Halloween, Johnny Mathis, ’80s, Randall Bramblett

NOW HALLOWEEN_FINAL(rgb)Compilations are usually not as good as their premise. Of course, there have been notable exceptions and this is one of them. A Halloween keeper? Funny to think but UMG/Sony Music Entertainment’s “Now That’s What I Call Halloween,” a seemingly disposable collection, turns out to be not only holiday-essential, but damn fine fun. I mean, who wouldn’t want to have for posterity John Carpenter’s “Halloween Theme” to his 1978 horror classic? Ditto for Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells (Theme from The Exorcist).” Add Danny Elfman’s surrealistic “Beetlejuice: Main Theme/End Title,” Jace Everett’s “Bad Things (Theme From True Blood)” and Run DMC’s “Ghostbusters” and you’ve got your Hollywood contingent. Then there’s the stuff that you probably already own including “Don’t Fear The Reaper” (Blue Oyster Cult), “Werewolves Of London” (Warren Zevon) and “Season Of The Witch” (Donovan). Sure, there’s clinkers too:  “A Nightmare On My Street” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and “This Is Halloween” by The Citizens Of Halloween are truly awful. Best of the lot is Nina Simone’s “I Put A Spell On You,” “Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party” (let us not forget this was professional weirdo Danny Elfman’s rock’n’roll band), Rob Zombie’s rockin’ “Dragula,” INXS’s “Devil Inside,” “Ghost Town” by The Specials and Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me.”

NOW NEW WAVE cover REVISED“Now That’s What I Call New Wave ’80s” is not so successful. Sure, half of it is hot with Eurythmics, Big Country, R.E.M., Billy Idol, The Romantics, B-52s, The Cure and Go-Gos but the excess of the era culminates in Adam Ant, Thompson Twins, Berlin, General Public, Psychedelic Furs, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Echo & The Bunnymen, all who had a cup of coffee in the limelight before succumbing to their own pretense. I do admit, in all honesty, to a soft spot for “Don’t You Want Me” by Human League, a one-hit wonder if there ever was one. Let the hate mail ensue!

Randall BramblettSee this guy? He’s only one of the most original and profoundly satisfying artists around today. His name is Randall Bramblett. He was in Sea Level with Chuck Leavell. He toured with Steve Winwood as his right-hand man on keyboards, saxophone and vocals for 16 years including the 1994 Traffic reunion. His songs have been recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Bettye Lavette, Delbert McClinton and Hot Tuna. “Devil’s Music” (New West Recordings), his tenth CD, was named after a chapter in the Howling Wolf biography “Moanin’ At Midnight” wherein the blues giant goes home to show his mother the success he’s had but she slams the door in his face because he plays devil’s music. His vocals throughout are electronically enhanced to convey more of the desperate anguish of his protagonists. Opener “Dead In The Water” is taken from beat novelist William S. Burroughs and his speed freak wife. “Mama’s been flying,” he sings in a distorted voice, “drinking that Benzedrine, scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush but she just can’t get it clean.” With guests Derek Trucks, Mark Knopfler and his old Sea Level mate Leavell, Bramblett has fashioned a post-Americana statement of profound proportions.

johnny mathis finalJohnny Mathis has been, since 1956, one of the most pristine male tenor voices in America. His 1958 “Johnny’s Greatest Hits” was the first “Greatest Hits” compilation in music history. It was on the charts for 490 straight weeks. Do the math. He’s sold 17 million records, released 18 hit singles between ’57 and ’63, 19 hit albums between ’57 and ’78 and has received 10 Gold, four Platinum and two multi-platinum RIAA awards. The only other pop stars who can get close to his heavenly range are Art Garfunkel, early Harry Nilsson and John Denver. The man’s a vocal machine.

So why can’t I listen to this all the way through?

Besides such stellar recordings that even I, an old hippie rock’n’roller, enjoy (“It’s Not For Me To Say,” “Chances Are,” “The Twelfth Of Never” and “Wonderful Wonderful”), the majority of these four discs are so saturated with sickly sweet strings stuffed down your ear hole like molasses poured down your throat choking you to death that after four or five in a row, you have to stop the saturation. Unless you’re a diehard Mathis fan, production techniques of his era were far too strident and overbearing. Far more interesting singers were ruined by an avalanche of unnecessary back-up (Dean Martin, Ray Charles and Jackie Wilson come immediately to mind).

Still, for fans, and there are many, Mathis, 80, still touring, is an institution. Thirty-one of these 87 tracks make their CD debut. Don’t forget, these are not album tracks. This whole 4-CD boxed set is filled with singles (both a-side and b-side) plus recordings for compilations. As such, it’s a rather historical set. Just don’t ask me to have to listen to it again.

About Mike Greenblatt

A longtime music journalist, Mike Greenblatt is a contributing editor with Goldmine magazine.

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