Vinyl reviews: UFO turntable, Barry White, Primitive Guitar, Lou Johnson, Belgian Nuggets

It wasn’t always like this, you know.  There was a time when turntable designers paid as much attention to aesthetics as they did to functionality.  When shopping for a record player was about more than finding the box that actually complemented your decor, as opposed to the one that looked the least ugly.

Remember (or Google if you don’t) the mid-seventies-ish Rosita Stereo Commander, resembling a consul from the Starship Enterprise?  The Toshiba Music Center 3200, perched on what might have once been a revolving bar stool?  And, best of all, the range of domed space age concoctions produced by the likes of Electrohome and Sanyo? You knew you were dancing with the big boys when you fired up your very own Phonosphere.

Now?  “Yeah, I’ve got a turntable.  It looks like doo-doos.”

Enter Rock N’Rolla’s UFO, the latest in the company’s line of budget priced portable turntables, the piece de resistance for the series so far, and the most inventive thing that’s happened in its price range in years.

It’s not necessarily as portable as its predecessors.  Though it weighs in at under ten pounds, its 17-inch diameter demands more than a stack of books to sit on.  But its name could scarcely be more appropriate.  The UFO is not completely circular in shape, but it certainly sits on the table like some kind of extra-terrestrial visitor.  If they’d only added some flashing lights, both allusion and illusion would have been complete.

 In terms of bells and whistles, the UFO follows what seems to be the Rock N’Rolla template.  It’s bluetooth compatible, although only for feeding your own sounds into it; you still can’t pair its output with another speaker… and you will want to.  Sound reproduction has improved on past Rock N’Rollas, but you’ll probably still be glad for the line-out jack in the back.  

Playback from other sources, via a USB port and an auxiliary jack is easy, and you can record direct to USB, too, although the bit rate remains low – 64kps. (By comparison, 320 is now considered the norm. ) Other negatives include the absence of tone controls, and the continued refusal of the auto-stop control to acknowledge that some records are longer than others, which means you’ll still not hear “Hey Jude” in its entirety until you switch that feature off.  Or, in that instance, maybe you’ll leave it on.

But it’ a nicely chunky piece of hardware, the tone arm feels safely stable, and the control panel is markedly less fiddly than before.  And to prove Goldmine’s approval, everything in this month’s column was reviewed via UFO, beginning with what has to be the most essential 7-inch box set of the year so far.

Barry White’s 20th Century Singles (1973-1975) (20th Century/Universal) is a ten disc package that reaches from “Love’s Theme” through to “Let the Music Play,” each with those original b-sides that either enlarged upon, or offered lush instrumentals of, the flip… oh, if only 12-inch singles had been around when Barry was biggest.  Six uninterrupted minutes of “You’re My First…”; eight of “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up”; ten of “I’ve Got So Much to Give”… teenaged discos would never have been the same again.

As it is, the 45s remain peerless slices of seventies soul seduction, and if your original copies are as worn as they ought to be, then this restores them all to pristine shape.

The singles box is just one of a slew of White-related releases that ignite an upcoming reissue campaign – on CD, The Complete 20th Century Singles (1973-1979) adds all the sides that the box set omits, spread across three discs; and on both vinyl and CD, Love’s Theme effortlessly lives up to its subtitle of The Best of the 20th Century Singles by zeroing in on the a-sides only.

It’s essential stuff.  White is not always given the credit he deserves, not only for his role in the birth of disco as a creative (as opposed to annoying) force, but also as an influence outside of the dance floors.  A brilliant writer and peerless arranger, his orchestrations rate among the first, and were certainly the most artistically successful, of all “popular” music’s attempts to truly blend a classic landscape with a decent beat.  

That it was disco that most eagerly followed his example is simply a coincidence of chronology – in another time and place, it might have been psych or prog, and just imagine all the calumnies we’d have been spared if that was the case.  Ambitious rockers who actually knew what they were doing….  It makes the mind boggle, just thinking about it.

From the implausibly lush to the impeccably low-fi, The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose – American Primitive Guitar and Banjo 1963-1974 (Craft Recordings) offers four sides of music from, indeed, America’s finest exponents of “primitive” playing.  

Titled for the Robbie Basho piece that devours most of side three, and beautifully, thoughtfully, annotated, the great-looking gatefold also features the inevitable John Fahey and Sandy Bull, Leo Kottke and Harry Taussig, Peter Walker and Max Ochs, Billy Faier, George Stavis and Peter Lang, and is drawn in the main from the Takoma catalog, with occasional excursions to Vanguard.

Across both platters, it’s a welcome exploration of a musical form that tends to be overlooked by many. Fahey, of course, is up on a pedestal that few can ever aspire to, meaning the equally inventive Basho, Bull and Kottke are too frequently regarded as willing disciples, as opposed to ferocious contemporaries.   

Well-chosen excursions by each, and the others, relegate that belief to the sidelines of lazy journalism where it belongs; in fact, if anyone stands tallest here, it’s Basho, whose (almost) fourteen minutes are effortlessly, breathlessly spellbinding.  But the remainder is excellent, too.

The ever-enterprising Run Out Groove label continues mining the more unexpected avenues of the Atlantic family catalog with a glorious sounding reissue of Lou Johnson’s Sweet Southern Soul, a none-too-common slab of … well, exactly what it says on the sleeve.  

Too many highlights to list, but between the opening “Rock Me Baby” and the closing “Gypsy Woman,” Sweet Southern Soul is an exquisite blend of Johnson’s so emotive voice, Dowd and Wexler’s most pronounced production and, of course, the Muscle Shoals studio at the peak of its powers.  The horns on “Move and Groove Together” alone will leave you grinning for weeks, while Curtis Mayfield’s closer is simply spectacular.  You can feel the firelight from here.

Finally, maybe the most inventive of all this month’s new releases.  Two volumes of Belgian Nuggets 90s-00s (Mayway Records, Belgium) serve up precisely what the packaging promises, two double albums stuffed, twenty tracks apiece, with two decades-worth of Belgian pop/rock/acid jazz/metal/punk/you name it hailing from what Anglo-American ears might term the post-dEUS local scene.  And the result is one (two) of the most enjoyable compilations of their ilk in years.

Informed ears may or may not recognize occasional bands, or even songs.  dEUS are here with the 1996 b-side “My Wife Jan”; earlier still are contributions from Volt, Peeters & Angst, the Same, De Legende (Peeters again), Party at Vanzetti’s and the remarkably named Stuffed Babies on Wheels.  

Other cuts reach up to the end of the last decade, and just an hour or so spent on YouTube will confirm that you need to hear this stuff.  All the more so since most of the tracks can’t be found on there, but most of the individual artists can.  You’ll get a good taste of what’s to come.

Some remarkable finds await – Vive La Fête’s dark wave electro-sleaze feels like something you should have been listening to for years; Barbie Bangkok have drawn comparisons with Queens of the Stone Age, which isn’t a bad thing; Dead Man Ray feel a little like latter-day Pulp… and Starving will take you all the way back to the sounds of Lori and the Chameleons.  If you remember them.  And that’s just volume one. 

Onto volume two, Two Russian Cowboys sound like something that oozed out of the New York no wave scene, while Monsoon’s thrashed “How Much for One Night on Mars?” would be brilliant on the strength of its title alone.  Nid & Sancy is primal 90s electro, the Wizards of Ooze are laid back jazzy;  and de Portables “Haut Gay” is eight-plus minutes of electro-pop fun.  And so on.

Colorful gatefold sleeves offer a sentence or two about every band, together with where to look for more of the same, and the entire project looks and feels like an absolute labor of love.  Which, of course, you will love.

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