Making year-end lists is always difficult for me. Since I purposely don’t stream music, I’m limited to listening to the titles I purchase or promos I receive here in the office. Because of this, there are so many releases that I never get a chance to hear. Over the last few weeks, I have read many year-end lists and, again, I realize that I am not in sync with many of my friends and other music journalists. This means that I am either terminally unhip or wholly unique. I’d like to think the latter, but I’m afraid that most people consider me the former.
From their debut Just Ear-rings from 1965 till the tribute to their hometown The Hague from 2015 – all 26 studio albums by Holland’s most legendary rock band are collected in a monumental box Complete Studio Recordings, augmented with no less than three CDs full of non-album tracks.
I interviewed Neil Finn a few years back and told him – off the record – that he and his brother Tim were ‘ordinary men with extraordinary talents.’ He replied with a chuckle, “I’ll take that!” While listening to the Deluxe 2CD Editions of all seven of Crowded House’s studio albums, I’m reminded about just how accurate my description of the Finns was… and is. While Tim and Neil are both exceptional at making music, their paths as artists have pulled them in slightly different directions. Tim has remained the more serious of the two while Neil still retains a playful energy that has been apparent since his days with Split Enz. Tim has always been the one ‘in charge’ (i.e. the big brother) while Neil has played the role of the more sensitive and unpredictable little brother. In a sense, he always seemed to be in awe of his older brother but not fully aware that he is every bit his equal. Regardless of commercial success, the Finn Brothers remain enormously talented and inspiring artists. However, I’ll focus on Neil’s Crowded House output for now (which includes a few significant appearances from Tim)…
December 15th, 2016 – Nashville, TN — FIERCE MERCY is an epic, cinematic step forward from singer-songwriter Colin Hay, most beloved for his intimate, confessional live shows but most widely known for being an influential and celebrated frontman. The range of artists who have chosen to cite him as a muse or who have found themselves on stage with him in the past year spans the genre landscape from heavy metal, to Americana, to Cuban rhythms and beyond. His inclusion as a playlist favorite from the likes of Metallica to The Lumineers reflects his continuing relevance and broad appeal.
So…. what do we have here?
A brand-skankin’-new album from The Beat? No, not Paul Collins and Co. – they are officially known as Paul Collins’ Beat. And no, not Dave Wakeling and Co. – we call them The English Beat over here. This album is actually by Wakeling’s former partner in crime Ranking Roger and his UK-based version of The Beat/English Beat. If you want to get technical about it, this album is by The Beat featuring Ranking Roger.
Are you thoroughly confused already? Sorry ‘bout that…
I honestly have no idea why Mental As Anything – the Australian Rock quintet – are not superstars. And if not superstars, they should at least be a huge cult band beloved by music fans around the world. Or, at the very least, adored by fans of classic Pop acts like Nick Lowe, Squeeze, Elvis Costello, etc. Now that the Mentals are just about to celebrate their 40th Anniversary in 2017, it’s about time that the world started paying a lot more attention to them. They are truly one of the finest bands to emerge from Down Under in the last… err… 40+ years! Their blend of rootsy Rock and melodic Pop places them firmly between Nick Lowe’s side of Rockpile and Squeeze circa ’79 to ’81. The Mentals’ quirky sense of humor also fits that same comparison. However, the band were/are their own ‘thing’ and comparing them to other artists is ultimately unfair. While their music is filled with liberal nods to Rock ‘n’ Roll’s past, they don’t sound like any other band, past or present. Sure, you can hear their influences but it is hard to pinpoint any particular artist that may have inspired them along the way. Mental As Anything are true originals. They evolved over the years, adding more elements into their sound but they have never deviated too far from the sound that put them on the Oz map.
Peggy Lee had been a successful jazz vocalist for 33 years before she went into the studio to cut LET’S LOVE for Atlantic Records in 1974. With a career dating back to 1941, Peggy was still a respected jazz vocalist even though her albums weren’t selling as well as they once had. When Capitol Records dropped her in 1972 after 15 years of continuous service (2-3 albums per year), some may have thought that Lee would have spent the rest of her career playing nightclubs and appearing on Jerry Lewis telethons, but luck was always on Peggy’s side. And this time, her lucky charm was the cute Beatle, Paul McCartney, who penned and produced the album’s title track. By this time, Peggy was in her mid-50s and her vocal performances were far more subdued and intimate, which lent themselves perfectly to this lovely, lilting melody. Sounding like something penned for the McCARTNEY or RAM album, the song is a haunting gem and definitely worth the price of the album alone. Thankfully, there are plenty of other great tracks to enjoy on LET’S LOVE. Melissa Manchester’s “He Is The One,” the Stylistics’ classic “You Make Me Feel Brand New” (penned by Thom Bell and Linda Creed), Irving Berlin’s “Always” and the Dave Grusin/Peggy Lee co-write “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” are other highlights. While the album might be classified as Jazz, there are definitely elements of Soul, Funk and Pop spread evenly over the tracks. Unlike many modern Jazz artists, Lee was open to taking chances and working outside the box during her career. In fact, her next album would consist of Leiber and Stoller covers! With musical assistance from Lee Ritenour, Dave Grusin, Harvey Mason, Chuck Rainey and others, LET’S LOVE is a fine addition to Lee’s vast catalog and certainly of interest to McCartney/Beatles collectors!
NOTE: This Wounded Bird reissue reproduces the Rhino Handmade edition and includes four bonus tracks from the same sessions including an alternate version of the title track.
Peace, love and pancakes,
Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Milwaukee’s Plasticland – founded by Glenn Rehse and John Frankovic (who has since left the band) – have remained unjustly overlooked for years… yet they have also been absolutely adored by critics off and on since they first formed some 36 years ago. The band has managed to stay on the fringe of the Alternative Rock scene but have never been fully treated like the Psych-Rock/Garage icons that they are. And I’m sure this review isn’t going to inspire a mass pilgrimage to the record store but if it piques the interest of a few of you, then we’re getting somewhere! Even though they signed to the esteemed Enigma Records in 1984, Plasticland couldn’t be bothered to cater to the mainstream. Their blend of Acid, Garage and Psych Rock wasn’t merely a tribute to the sounds that they loved – it was obvious that this music was part of their DNA. The band was capable of writing catchy songs with a built-in atmosphere that sounded both retro and modern at the same time. Perhaps that is why their recordings remain timeless today. Plasticland are to Psyche what The Fleshtones are to Frat/Garage Rock and The Cramps are to sweaty, swampy, primitive Rock ‘n’ Roll. They could have sold out in their early days and become ‘the new R.E.M.’ like a host of their contemporaries. Thankfully, they chose to stick to their guns and remain Plasticland.
A VERY NELSON CHRISTMAS
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: THIS CHRISTMAS TOO, the new holiday release by Matthew And Gunnar Nelson, is just about to be released. How are you feeling about the album and the journey it took to create it?
GUNNAR NELSON: I’m actually feeling fabulous about it — very accomplished and proud of the result. It’s been an incredible journey so far. Honestly it’s taken about four years to get to this point with this record. THIS CHRISTMAS TOO is a photo negative of the first release of last year. Allow me to explain: when we recorded this record we intentionally overcut by double. On last year’s release, half of the record had instrumental versions of these Christmas classics. The other half had vocal versions. This year, THIS CHRISTMAS TOO has the songs flipped. What was an instrumental track last year is now the vocal version and vice versa. Plus we’ve added two bonus tracks that were not on the first album, as well as the completely new take on our original Christmas hit single ‘This Christmas’ featuring Carnie and Wendy Wilson, who are driving the whole effort. The good news is, if you bought 2015’s THIS CHRISTMAS album, you’re not going to get a single duplicate on THIS CHRISTMAS TOO — they’re designed to complement each other perfectly.
Alliance Entertainment’s 661,000-square-foot distribution center in Shepherdsville, KY.
Raise your hand if you predicted the hot recorded music format of this decade would be…the vinyl record. In the U.S. alone, sales of the throwback records have climbed from under a million in 2007 to a whopping 11.9 million in 2015, their highest total since 1988. Aside from the questions this raises about listening habits and technology, here’s one more to consider: Who’s providing all the records? For about 50% of vinyl record sales in the U.S., the answer, at some stage, is Alliance Entertainment. Based in Sunrise, Florida, Alliance is a distributor for CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray, and vinyl records, as well as musical instruments, pro audio, and a variety of other entertainment products. It’s Alliance’s focus on recorded media, however, that centers it in one of the fastest-changing—and most disrupted—categories of this century. Digital media and streaming services have irrevocably changed the market for CDs and DVDs, yet Alliance has set a blueprint for how a company in this arena remains at the top of its game. It’s currently billed as the nation’s leader in vinyl record sales, and the largest U.S. home entertainment wholesale distributor to mass merchants, internet retailers, and independent stores.
“Technology can be a double-edged sword when it comes to home entertainment media,” says Jeff Walker, president and CEO of Alliance Entertainment. “It has put some of our competitors out of business, but has allowed us to grow a brain trust of unmatched industry insiders and given us perspective to innovate and be more forward thinking when new products or opportunities come to us.”
For Walker, who started his career as a music retailer, heading up Alliance Entertainment is the latest link in a chain of moves through the music and entertainment industries. His original music distribution company, Super D, was founded as a side business—but emerged as a powerhouse that acquired all of its competitors: Phantom, MSI, Infinity Resources, and finally, in 2013, Alliance Entertainment, which lived on as the name of the merged company. Under Walker, Alliance would distinguish itself by the “one-stop” nature of its model. While some competitors have made their living on a relatively narrow, curated selection of music and film titles, Alliance carries the entire depth and breadth of its vendor catalogs, stocking a physical inventory of 400,000 titles within its distribution center. It’s a wholesaler to 2,900 customers and ships to 14,500 locations throughout the U.S.—as well as retailers in 76 countries worldwide. In addition, Alliance produces exclusive children’s home entertainment products through a dedicated subsidiary company, NCircle, and a full line of vinyl preservation and care products through a second subsidiary, Vinyl Styl. Its industry-leading AMPED Distribution operation offers physical and digital distribution services for both audio and video.
It’s Alliance’s success in this core category that’s allowed it to diversify, expanding from recorded media into categories as varied as video games, comic books, health and fitness products, and collectibles. With a formidable network of facilities, the company also provides third-party logistics (3PL) for some of the largest retailers in the world. Its inventory control systems, electronic data interchange (EDI), and data warehousing capabilities are also cutting-edge, “allowing us to maximize use of time and minimize costly mistakes,” says Walker. “With our dynamic sales and purchasing teams, even in lean years we have been able to survive and thrive. Our ability to adapt, quickly using state-of-the-art technology to face a changing economy, helps us to serve our ever-expanding customer base. We are the model of a 21st century one-stop distributor.”
For Alliance, the newest piece of the puzzle arrived just this summer with its acquisition of the AN Connect LLC retail music business. In purchasing AN Connect’s business and assets, which include vendor-managed inventory accounts for Walmart and Best Buy, Alliance added to its SKU base a huge assortment of CD, vinyl, DVD, Blu-ray, and electronic products. “With this acquisition, we will likely surpass the threshold of being a billion-dollar company,” says Walker. “We continue to expand our reach and service level domestically and internationally, as the world grows smaller through technological advances. We plan to keep chasing the dream of being the largest one-stop distributor in the world, while supporting our retail partners and allowing them to grow with us.”