‘The Essential Van Morrison’ is a terrific career-spanning set

Van‘The Essential Van Morrison’
Van Morrison (Legacy)
4.5 stars out of 5

Over the course of a remarkable career that’s spanned more than 50 years, Irishman Van Morrison has proven to be one of the true living legends of popular music. That career is being celebrated this week, and rightly so, with the digital release off 33 Morrison albums — and this terrific career-spanning collection.

Van CD“The Essential Van Morrison” includes 37 tracks spread over two CDs and traces his evolution from fronting Them in the early 1960s to his later-career renaissance over the past decade.

“Van Morrison is one of the great singers, performers and musical artists in the history of recorded music,” notes Adam Block, Legacy Recordings president. “He continues to touch the hearts and souls of millions with the emotional power and spiritual truths of his songs. Legacy Recordings is proud to partner with Van to help him protect and curate his astounding catalog and to be given the opportunity to bring his music to whole new generations of fans around the world.”

All of the signature tunes are here, of course, from “Gloria” and “Here Comes the Night” with Them, to solo smashes like “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Crazy Love,” “And It Stone Me,” “Into the Mystic, “Domino,” “Moondance,” “Wild Night,” “Tupelo Honey,” “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile),” “Caravan” and “Bright Side of the Road.”

The set also features collaborations with The Chieftains (“Irish Heartbeat”) and Cliff Richard (“Whenever God Shines His Light” and more recent-vintage gems like “Days Like This” and “Magic Time.” This one’s a must, folks. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Marshall Crenshaw delivers rock-solid ‘#392: The EP Collection’

Marshall Crenshaw‘#392: The EP Collection’
Marshall Crenshaw (Red River Entertainment)
3.5 stars out of 5

Motor City native Marshall Crenshaw has carved out an impressive career as a singer/songwriter, guitarist and producer over the past 30-plus years, with more than a dozen albums to his credit. The 61-year-old has come a long, long way since his his first big break — portraying John Lennon in the touring company of the Browadway music “Beatlemania.” His latest project, “#392: The EP Collection,” was the product of Crenshaw’s attempt to release a steady stream of music over an extended period of time, rather than following the standard album/tour cycle so prevalent in the industry.

“I really did love the EP project, and I’m kind of sad that it’s over,” Crenshaw notes. “I was looking for a different way of working that would keep me motivated; it was cool, because it had a sense of urgency; there was always something that ha djust come out and always something that was on the way. It was an inspiring way to work.”

The 14-track release features seven originals and seven covers. Highlights include originals “Grab the Next Train,” “Move Now,” “Stranger and Stranger” and “Front Page News.” Among the covers, Crenshaw’s take on The Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” James McMurtry’s “Right Here Now,” The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Didn’t Want to Have to Do It” and The Every Brothers’ “Man With Money” are the ones you’ll remember. (Jeffrey Sisk)

The Paper Kites return with solid sophomore album ‘twelvefour’

The Paper Kites‘twelvefour’
The Paper Kites (Nettwerk)
3.5 stars out of 5

Australian indie collective The Paper Kites introduced themselves to American audiences in the summer of 2013 when they released their first two EPs as an 11-track boxed set. They continued with the earthy melodies and pitch-perfect harmonies on debut full-length “States,” a terrific album that I still revisit on a regular basis. I’ve been waiting for more music from the quintet ever since and at last they are back with sophomore long-player “twelvefour.”

The Paper Kites CDIt’s a concept album exploring the theory that an artist’s creative peak is between midnight and 4 a.m. For two long months, frontman Sam Bentley reversed his sleep patterns to write during those hours. When he was done, he had 30 songs and the best 10 made the cut on “twelvefour.” “I got to the end and thought, I’m never doing that again,” Bentley jokes.

Keepers here include “Electric Indigo,” “Bleed Confusion,” “Revelator Eyes,” “I’m Lying to You Cause I’m Lost,” “Woke Up From a Dream” and “Turns Within Me, Turns Without Me.” “Twelvefour” is a rock-solid album and even if it falls a notch below the sublime “States,” certainly merits some attention. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Middling mid-career Peter Frampton albums get reissues

Peter Frampton 1‘Premonition’ & ‘When All the Pieces Fit
Peter Frampton (Omnivore)
3 stars out of 5; 2.5 stars out of 5

British rocker Peter Frampton’s career peaked in 1976 with the release of his jaw-droppingly good “Frampton Comes Alive!” For my money, it’s still ranks among the top two or three live albums ever made and sounds as fresh and exciting as ever even after almost 40 years. Frampton has continued to make music over the years, and is justifiably respected as a true guitar great, but he’s never scaled those “Frampton Comes Alive!” heights again.

Peter Frampton CD 1Two of Frampton’s mid-career offerings — 1986’s “Premonition” and 1989’s “When All the Pieces Fit” — are bring dusted off for reissues, courtesy of the folks at Omnivore. Both records include new liner notes and there are a couple of bonus tracks for the completists out there.

Peter Frampton CD 2Frampton was scuffling by the mid-1980s. He’d parted ways with longtime label A&M and hadn’t had a hit album in years. “Premonition” was his first offering for Atlantic and enjoyed modest chart success, though it failed to yield any memorable singles. Lead tracks “Stop” and “Hiding From Heartache” are solid, as are the title track and “All Eyes on You,” but “Premonition” is probably best suited for hard-core Framptonites only.

The same goes for “When All the Pieces Fit,” released three years later. It too eked into the Billboard Top 200, but tunes like “Holding on to You,” “My Heart Goes Out to You,” “People All Over the World” and “Hard Earned Love” aren’t among his finest. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Terrific ‘Groove & Grind’ boxed set focuses on soul rarities

Rare Soul CD‘Groove & Grind: Rare Soul 1963-1973’
Various Artists (Rockbeat)
4 stars out of 5

Now here’s a boxed set that’s sure to get fans of old-school soul/R&B salivating. “Groove & Grind: Rare Soul 1963-1973” collects 112 obscure soul tunes over four meticulously curated CDs. Compiled by James Austin, the set intentionally contains no hits and most of the performers, despite their estimable musical gifts, have been relegated to mere footnotes in the annals of popular music.

Disc 1, the best of the sprawling set, is dedicated to urban soul. It features 27 tunes that emanated from New York, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles during this fertile period. Among the highlights are “I’m Hip to You” by The Jelly Beans, “They’re Laughing at Me” by Gail Anderson, “Suffer” by Cookie Jackson, “Searchin’ for Love” by Tommy Hunt and “Love That Guy” by Jackie Owens. Among the higher profile artists delivering tunes on Disc 1 are Ike &Tina Turner (“You Can’t Miss Noting That You Never Had”) and Betty LaVette (“Almost”).

Disc 2 features the silky smooth vocal groups who followed in the footsteps of The Temptations and The Four Tops. Keepers on the 28-track set include “I Don’t Love You No More” by The Exsaveyons, “Peace of Mind” by The Vontastics, “You’re a Gas With Your Trash” by The Four Pennies” and “Got to Be Your Lover” by The Profiles.

Disc 3 includes 28 tunes focusing on emotion-fueled Southern soul. Among the many highlights here are “Now You’ve Got the Upper Hand” by Candi Staton, “I Can’t Stop Crying” by Sam Hutchins, “A Broken Hearted Clown” by Nat Hall with The Mellow 3, “I Don’t Want to Hurt Nobody” by Ruby Winters and “Everybody Makes a Mistake Sometimes” by Roy Arlington.

Disc 4 brings the funk but, surprisingly, is the least effective part of “Groove & Grind.” Keepers on the 29-track disc include “The Soul Stroke (Can You Handle It)” by King Earnest, “The Bushman” by The Tenth Dymentions, “Original Funky Bell Bottoms” by Ironing Board Sam, “Ratty Ratty” by Maskmen & The Agents and “The Poo Poo Man” by Chet “Poison” Ivey & His Fabulous Avengers.

All told, “Groove & Grind: Rare Soul 1963-1973” offers up more than five hours of mostly excellent music. In addition, the hardcover set features extensive liner notes and plenty of rare photos from the era. This one’s a winner, folks. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Jimi Hendrix shines on ‘Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival’ live 2-CD set

Jimi‘Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival’
The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Legacy)
4 stars out of 5

If you asked most music buffs to tick off a list of the top American music festivals in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the Atlanta International Pop Festival probably wouldn’t get many mentions. I grew up in Atlanta and even my short list would include Woodstock, Newport, Monterey and Altamont. So imagine my surprise to learn that on July 4, 1970, guitar great Jimi Hendrix performed to the largest American audience of his career (estimated at between 300,000 and 400,000 people) at the second Atlanta International Pop Festival. Go figure.

Jimi CDThe appearance, which took place just 10 weeks before Hendrix’s death, is the subject of a new Showtime documentary entitled “Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church” (it debuts Sept. 4) and the two-CD set “Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival.” The Jimi Hendrix Experience were at their creative peak when they took the stage that night and the 16-track, 82-minute performance — including six songs not featured in the documentary — is truly captivating.

Hendrix & Co. deliver stellar renditions of “Fire,” “Spanish Castle Magic,” “Room Full of Mirrors,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Foxey Lady,” “Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” There’s even a version of the “Star Spangled Banner” that rivals the one that made Hendrix famous the year at Woodstock. This set is a must for anyone who loves rock music. (Jeffrey Sisk)

‘Queen of Shoegaze’ Thayer Sarrano serves up ‘Shaky’ new LP

Thayer Sarrano‘Shaky’
Thayer Sarrano (self-released)
3.5 stars out of 5

Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Thayer Sarrano has a fascinating backstory. She grew up in a monastery in the swamplands of coastal South Georgia and received classical music training as a child. Having written instrumental compositions and poetry as a youngster, she moved into songwriting upon moving to the longtime musical oasis of Athens, Ga.

Thayer Sarrano CDHer 2009 debut album “King” prompted Americana UK magazine to dub Sarrano “The New Queen of Shoegaze” and she built on that foundation with 2012 sophomore slab “Lift Your Eyes to the Hills.” For third album “Shaky,” Sarrano blended deeply personal experiences with the mystical.

“I feel like I have to make this quilt out of these patches of visions I’ve collected,” she explains. “And then suddenly the song is finished, and I realize it’s all true.”

The 10-track, 42-minute “Shaky” is a relentlessly mellow album, but there’s a haunting beauty in Sarrano’s songs. Among the highlights are “How Can I Wait,” “Touch My Face,” the title track, personal favorite “A Quiet State of Panic,” “Glimpses” and “Hide My Health.” Good stuff. (Jeffrey Sisk)

‘Thank You for Stickin’ With Slim Twig’ misses the mark

Slim Twig‘Thank You for Stickin’ With Slim Twig’
Slim Twig (DFA)
2 stars out of 5

Though my first impressions of Toronto-based musician Slim Twig’s 2014 full-length “A Hound at the Hem” weren’t great, I ultimately found that record growing on me over time and gave him the benefit of the doubt in my review last October. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for latest effort “Thank You for Stickin’ With Slim Twig.”

Slim Twig CDMy first impressions were equally poor on this 13-track, 40-minute slab and no matter how many spins I give it — I managed to struggle through the record from beginning to end three times — it just doesn’t get any better. There are occasional moments that work here, but sadly they are too few and far between to salvage the recording.

Highlights, such as they are, include “A Woman’s Touch (It’s No Coincidence),” “Red Roll Red Roll (Song for Steubenville)” and “Fog of Sex (N.S.I.S.) — Slim is fond of the parentheses — but only the most patient of listeners figure to take the time to uncover them. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Five Fingertips make impressive debut with self-titled album

Five Finger‘Five Fingertips’
Five Fingertips (Guildwater Group)
3.5 stars out of 5

There’s a sense of mystery surrounding Five Fingertips, the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist based in the longtime musical hotbed of Athens, Ga. He declines to reveal his name in the credits (or any press material) for his self-titled debut album, though his photograph is readily available. Focusing instead on the music — enjoyable 1990s-era indie pop/rock — Fiver Fingertips has crafted a solid 12-track, 47-minute release.

Five FingertipsEnlisting help from John Keane and up-and-coming singer/songwriter Thayer Sarrano, Five Fingertips — whoever he is — has surrounded himself with some first-rate supporting talent. Their contributions to the record add a level of enjoyment to the proceedings.

Among the highlights here are the opening tandem of “The Lines” and “Time Is Tasteless,” as well as “The Blue Cliff Record,” “The Poster Children,” “Holiday” and “The Swerve (I Want to Hold Your Phone).” While falling just short of essential, this album has plenty going for it — enough to have me eager to hear what Five Fingertips manage come up with next. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Blues legend Buddy Guy sizzles on ‘Born to Play Guitar’ release

Big-Blues-Bender-2015-Buddy-Guy‘Born to Play Guitar’
Buddy Guy (Silvertone/RCA)
4 stars out of 5

Will there be a more accurate album title this year than the latest gem from blues great Buddy Guy? Something tells me that the 79-year-old Louisiana native has summed up his life and career quite nicely with the sublime “Born to Play Guitar.”

Buddy Guy CDNot that the legendary blues guitarist needs any help, but Guy gets some from the likes of Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Van Morrison, Joss Stone and Kim Wilson. It’s a blistering 14-track, 60-minute slab that shows us that Guy has plenty of gas left in the tank — even some 50 years after his recording career began.

The title track launches the proceedings and is my favorite song on “Born to Play Guitar.” Additional keepers include “Wear You Out” (with Gibbons), “Too Late” (with Wilson), “Whiskey, Beer & Wine,” “(Baby) You Got What It Takes” (with Stone), “Thick Like Mississippi Mud” and the B.B. King-dedicated “Flesh & Bone” (with Morrison). This is a must for anyone who loves the blues. (Jeffrey Sisk)