Thursday, February 28, 2008

Respect Yourself
The Stax Records Story

Stax Records DVD

I originally was going to review this one with the Otis Redding DVD, but thought it deserved special attention. While the Redding and Stax story are certainly intertwined, there are some important differences which this documentary explores in depth. Otis Redding was an important figure, but he was just one chapter in the epic tale of this little label that could. This story involves the rise and fall and subsequent rebirth, death, and recent resurrection of Stax Records, from its humble beginnings in an old movie theater on a side street in Memphis to its funk-filled peak in the early 70s.

It all began when Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton combined forces and their last names to form Stax Records in 1958. Starting out as a shoe-string operation, it culled much of its early talent from the surrounding area, such as the band made up of local kids called The Mar-Keys. The Mar-Keys went on to record the label's first hit, and its members would go on to become one of the most famous house bands in all of soul music.

The talent that was introduced to the world through the homegrown Stax is staggering when you stop to think about it: Otis Redding, Booker T. & The MG's, Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Albert King, Issac Hayes & David Porter, just to name a few. It's hard to believe that an upstart label could come on the scene so quickly and give the established Motown a run for its money, and the documentary shows us just how it was done. It was done behind the scenes by Stewart, Axton, and marketing guru Al Bell. Even when the label hit big setbacks, such as when Atlantic Records almost destroyed Stax in the late 60s, this close-knit group of business associates and musicians pulled together and kept the label alive.

It's even more fascinating to realize that Memphis was the flashpoint of racial strife in the US during this era, yet Stax somehow managed to maintain an integrated society within its walls. This is even more poignant when you are reminded that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in the motel that many of these musicians stayed in. History was literally playing out around this little label in Memphis, and they were already living the dream of Dr. King, even as he was meeting his violent end, literally down the street.

When you listen to the music of Stax, and realize it was created by black and white people working together, it's hard to imagine all of the unrest that was going on in the world outside their door. They really were a self-described oasis in the desert of the social upheaval that had taken over in the country, and this documentary does a wonderful job of taking us there, while it was happening. As the 60s closed, the label focused more of its energy on society at large. By the beginning of the 70s, Stax was right in the middle of everything political and social, a key player in helping to form the image of Black American culture, with everything from Shaft to the Wattstax festival.

The documentary goes on to explore the demise and ultimate destruction of Stax, again at the hands of a major label, along with a host of legal troubles. Thankfully, the Stax name and legacy lives on, as it has been revived and reconstituted, open and ready for business once again.

This is an amazing piece of work, and it shows how important and influential elements the entertainment industry can be in shaping society and history, and the Stax story does just that.

MISH MASH Mandate: Soul To Soul
Respect Yourself DVD @ Stax Records

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Dreams To Remember
The Legacy Of Otis Redding

Stax Records

In remembrance of 40 years since the tragic and untimely death of Otis Redding, Stax has released a special DVD retrospective of his all-too-short career in soul music. The disc brings together a collection of TV appearances and promotional films, interspersed with all-new interviews with the key figures in his life, including his wife Zelma and Stax guitarist Steve Cropper.

The video clips are a variety of live performances and lip-synched appearances, ranging from early TV appearances in 1965 to his triumphant performance at the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967. While we may all be familiar with the legend that has become Otis Redding over the past four decades, the DVD does a great job of bringing us a touch of his humanity. For example, Zelma pokes fun at the staged TV clips, saying that Otis could not lip-sync or dance. When you watch those particular clips, you realize just how right she is. Otis looks uncomfortable and self-conscious while pantomiming his way through the songs. On the other hand, you can contrast that image with the absolute control and authority he commanded on stage in a live setting, almost like he was superhuman. We see the man and the myth as the complete package.

Even though Redding's career was relatively short, his creativity and the work ethic behind it was a driving force in the success of Stax. Steve Cropper provides valuable, firsthand insight into the process that he and Redding used to write and put together his now-classic songs in the studio, sharing behind-the-scenes stories of Redding's unstoppable creative energy.

Also included on the disc is a wealth of family photos, a radio interview, bonus interviews with Cropper and Wayne Jackson (of the Memphis Horns). The DVD packaging also features a nicely done full-color booklet with extensive liner notes and photos. A fitting tribute to one of pop music's greatest.

MISH MASH Mandate: Respect
Otis Redding DVD @ Stax Museum Website

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Tom Fuller Band
Abstract Man

Red Cap/Mesa/Bluemoon
14 song CD

Tom Fuller's music is based in Beatlesque pop, a classic rock style that finds firm foundation in the smart sounds of the British Invasion. There's a modern edge here, similar to the Oasis/Travis interpretations of the Fab Four, giving his music a definitive contemporary feel.

Highlights include the happy rhythmic jumping of Sunglass Wardrobe, the steady driving of Only In America, and the indie-rock inspired cover of The Hollies' The Air That I Breathe. Fuller's take has a dreamy, laid-back approach that takes the original tune to a new, inspiring level.

MISH MASH Mandate: Fab Fuller
Tom Fuller Band Website

Monday, February 18, 2008

Out Of The Club Into The Night

Peng Musik
11 song CD

Time to get your groove on for an early spring. Planetakis is a German electropop duo that specializes in superficially gorgeous dance tracks that serve only to make you want to move. Don't think about it too hard, just turn it up and dance.

There's a wry sense of humor interlaced between the beats, as evidenced by song titles like James Bond, Son Of A B***** and Pogo In The Shoes Of Kylie Minogue, proof positive that they don't take themselves too seriously. The sound is modern, clean and sleek, fully and wholeheartedly revolving around the ever-present dance rhythms.

MISH MASH Mandate: Gorgeous Grooves
Planetakis Website

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Sean Costello
We Can Get Together
Delta Groove Music

11 song CD

Playing the blues "authentically" is one of the hardest things to do, and if you're not the real thing, people will see right through you immediately. Let me simply say this: Sean Costello is the real thing, no doubt about it.

Most modern day blues guitarists think they have to rip it up like soulless clones of SRV, concentrating more on hitting the right notes instead of getting into the blues. Costello forgoes the histrionics and burrows down deep into the grit and grime of traditional electric blues, finding the sweet spot where all those raw feelings bubble up. The beauty of it is that Costello comes across with his own true blues voice; he doesn't sound like he's copying anyone else or ripping off the old masters. His original tunes are raw and classically styled, all while maintaining a modern edge, giving the songs a timeless quality that certify this as true blue as blues can get.

MISH MASH Mandate: Blues Brother
Delta Groove Music Website

Monday, February 11, 2008

1000 Robota
Hamburg-Brennt EP

Tapete Records
5 song EP

I don't know much about this trio, mainly because all their press is in German, not to mention their lyrics. Ah well, all you need to know is that it simply rocks. This is punk music stripped down to the core, wrapped loosely around sparse, sharply-dressed New Wave dance rhythms.

The vocals are delivered in a dual assault that is absolutely riveting. It's hard to tell if it's two different people singing (shouting) at once, or if there's some kind of doubling up effect going on. At any rate, it adds to the drama, giving the group a bigger sound that's pretty unique in its execution. The guitars rip out punky power chords while the drums and bass do their little groove thing, and the whole mix just plain works. Chalk it up to German engineering.

MISH MASH Mandate: Euro Punks
Tapete Records Website

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Various Artists
Achtung! German Grooves

Bureau B Records
20 song CD

How much fun is this? Twenty lost and forgotten instrumental dance grooves from German artists of the 60s and 70s, compiled with love and care by the Hamburg-based label Bureau B. It's cheesy, sleazy, and most importantly, it's nothing but a good time from beginning to end.

Of all the artists included, James Last is probably the one most well-known in the States. The ultimate lounge music lizard wizard, his contribution is U-Humbah, a Santana-inspired Latin rave up that swings with a ferocious bite. The most awe-inspiring track on the disc is Theo Schumann's Hackepeter, which is a ramped-up rip off of Booker T. & The MG's Hip-Hug-Her. Schumann's take is like Booker T. on steroids, a huge wall of soul-filled funk that is unstoppable, and almost outshines the original in its grooviness. Track this one down and play it loud at your next dance party.

MISH MASH Mandate: Hamburger With Extra Cheese
Bureau B Website
Album Order Page

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Greg Roth
Caught Looking
Rio Rancho Records
12 song CD

Greg Roth sings like a pop star running out of breath, sort of an asthmatic Elvis Costello who can't wait long enough to get the vocals out without stopping to breathe. Add in a quirky sense of humor, best evidenced in the 60 second long intro track, I've Only Got Minute (not to mention the staring baby on the cover), and you've got a recipe for one interesting little rock record.

Roth's brand of pop runs in the same circles as the aforementioned Mr. Costello, with varied influences surfacing throughout, ranging from alt-country to bluegrass to roots rock and everything in between. The acoustic guitar tends to be the central instrumentation, bringing an understated feel to the album that allows Roth's voice to be the main focus. His story-telling style of songwriting fits all these features like a glove, the perfect choice for a listener who likes his pop a little unpredictable.

MISH MASH Mandate: Minuteman
Greg Roth Website

Monday, February 04, 2008

Blind Boys Of Alabama
Down In New Orleans

Time Life
12 song CD

The Blind Boys Of Alabama travel from their home state over to Louisiana to cook up a dozen deep-fried Southern gospel tunes, New Orleans style. The album was recorded in the Crescent City with some of the city's more notable artists, including The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Allen Toussaint.

The songs are all traditional gospel tunes, revamped and reworked to reflect the spirit of New Orleans. Ranging from groovy blues to dixieland jazz to traditional gospel, the Blind Boys steep themselves in the sounds of the city, putting together a record that jumps and swings with a toe-tapping positivity and optimism that's absolutely infectious and a joy to listen to.

MISH MASH Mandate: Red Beans & Rice
The Blind Boys Of Alabama Website

Friday, February 01, 2008

Various Artists
Get Ready

UK Floor Fillers Vol. 3
Psychic Circle Records
20 song CD

Psychic Circle has dug deep and wide to uncover some wonderful and obscure late 60s/early 70s blue-eyed soul from the UK. This is as underground as underground gets, as most of these recordings haven't seen the light of day in over 40 years, and a few of the artists/releases are so unknown there isn't any information available other than a name.

The tunes are a mix of originals and covers, performed in classic Stax style with a dash of British Invasion sensibility. Standout tracks include Barry St. John's Cry Like a Baby, a sassy, horn-driven strut that would make Carla Thomas sit up and pay attention, and the garage-rock-meets-Wilson Pickett soul of Ian & The Zodiac's Come On Along, Girl. This one is a must for fans of 60's era soul.

MISH MASH Mandate: Salvaged Soul
Psychic Circle Website