Author Archives: Greg Cahill

Steve Earle & the Dukes: J.T.

Three months after Justin Townes Earle’s tragic death in August 2020, his father announced plans to record an album of his son’s songs. J.T. was a fixture on the Nashville ragtime, folk, bluegrass, and rock scenes, a gifted songwriter who released nine albums between 2002 and 2019. He inherited his father’s gift for songwriting, penning reveries along with tender ballads that addressed his search for forgiveness and his struggles with depression and addiction (“Turn Out the Lights”). Drawing heavily from Justin’s early to mid-career material, J.T. opens with an upbeat bluegrass take of 2008’s “I Don’t Care” and moves as far ahead chronologically as the jarring title track from Justin’s 2019 swan song The Saint of Lost Causes. Much of J.T sounds upbeat while masking deeply troubled lyrics: “They Killed John Henry” bemoans the tragic fate of an American folk hero who died despite his best intentions, and the darkly wry “Harlem River Blues” speaks of committing suicide when things are looking brightest. The closer, “Last Words,” is the cover album’s sole original—it’s a painful, personal lament in which Steve Earle bares his soul about his son’s death. Otherwise, J.T.’s music speaks for itself.

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Fiona Boyes: Blues in My Heart – 20th Anniversary Edition

In 2000, Australian singer, songwriter, and blues guitarist Fiona Boyes recorded Blues in My Heart, a collection of acoustic fingerpicked ragtime blues, including ten originals and a half-dozen covers by Rev. Gary Davis, J.B. Lenoir, and Leadbelly, among others. Boyes has since garnered a boxful of awards and shared the stage with such legends as Bob Margolin, Hubert Sumlin, and Pinetop Perkins, to name a few. Now, Grammy-nominated engineer Joseph Carra has remastered her auspicious debut. Boyes lends a loose, sassy flair to these songs—check out the defiant attitude she bestows upon Kid Bailey’s “Rowdy Blues.” Boyes’ vocals and picking are the driving force here, and her big Matan dreadnaught is close-miked to accentuate the foot stomps, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and string bends. And she is supported by occasional bandmates Kaz Dalla Rosa (harmonica), Paula Dowse (drums and percussion), and Gina Woods (piano). I found the sparse percussion distracting, especially the tambourine and snare on the cover of Rod Hodges’ “Angel.” But Boyes’ technique is so solid and her playing so darned bluesy that the distraction is a minor complaint, and this dynamic remaster, available on CD, bristles with detail to produce an intimate, energetic experience.

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The Curious Treatment

Russ Curry had an epiphany the first time he heard Kraftwerk’s landmark 1974 electronic-pop album Autobahn. “When I was 12 or 13 years old, I lived in the Midwest and like everyone else I listened to Boston or Kansas or stuff like that. It was boring,” says Curry, speaking on his cell phone while driving near his home in Iowa City. “The music and the culture seemed boring—I’ve since learned that it’s not what’s on the outside, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Still, hearing Autobahn rung my bell in a big way. It led me to understand not only that maybe there was a different way to listen to music, but also that I could live my life differently.

“That music spoke very clearly to me.” 

In 1988, after graduating from the University of Iowa, Curry founded Curious Music, a small-town Midwest label dedicated to electronic music. He started releasing works, in both solo and in collaborative configurations, by such legendary artists as the Swiss-born German electronic musician and composer Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, both of Cluster; the West German record producer and musician Conny Plank (who helped to define the krautrock genre); and British ambient-music composer Roger Eno, the younger brother of producer and musician Brian Eno. 

“I was being exposed to all of this incredible music that I thought nobody knew about,” he says. “I felt like I had encountered this secret world with this secret musical language. I wanted to bring it to the world.”

But by 2001, before the advent of the internet and social media, Curry found it difficult to build an adequate audience and the label fell dormant. The 2017 death of David Bowie reignited his interest. “That gave me pause for thought,” he says of the reboot. “His death reminded me how short life is. I felt the work of Curious Music was unfinished. I found I still had the flame, the passion, to do this type of work.”

In the past four years, Curious has released or re-issued works by Roedelius, Brian Eno, former Windham Hill artist Tim Story, ex-Dream Academy member Kate St. John and Harold Budd, including the vinyl edition of Budd’s intriguing 1996 minimalist masterwork Luxa. Recent releases include Invisible Hand, Heavy Color’s soundtrack to an environmental-justice film documentary produced by Mark Ruffalo (reviewed in Issue 314); and Green Cone, by composer and visual artist Amanda Berlind, which is accompanied by a comic book. Upcoming projects include a solo album from Icelandic film composer Bjarni Biering plus Moebius Strips, a museum installation of work by the late Dieter Moebius of Cluster.

Last year, Curry also published the English translation of The Book: The Autobiography of Hans-Joachim Roedelius, a limited-edition hardbound work from the now 86-year-old music pioneer with a foreword by Brian Eno. The book marks a decades-long relationship between Curry and Roedelius that started with a fan letter. At 16, Curry wrote Roedelius to share his admiration for the visionary musician. Two months later, Roedelius replied with a hand-written letter accompanied by a dried flower. “I could not believe it,” Curry says. “It was like getting something from Mars. It had a huge effect on me. To get a friendly hand-written letter—and a flower—from this amazing talent, who to me was as important as the Beatles or Chuck Berry, just blew my mind. 

“It stuck with me.”

His passion infuses the high-quality product released by Curious Music—Curry calls it the Curious Treatment. “I want my releases to be an experience,” he says. “It’s an artful product, not just a record release—there’s a spiritual experience for those that want that. We’re presenting music that has a deep emotional and spiritual aspect to it.”

Curry even puts “a little Easter egg” in each release, though he declines to elaborate. “That’s the reason I call the label Curious Music,” he says. “I want the music to create a curiosity within the listener, as happened to me when I was 12 years old. It lit a fire in my brain and in my heart. I want to make sure that all those things are there and that for whatever level the listener wants to engage in, it’s there for them.”

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The Rolling Stones: Goats Head Soup

Keith Richards called 1974’s Goats Head Soup a “marking time” album and fellow guitarist Mick Taylor deemed it “a bit directionless.” Fair enough, considering the band had produced a string of four classic studio albums between 1968 and 1972. But Goats Head Soup does have its charms—and it’s never sounded better. The album has been remastered by producer Giles Martin and reissued on various half-speed–mastered 180-gram vinyl editions, as well as a two-disc set with outtakes (including the Jimmy Page/Stones jam “Scarlet”) and a three-disc, plus Blu-ray, super deluxe box that includes the three previously unreleased tracks and the much-coveted 1973 concert film Brussels Affair (in Dolby Atmos, 24/96 hi-res stereo, and 24/96 DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1). The real strength of Goats Head Soup isn’t rockers like “Silver Train” or “Star Star” but the five ballads—the country-inflected “Coming Down Again,” the hit single “Angie,” “Hide Your Love,” “Winter,” and the trancelike “Can’t You Hear the Music.” Despite the rock reveries, there’s a wistful tone to this album that captures the Stones at a turning point. Not the band’s best, but not its worst—those would show up periodically during the next four decades. 

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In the Orbit of Big Star

Big Star had a short run—from 1971 to 1975—but the Memphis-based rockers recorded three influential albums and went on to acquire cult status. Earlier this year, Craft Recordings reissued on vinyl the first two Big Star albums, #1 Record and Radio City, originally recorded in Memphis at the legendary Ardent Studios. The Craft reissues feature all-analog mastering by Jeff Powell at Memphis’s Take Out Vinyl and were cut to 180-gram vinyl at Memphis Record Pressing. Those classic LPs initially were released on Ardent’s imprint and distributed by the Memphis-based Stax label, landing this upstart white rock band on the greatest soul label of all time.

Big Star blazed the trail for 80s and 90s alt-rock. The songs sound as fresh today as they did when this infectious mix of Southern rock, jangle pop, soul, folk, Beatle-esque hooks, and Velvet Underground hipness blew out of Memphis on the strength of the brilliant singer and songwriting team of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell—the Lennon and McCartney of indie rock. Rolling Stone has called Big Star the “quintessential American power-pop band” and “one of the most mythic and influential cult acts in all of rock and roll.” The original lineup featured Chilton (guitars, vocals), Bell (guitar, vocals), Andy Hummel (bass, vocals) and Stephens (drums). 1975’s Third/Sister Lovers featured Chilton and Stephens augmented by such Memphis session elites as Stax guitarist Steve Cropper and Jim Dickinson (who also produced).

The list of acts caught in Big Star’s orbit include R.E.M., the Replacements, Wilco, Yo La Tengo, and Chris Stamey of the DBs. The Replacements even recorded a namesake tribute to Chilton on 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me; the Bell/Chilton song “In the Street” became the theme song to the popular TV series That 70s Show; Wilco and others joined Stephens at a 2016 tribute concert (Jeff Tweedy and R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills teamed up for a cover of “In the Streets”); and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs covered the Big Star single “Thirteen” in 2018.

Over the years, the band’s albums have been reissued in the UK, in 1978 as a double-LP featuring the first two albums; by Rykodisc (whose 1992 reissue series sparked a revival); and now Craft/Concord. In 2018, Omnivore released the obscure 1973 concert recording Big Star: Live at Lafayette’s Music Room, sans Bell. Chilton and Stephens reunited in 1993 with members of the Posies and recorded In Space. A subsequent tribute album, Big Star, Small World, recorded in the 90s, went unreleased until 2006. Chilton and Stephens continued to tour until 2010, shortly before Chilton’s death following a heart attack.

Here are three more essential Big Star-related recordings:

Chris Bell: I Am the Cosmos. Rykodisc.
This double album is a psyche masterwork. The commercial failure of #1 Record sent Bell into a deep funk and led him to quit Big Star, though he contributed several songs, including “O My Soul” and “Back of a Car,” to the band’s 1974 sophomore effort, Radio City. This, his only solo album, went unreleased for 15 years. I Am the Cosmos finds Bell channeling his inner Syd Barrett and adroitly contemplating his mental decline. Though the album includes shiny Big Star-worthy material (“Get Away,” “I Got Kinda Lost”), it is sometimes a gut-wrenching album, filled with angst and dark guitar hooks, as on “Better Save Yourself.” Chilton contributes vocal harmony on the delicate Beatle-esque ballad “You and Your Sister.” This two-CD compilation has been updated and expanded to feature all of Bell’s post-Big Star material.

Alex Chilton: From Memphis to New Orleans. Bar None.
As a teen, Chilton gained national attention as the singer of the hit Box Tops single “The Letter,” which showcased the raw blue-eyed soul he brought to Big Star and later to his solo recordings. This great sounding 15-track compilation gathers some of Chilton’s soul-oriented material, though it foregoes his quirkier songs—for those, including his ragged rendering of “Volare” and “Ti Ni Nee Ni Noo/Tip on In,” refer to High Priest (Big Time) or 19 Years: A Collection of Alex Chilton (Rhino).

Big Star: Live. Rykodisc.
Recorded for a radio broadcast shortly after the release of Radio City, this album captures Chilton, Stephens, and bassist John Lightman live to two-track at Ultrasonic Studios in New York in front of a dozen or so faithful fans. The sound is fantastic: tight, raw and intimate. Each of the band’s live recordings has its merits, but this one is special.

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Gordon Lightfoot’s Solo

Gordon Lightfoot’s Solo

Gordon Lightfoot is a songwriter’s songwriter. No less a wordsmith than Bob Dylan has sung his praises, saying, “Every time I hear a song of his, I wish it would last forever.” And there is a timelessness to Lightfoot’s folksy material that is heard throughout Solo (Rhino), a new album of previously unreleased acoustic demos recorded between 1996 and 2000, all of them solo. The session marked a crucial turning point in Lightfoot’s life and career. “Just as I was getting ready to go into the studio and record those songs ‘for real,’ I came down with an abdominal aortic ...

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Children of the Cocteau Twins

Children of the Cocteau Twins

It’s been 35 years since composer Angelo Badalamenti unleashed his dreampop–influenced Twin Peaks film score on the world. But few know that the 4AD collective This Mortal Coil, featuring members of the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance, served as the inspiration for his “Mysteries of Love,” as well as “Floating into the Night,” sung by filmmaker David Lynch’s dream-pop protégé Julee Cruise. Lynch had wanted to include the Cocteau’s haunting version of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” on the soundtrack, but producer Dino DeLaurentis refused to shell out the $50,000 licensing fee. So Badalamenti was left to create ...

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