Must-Hear Vinyl Reissues for May 2014
Thanks to Record Store Day, this month's crop of new vinyl reissues is nice and fat. We sifted through all of the releases and came up with a broad list of records that span everything from long-lost gospel covers of Bob Dylan classics to jittery Scottish post-punk to a treasure trove of singles from one of our all-time favorite brooding songwriters.
The breakthrough album by Jason Molina's Songs: Ohia is their 2003 majestic country-rock masterpiece 'Magnolia Electric Co.' But this collection of the band's diverse 7-inch releases is an austere tribute to the singer, who passed away last year. 'Journey On: Collected Singles' is an essential set that includes songs recorded from 1996-2002, and encompasses the stream-of-consciousness meanderings of the group's early years and the spacious, hypnotic death-folk of music leading up to 'Magnolia,' all drawing beauty from haunted and claustrophobic confines. To truly appreciate the seismic shift of 'Magnolia,' explore the lonely depths here first, like the opium-dream imagery and stark, circular movement of 'Nay Tis Not Death,' as well as an alternate version of 'Lioness,' colored by spare a female harmony line.
This collection of alternate takes from the legendary cosmic cowboy contains different versions of songs from both of Parsons' early-'70s solo records, 'GP' and 'Grievous Angel.' While these versions lack some of the production sheen found on the albums, they amplify the clarity of Parsons' and Emmylou Harris's harmonies and the Nashville shine of James Burton's guitar. For casual fans, there's probably nothing exceptional here, but for Parsons obsessives, repeated listens are rewarded with shifts in detail that make big sonic differences. Parsons' classic 'Grievous Angel' is featured in a scruffier version, and 'Brass Buttons,' a song about Parsons' mother, leans more on a shimmering Rhodes than the lilting dobro that colors the album take, evoking, perhaps, the warm household parlor of Parson's childhood home in Georgia.
This album is worth hearing if only for Zani Diabate's guitar. Diabate led Mali's Super Djata Band, which formed in the '70s; 'Vol. 2 (Blue)' was recorded in 1983, when Djata was in the middle of a multi-decade run as one of the more visionary groups in West Africa. Diabate's guitar sound is like nothing you'd ever hear in American music -- bracing yet clean, soulful but stoic, music that has no real translation for listeners brought up on Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen. His solos ride over the polyrhythms of hand drums and the chanting of an alternating group of singers, dancing up and down, and unfolding like pieces of tonal origami, then neatly fitting back together again. Diabate's guitar, like the spellbound cantor of a gospel choir, leads the band on an epic spiritual journey.
Fortunately, Life Without Buildings' only proper album, originally released in 2001, is available again in the U.S. Musically, the Glasgow quartet owes a lot to post-punk bands like Public Image Ltd. and Sonic Youth – jogging bass and drums, tiny, repetitive guitar chords. But singer Sue Tompkins uses it as a springboard for a Jackson Pollock-like expulsion of thoughts, impulses and images, eschewing normal lyrical craft for repeating phrases and stuttered syllables, like a transcription of nervous brain activity. In 'The Leanover' she repeats -- 23 times -- "He's the shaker, baby." Her child-like voice helps bring home the feeling that you're trapped in the brain of someone who might be just a wee-bit crazy. The vinyl reissue also comes with a copy of Life Without Buildings' first 7-inch single.
One day in 1969, legendary producer Lou Adler, fresh from pulling off the Monterey Pop Festival, had an idea: Gather the best backup singers and their church friends, and record an album of gospel-flavored Bob Dylan covers, complete with big grand pianos, hollering soul vocals and a bleachers full of swaying singers. The result, 'Dylan Gospel,' is executed well enough that it avoids sounding kitschy and opportunistic. (Probably because Adler was no schmoozing windbag; after this, he went on to direct the stoner classic 'Up in Smoke' and produced your mom's favorite album, Carole King's 'Tapestry.') Not all of the songs are suited to the format. It's puzzling that 'Lay Lady Lay' and 'Just Like a Woman,' two of Dylan's least spiritual songs, made the cut. On the other hand, some of his songs were made for this. 'Chimes of Freedom' is transformed into muscular duet, and 'The Times They Are A-Changin'' rings with authority. The highlight is 'Quinn the Eskimo,' led by Merry Clayton, the background singer whose powerful pipes lit the Rolling Stones' 'Gimme Shelter' into an inferno.