Just for the record: Yola and the Stones, immaculate
A bi-weekly vinyl review
There’s a pleasing 1970s aesthetic about Walk Through Fire (Easy Eye Sounds/Nonesuch Records), the debut album released this week by British singer Yola, and it’s not confined to the cover art of this fine collection of country soul originals. She’s been around a bit has Yola Quartey, to give her full name. It once seemed that a career in electronica and trip-hop was all but assured after her mesmeric live appearances more than a decade ago with Massive Attack.
Satisfying as though all this was, it wasn’t her thing; her three primary influences were Otis Redding, Dolly Parton and Aretha Franklin, and her steadfast resolve in following that tradition eventually brought her to the attention of Dan Auerbach, one half of the raw power blues duo the Black Keys and, in recent years, a producer of stellar roots and Americana albums.
It’s probably all down to Auerbach’s contribution that there’s absolutely no hint of Britishness on Walk Through Fire, and that’s no bad thing. It’s steeped in the Southern styles of the 1960s and early 1970s where country, soul, pop, gospel and pop styles often blended smoothly into one another; R&B tunes are given the country soul retro makeover (and vice-versa) to glorious sun-soaked effect, but without the nostalgic “dress-up” staginess that often comes with such gestures, and the result is an extraordinary album that demands to be heard only on vinyl. For a taste, here’s the official video for Ride Out In The Country, off the album:
None of this, though, is to suggest the Auerbach imprint detracts in any way from the emotional strength and sensibility of Yola’s songwriting which reveals hers to be a unique and idiosyncratic voice. The real deal, in other words and, to my mind, the best Southern soul thang of its kind I’ve heard since Valerie June’s 2013 major label debut, Pushin’ Against A Stone (Easy Eye Sounds/Concord Records), which was another terrific Auerbach production.
June is another Southern artist worth seeking out. She has uncannily blended folk, soul, blues and Appalachian elements into a timeless form that defies categorisation by musical era, sounding as old as the hills but as fresh as tomorrow’s next best thing.
Pushin’ Against A Stone’s opening track, Workin’ Woman Blues, is a case in point: this stuff may be antithetical to purists; June’s idiosyncratic guitar style is joined by a skittering drumkit underscoring a funky bassline while a jazzy trumpet bumps over a griot-like drone. Yet tradition remains paramount, and there is an undeniably primal evocation here of something terrible from the labour gangs of the plantations a long, long time before the civil rights era.
June’s next album, 2017’s The Order of Time (Concord Records), was just as acclaimed, but whereas Pushin’ Against A Stone tended to be more of a showcase of different styles, this was a lot more seamless and smoother despite the elements of harrowing bitterness that sometimes emerged in her ethereal, honeyed vocal delivery. Critics claim to hear elements of Nina Simone, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Bob Marley and even Fela Kuti on this record, and, hell, who can argue with that?
Because television was only introduced to SA in the late 1970s, the death last Thursday of the 77-year-old US musician Peter Tork, from a rare form of cancer, would have meant little to most of us. But, as a member of the Monkees, a pop group thrown together specifically for a TV show, Tork’s passing was of huge significance to Americans who grew up in the 1960s.
Rock snobs and highbrow critics tended to look down on the Monkees despite the fact that, in their heyday, they outsold both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, they didn’t play their own instruments, their televised performances were mimed, and they initially didn’t even write their own songs. Everything about Tork, Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz suggested ersatz product, artefact and not art.
They were four complete strangers thrown together in the casting process for a US network comedy series wholly inspired by Richard Lester’s groundbreaking Beatles movies, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! – so much so they were dubbed “the Pre-Fab Four”. The formula was a simple one: four lovable pop stars have madcap adventures every week and occasionally break out in song.
Time, however, has been kind to the Monkees and critics now agree the “not a real band” label was misleading and premature. Their music remains fresh and engaging more than half a century later, chiefly because of the superb session musicians who worked on their singles and albums as well as the composers whose songs they recorded. They included, among others, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson; their contribution ensured that the group’s first two albums, 1966’s The Monkees and 1967’s More of the Monkees (both Colgem Records) were stuffed with such memorable hits as Last Train to Clarksville, Take a Giant Step, Sweet Young Thing, I’m a Believer, Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow) and (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.
After the second album, the group demanded and received greater creative control of their careers. Both Tork and Nesmith were, after all, bona fide musicians, and the Monkees finally played as a band on their third album, 1967’s Headquarters (Colgem Records). In November that year, they released their fourth album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd (Colgem Records), which is generally regarded as their finest work.
Creative freedom also meant creative differences, and the albums that followed until the group’s demise in 1970 – The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees, Head, Instant Replay, The Monkees Present and Changes – were increasingly patchy affairs as the group started to splinter. Rhino Records have reissued all the Monkees albums, including the Greatest Hits compilation, which is as good a place as any to start.
Interestingly, the Headquarters album includes Micky Dolenz’s first commercially released song, Randy Scouse Git, about a party thrown for the group by the Beatles at a London nightclub. In England, RCA Records refused to release the song as a single unless it was given an alternate title. Dolenz responded: “Okay, Alternate Title it is.” Which is the title it was released under in the UK, backed with Forget That Girl.
PENCIL TEST DEPARTMENT
Cassette sales are soaring. More than 50,000 albums on tape were sold in the UK in 2018, the highest volume in 15 years and up 125% on the year before. A report, however, in the Observer at the weekend does make the point that the format has a way to go yet before it matches the 1989 peak when British music fans bought 83 million cassettes.
But a mini revival does seem afoot, prompting a fresh upsurge in theories about the “tangibility” of a format that is not a download or musical streaming. One DJ put it thus: “I find them much more attractive than CDs. Tapes have a lifespan, and unlike digital music, there is decay and death. It’s like a living thing and that appeals to me … It’s a nostalgia thing – I like the hiss.”
Not everyone, however, is into this particular “nostalgia thing”. Popjustice editor Peter Robinson, for one, believes the trend for tape is a retromania gimmick too far. Cassettes, he argues, are the worst-ever music formula.
“I can understand the romance and the tactile appeal of the vinyl revival,” he told the Observer, “but I’m actually quite amused by the audacity of anyone attempting to drum up some sense of nostalgia for a format that was barely tolerated in its supposed heyday. It’s like someone looked at the vinyl revival and said: what this needs is lower sound quality and even less convenience.
“I think [the record] labels know full well that almost every cassette they sell is going straight on a shelf as some sort of dreadful plastic ornament. I don’t think it’s much different to the recent trend for pop stars adding pairs of socks to their merchandise lines – the crucial difference being that, for better or worse, socks don’t count towards the album chart.” They said this sort of thing about vinyl a few years ago, you may recall. But Robinson may be wrong about the “ornament” part. Retailers now stock a variety of tape players, from retro reboots of old style boomboxes to sophisticated decks, so there’s no excuse for them not being played. Plus, they’re a lot cheaper than vinyl.
The 30th anniversary editions of Talk Is Cheap (BMG), the debut solo album from the Rolling Stones’s Keith Richards, will be with us next month. They include a limited release “Super Deluxe Box Set” which comes in a slip case specially designed by the Fender guitar company’s Custom Shop. Built of ash, the hardwood used in the body of Richards’s beloved 1954 Telecaster, Fender have also given the slipcase the same “aged” and battered butterscotch blonde finish as the guitar.
Dubbed “Micawber”, Richards first got his hands on the instrument in 1971 when the band were in the south of France recording Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones Records). Listening to that sprawling masterpiece, often referred to as the guitarist’s album as opposed to the singer’s, it’s difficult to reconcile the precision and drive in Richards’s vigorous playing with the fact that he was then a full-blown heroin junkie. (Many have attempted to emulate Richards in this, hoping to hit that creative sweet spot between the needle and the riff. Few have succeeded, and the body count has been high.)
Released in 1972, Exile was the last of a remarkable run of absolutely essential Stones albums – 1968’s Beggars Banquet (Decca/ABKCO), 1969’s Let It Bleed (Decca/ABKCO), 1970’s Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out: The Rolling Stones in Concert (Decca/ABKCO), and 1971’s Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones Records/Polydor) – and one of the greatest double LPs in all of rock. For audiophiles, the 2016 Polydor reissue, half-speed remastered on 180gram vinyl, is well worth tracking down. Micawber, meanwhile, was put to good use in the 1972 US tour to promote Exile.
Talk Is Cheap, on the other hand, is perhaps not that essential – but will nevertheless see die-hard fans digging deep into their pockets. The limited super deluxe edition is a hefty package, and includes an album’s worth of bonus material, including six unreleased tracks, on 180g vinyl; two seven singles, Take It So Hard/I Could Have Stood You Up and Make No Mistake/It Means A Lot; an 80-page hardback book with unseen archival photographs and an essay with a new interview with Richards; lyric sheets; a Talk Is Cheap tour laminate and guitar pick; two posters; two remastered CDs; and, of course, somewhere in this “exquisite deluxe folio pack” and Fender slipcase, the original album, remastered on 180g vinyl. It will set you back about R8,500 before shipping and import duties.
The same, very limited edition of the above but autographed by Richards is going for about R11,000. Amazon is selling standard deluxe editions of the reissue for about R2,050. It’s the same as the super deluxe but without the Fender slipcase. There are straightforward single LP reissues as well, on black and red 180g vinyl. These should retail at around R350 a pop, if not less.