Vinyl Reviews: Velvet Underground, Allen Ginsberg, Stax Volume 4, Isaac Hayes, Sonny Rollins, Green Seagull, Zombie Picnic

by Dave Thompson

The last few months have seen a slew of Velvet Underground reissues hit the racks – the anniversary reissue of their first, a colored vinyl re-do of their last, and a double package of out-takes.  All excellent, all in their own way essential.  But there has never been a reissue like this.

The Velvet Underground (Universal) is a limited (1,000 copies) edition eight LP box set, thick black with stark white lettering, repeating each of the above alongside an expanded White Light White Heat, the regular third album and Nico’s Chelsea Girl, nice heavy vinyl and good, chunky sound quality too.

Which, on the face of it, isn’t that exciting – if you haven’t picked up at least the four regular albums by now, you probably never will. But even if you have, you’re going to want the box.  The same mastering that was deployed on the expanded CD versions of the albums delivers pristine sound; the sleeves are solid; and, by way of a booklet, we get the complete lyrics to all five albums, so yes!  At last we can sing along to “The Murder Mystery.”

True, the decision to expand White Light into a double album is puzzling.  Seven tracks serve up six out-takes and alternates (and include two great takes of “Hey Mr Rain”), which in itself is great.  But all but one of them (an early version of “I Heard Her Call My Name”) is then repeated as side four of the 1969 collection, so maybe that’s why there’s no mention of this second disc in the packaging.  If you don’t know it’s in there, you have no reason to complain when you find it.

Elsewhere, authenticity is the key.  Period label designs are restored.  Loaded is presented in its original configuration, edits and all; the first album keeps the original “torso” photo and a peelable banana. Loaded eschews its revisionist reissues and goes back to the original edits.

Yes, maybe they could have served up the third album’s “closet” mix instead of the regular Val Valentin version.  Yes, we could have used a repress of that mysterious early version of the debut that omits “Sunday Morning” from the running order. And yes, they could have added the Scepter Sessions as a bonus.  But we’ll forgive them that because nobody claimed this was an archive-scraping collection.  It’s just a lovely box stuffed with some of the most exquisite music ever made.

Beautifully curated too is the boxed edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (Craft Recordings). The original Fantasy label LP is  reissued in a package that also includes a booklet of background info, a photo, an invite to a reading (better be quick, it’s in 1955), and a reproduction of the City Lights bookstore’s Pocket Poets edition of the poem.

It’s hard to quantify just how significant Howl is. It’s certainly Ginsberg’s best-known work (the opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation…” is quoted even by people who’ve barely heard of the man), and Ginsberg’s live reading (Chicago, 1959) , as spread across side one, is as hypnotic as it is  powerful.

The stage, after all, was the natural environment for his art. Poetry should never be absorbed from books when you can hear the writer ripping the words from the paper, capturing the cadence and rocking the rhythms that were at the heart of the composition in the first place. And “Howl,” alongside the seven shorter pieces that consume side two, is nothing if not rhythmic, a speeding express train of thought and expression, every line a potential song title waiting for a writer – and, in many cases, finding one.

The booklet quotes Michael McClure describing his first exposure to the spoken “Howl” as “a line… drawn in the sand” and, sixty years on. you can still fathom just how searing it must have been. How influential, too, not only within Ginsberg’s own newly-redefined discipline, but across rock and literature as well.  And maybe further afield than that.

The Stax reissue campaign marches on.  A six CD recounting of “rarities and the best of the rest” complements the three volumes of Stax Singles box sets that recounted the label’s a-side history a while back; sensibly titled Volume Four (Craft Recordings), it seeks out b-sides and releases on the Enterprise, Hip and Chalice subsidiary labels, and it’s a mixed bag.

For obvious reasons, the earlier boxes rounded up the established classics and favorites, and the subsidiaries never really overflowed with essential sounds.  But every disc packs more than a handful of goodies, and given the scarcity of many of these tracks (when was the last time you handled a Dixie Nightingales single?), the temptation to dig even deeder into the catalogs will not be far away.

In the meantime, the same campaign also zeroes in on three classic Isaac Hayes LPs, Hot Buttered Soul, Black Moses and, of course, Shaft.  Remastered from analog with the original artwork fully preserved – and that includes the so-ambitious art that accompanied Black Moses – all three are Hayes in excelsis.  

Hot Buttered Soul is the cream of the crop, just four super-extended tracks long, with that sense-shattering “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” devouring close to twenty minutes.  But Black Moses is an astonishing piece of work, if only for the nine minute Carpenters cover (“Close to You”) which blueprinted an entire strain of sultry seventies soul.

True, the old funk quotient is hovering around the zero mark, and much of the album impresses more for its audacity than its can-kicking impact.  But it remains a must-hear – and, of course, if you’re picking up the other two (of Shaft, we need say nothing.  It’s Shaft, for goodness’s sake), you need to complete the collection.

Sonny Rollins rides into view.  His Way Out West (Craft Recordings) celebrates its sixtieth birthday this year, an anniversary that is noted with a magnificently boxed and bolstered reissue.

The entire original album is here, of course, but so is a second disc of bonus material, largely unreleased and offering alternate versions of four numbers (plus, the title track is revisited twice), alongside a couple of spoken word pieces.  All, as it ought to be, mastered from the original analogue recordings.

Fascinating liners and a wealth of photos accompany the music, reminding us how the entire album was hatched at three o’clock in the morning by Rollins, Ray Brown and Shelley Mann; and reminding us too, that Rollins’s reputation as the epitome of tenor saxmen, not to mention  the latest Goldmine Jazz Price Guide’s $300 valuation for an original pressing, are both well-earned honors.

Finally… a couple of new releases.

London’s Green Seagull emerge with their much anticipated Scarlet Fever (Mega Dodo) debut, the successor to last year’s fabulous ”Scarlet” and “Black and White” 45s (both included here), and further proof that the so-called Psych Revival ain’t going nowhere soon.  Except, maybe, to a lawyer to get its name changed.  It deserves better.

It’s true, a Left Banke/Association-y vibe hangs over the band’s sound, and the likes of the Kinks and the freakbeat hordes who followed their lead are in there as well.  Doorsy keyboards swirl through “Not Like You and Me”; and all manner of memories jangle and judder through the immortally-titled, and insatiably catchy “Straggly Old Tramp.”  But all that’s just the icing on a most invigorating cake, and the Seagull will surely be flying high soon.

Likewise Zombie Picnic, a Limerick, Ireland, band whose A Suburb of Earth, in 2016, still ranks among the handful of recent proggy-psych albums that actually merit that tag.  Now Rise of a New Ideology (Burning Shed/Bandcamp) swaggers into view, an often shattering soundscape of instrumentals cut through, in lieu of lyrics, by what sound like archival voice recordings, but may also be the work of the two credited voice actors.

Either way, these short snippets work with cunning precision to frame the album’s half a dozen tracks, conjuring at the outset (the nine minute “Democracy Cannot Survive”) a dystopian re-envisioning of the fears that fed Robert Fripp’s Exposure solo album, and then marching (but sometimes drifting) on from there.

It’s a genuinely visionary album, musically out on a guitar-led limb that melody and riff hold in place while the rest of the band jam around it, and while past reviews have paired the Picnic with the likes of Mogwai, God is an Astronaut and the (tiresomely) inevitable Porcupine Tree, that is an indication more of the paucity of modern reference points than an accurate summation.  Like Sendelica – also a relevant touchstone for those who care for comparisons – any apparent influences are probably heir more to the listener’s preferences than the band’s.

In other words, you should give it a go.  It’s great.

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