Tobacco Road (76.24)** R 1964-1971, P 2000
Musically they were easily the equals of contemporaries such as the Animals and Manfred Mann, but despite the massive success of their version of John D Loudermilk's Tobacco Road (in turn inspired by the Erskine Caldwell novel), they never seemed to excite the star-making machine in the same way, and are now remembered almost entirely for that one hit, despite the success of its follow-up Google Eye and other Top 40 hits. They were the band of choice to play behind visiting rock and rollers such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, but perhaps in the Mods and Rockers wars that placed them too firmly in the Rockers camp at a time when perhaps Mods had the greater buying power and influence.
An appearance in bizarre teen movie Gonks Go Beat failed to enhance their charisma quotient either, and their name, a tribute to the music capital of the world, falsely labelled them in the minds of the teenage market as saccharine country wannabes, not helped by the fact that the band were in no way Teens but in their mid-twenties at the time.
Their showcase album of 1965, Tobacco Road, demonstrated their forceful sound and versatility and featured both sides of all their first three Decca singles (including the storming T.N.T.) as well as Bo Diddley's Mona, Mose Allison's Parchman Farm and Don Gibson's Hurtin' Inside. On Chris Kenner's I Like It Like That they mishear the lyric and repeatedly sing, "Come on, let me show you were I sat", as if giving a guided tour of an old classroom. How Deep Is The Ocean? and La Bamba seem slightly odd choices and may have been learned from a 1963 single by Shel Naylor.
On this admirable Repertoire definitive re-issue a further ten tracks from singles, plus their contribution to Gonks Go Beat (Poor Boy), are included. What'cha Gonna Do? was the B-side to This Little Bird, whose non-inclusion is a major omission, it making some headway in the charts until being beaten off by Marianne Faithfull's version of the same John D Loudermilk song. Similarly, Upside Down has been selected in preference to its Top 50 A-side The Hard Way. The Biggest Night Of Her Life shows them tackling a Randy Newman song in a slight change of direction in 1967. Their striking version of All Along The Watchtower probably just pre-dates Jimi Hendrix's 1968 masterpiece and includes a driving guitar phrase borrowed from the Animals (whom Barrie Jenkins from the Teens was shortly to join).
The most recent track, from 1971, is Roy Wood's Ella James (their first single for Parlophone, and the only stereo track on the CD), which the Move also recorded the same year, but the album closes with its B-side, Tennessee Woman, a bit of an oddity as the same recording had crept out the year before on Parlophone as the B-side of The Train Keeps Rolling by the so-called Arizona Swamp Company
(review filed 7 December 2005)
"Dogs" (44.01)*** R 1999, P 1999, 2004
As with so many of my best-loved artists, I first came across the work of Nina Nastasia listening to John Peel. Only 1,500 copies of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it debut album "Dogs" were pressed by the tiny Socialist label (hence the wry remark, "Thank you, Comrades" in the booklet).
Fortunately, Steve Albini, who recorded the album in October 1999 at his Electrical Audio Studios in Chicago, sent a copy to the nation's favourite deejay, and with his usual keen ear for the original, the inspiring and the raw, began featuring it heavily on his Radio One show, describing it as "astonishing", although by the time he played it on air, it had already become out of print. She went on to become a regular contributor to the programme, in session, on record, in concert and in performance at Peel Acres, and in 2004 "Dogs", by now with its own cult following, was re-released by Touch And Go.
Judging from the record, Nina clearly has bad days and worse days, and tends to sing about characters who are less fortunate. It is music like this that makes for the most satisfying listen, and Nina is its mistress. Although a native of Hollywood CA, she spent the nineties in downtown New York, honing her music with partner and musical organizer Kennan Gudjonsson in their Chelsea home. As a result, the record is a distillation of a decade of composing and performing and contains a number of concise, finely-tuned songs that have remained in her concert repertoire, with sparse, eerie arrangements, including A Dog's Life, Stormy Weather (not the standard), Too Much In Between, All Your Life and Jimmy's Rose Tattoo. Of the record, Steve Albini said in Mojo, 'Nina Nastasia's "Dogs" is a record so simultaneously unassuming and grandiose that I can't really describe it, except in terms that would make it (and me) sound silly. Of the couple thousand records I've been involved with, this is one of my favourites, and one that I'm proud to be associated with', and John Peel described the songs as 'very direct without being posy or too clever. There's an attractive air of melancholy without self-pity.'
Nina's perfectly-pitched vocals and acoustic guitar are tautly accompanied by cello and violin, an occasional electric guitar, some well-judged musical saw, accordion, piano, acoustic and electric basses and the vital underpinnings of some extremely subtle drum work, faithfully conveyed by Steve Albini's meticulous engineering. It was unlike any record before it and has set the mold for her future work to date. It is good to have it back in catalogue.
(review filed 25 February 2008)
The Blackened Air (43.53)**** R 1999-2001, P 2002
One of the most original and quirky contemporary singer-songwriters around, I love her strange atmospheric lyrics and sparse arrangements. The sound, ably recorded by Steve Albini, reminds me sometimes of the Geraldine Fibbers or Lisa Germano
(indexed 8 July 2003)
Run To Ruin (31.09)**** R 2002, P 2003
One of the most original and quirky contemporary singer-songwriters around, Nina Nastasia is memorable for her strange, atmospheric lyrics and the sparse but extremely empathatic arrangements of her accompanists. Her style and sound, ably recorded by Steve Albini, whilst unique, reminds me most of the Geraldine Fibbers or Lisa Germano, both of whom I hold in high regard. This album followed The Blackened Air and it seems that Nina shrank away from the commercial success that greeted that album and had become even more dark and uncompromising on this half-hour sequel. The playing time is short but one feels that maybe three or four times the work has been applied to each of these immaculate vignettes, compared to that of her peers, and will repay repeated listens.
This album was recorded at the Black Box studios in France (possibly the same studios used by Josh Ritter and Gemma Hayes?) and although some overdubbing took place back in New York, the sound appears predominantly live, giving the performances heightened drama and presence. I particularly approve of the fact that each of the eight songs ends, properly. Is it too late to start a campaign to banish the fade-out ending in all but the most extreme cases of artistic necessity, especially on longer items? No-one has mastered the art of the fade since Phil Spector and it has become grossly overused.
(review filed 8 July 2003)
On Leaving (34.00)** P 2006
In some ways it's business as usual on Nina's first album for Fat Cat. Steve Albini's immaculate engineering has been retained, as have regular sidemen Steven Beck, Dylan Willemsa, Jay Bellarose and Jim White. On the other hand, whilst all her albums could be described as sparse, with extremely subtle underpinnings in the playing, on this record studio artifice has been further stripped away so the sound is reminiscent of her smaller live performance settings, led by Nina and her guitar. Some of the songs, too, have featured in her live sets for some time and have been carefully chosen for their coherence in this 34 minute set.
The songs represent a dozen intimate insights into Nina's everyday world laid bare. Shockingly, this time some light has been allowed in. Brad Haunts A Party and Counting Up Your Bones may be familiarly dark, but in between these two songs lies Our Day Trip, describing a perfect day, albeit one which is yet to happen. Dare we admit the possibility that one day it may?
So good that artists this skilled and individual can still find an outlet for their muse in these banal, corporate times.
(review filed 2 June 2008)
New York Tendaberry (51.06)** R 1968-1971, P 2002
Laura Nyro wrote, with great skill, highly personal and complex poetic works interwoven with soul, doo-wop, Brill Building girl group and gospel overtones. Although her songs at first listen seem unstructured and meandering, after awhile one realises they have an underlying solidity and form, giving some of her songs an unexpected commercial potential.
Her songs were successfully interpreted by Fifth Dimension (Stoned Soul Picnic; Wedding Bell Blues; Sweet Blindness), Blood, Sweat And Tears (And When I Die), Barbra Streisand (Stoney End) and Three Dog Night (Eli's Coming).
None of her own singles charted in America but her albums and sell-out concerts belie this. New York Tendaberry from 1969 was her best selling album although it was her least compromising to date and included the single Save The Country only in a sparse arrangement (the re-recorded single is included as a mono bonus track.
New York is the inspiration and the grounding of the album. The liner notes describe how she commuted from her home in Manhattan to the midtown recording studios by horse-drawn carriage through Central Park, arriving in an evening gown and later breaking for a brought-in meal sitting by the studio console, eating by candlelight. Somehow this romanticism is conveyed in the beautiful understated arrangements and her wonderfully recorded voice and piano. The album is a work of art to treasure.
Sadly, Laura Nyro died of cancer in 1997 during her 50th year
(review filed 21 October 2003)