean-street squatter culture and the band Lavender Country, which might be America's first openly gay country-music ensemble. Led by an unapologetic visionary named Patrick Haggerty, the band pressed 1,000 copies of its only record, featuring some of the most lyrically courageous songs ever written in a genre known mostly for songs about drinking, crying and coupling. (Frankly, to even call this music "country" feels a tad dishonest.) Standouts include the vicious 'Waltzing Will Trilogy' and 'Come Out Singing,' the band's shot across the bow.
Over the past several years, U.K.'s Soul Jazz label has released what are essentially mixtapes from the archives of Studio One Records, Jamaica's lyceum of music that operated during the '60s and '70s. This two-record compilation documents early-'60s experiments in rocksteady, Jamaica's bouncing imitation of American soul. The set's helpful liner notes suggest that Studio One artists' contribution to Jamaican music was help shaping rocksteady into something that carried more local inflection to the tunes. This set charts a progression from straight-arrow entries like the Eternals' 'Stars' to the Heptones' rhythmic 'Party Time' and Jackie Mittoo's dense, ska/dub hybrid 'Our Thing.' The mix is not only a revelatory listen, it's also a map of the reggae genome.