Once again, we’re at that time of year where there isn’t a great deal out there in terms of notable new releases, so I’m focusing on some recent finds I’ve made while scrounging through the racks of local thrifts and indie record stores around Atlanta. And occasionally I’ve bought from online sources such as Discogs. I’m at that point in collecting where my library only has a few holes in it in my mainstream collection, so I’m generally much more willing to drop a few bucks for something that either looks interesting or that I’m maybe totally unfamiliar with. At typically a buck or two per disc, even if there’s only one great song, it’s definitely worth the investment. Some of this stuff may not be that new to anyone reading this, but they were definitely new to me, and particularly noteworthy, even for older catalog titles.
A couple of recent trips has yielded a goldmine of available CDs; on one excursion, I stumbled across what appeared to be someone’s entire collection of New Order discs from Technique and on — all of them absolutely mint, including the cases! I also stumbled across someone’s Dead Can Dance collection of early CDs — everything prior to Into The Labyrinth — all of which I was completely unfamiliar with, and once again, all were absolutely mint, and only a buck each. While COVID-19 has made getting out sometimes a bit hectic and hairy, to say the least, I always get strapped up with a mask and take plenty of sanitizer, all for the sake of discovering hidden treasures. God only knows who’s been handling all those CDs and LPs!
Henry Mancini — The Music From Peter Gunn
Henry Mancini — born Enrico Nicola Mancini in 1924 in Cleveland, Ohio — had been a studio composer for Universal Pictures for six years. In 1958, apparently the studio felt that his contributions hadn’t been particularly noteworthy, and decided to send him packing with a pink slip. On his way off the property, he decided to stop in at the studio barber shop for a last haircut before he started trying to figure out what his next career move would be. While waiting in the barber shop, he struck up a conversation with another similarly aged actor-turned-screenplay writer named Blake Edwards. He had just been given his first directing assignment for a new television show, Peter Gunn, which would be a noir-ish series about a hotshot private dick. Edwards envisioned a jazzy big band soundtrack to accompany the onscreen action, and the conversation with Mancini convinced him that he’d found the right guy for the job. Mancini’s chance encounter with Blake Edwards turned into the most fortuitous meeting of his life, and he went on to become one of the most prolific composers of the next several decades for both the small and big screens.
While Mancini’s compositions for the big screen are varied and extensive — think of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Charade, Hatari!, The Pink Panther (the entire franchise), Days of Wine and Roses, and just about every Blake Edwards film ever made — his work on the Peter Gunn soundtrack was (and is, at least in my book!) the pinnacle of his career. The scoring for the series was new and fresh, and totally conveyed the feel that Blake Edwards was so keen to achieve. The big band Mancini assembled for the sessions ended up being a literal who’s who of West Coast jazz royalty, featuring greats like Barney Kessel, Pete Candoli, Dick and Ted Nash, Plas Johnson, Victor Feldman, Paul Horn, Alvin Stoller, and Shelly Manne. And playing piano on all the sessions was a (at the time) relative unknown named John Williams — yes, the John Williams — who would go on to succeed Mancini as the most prolific and perhaps greatest Hollywood composer of all times!
As the iconic Peter Gunn theme tears across the soundstage of my listening room, I’m pretty sure I don’t think Blake Edwards could have done better if he’d hired Count Basie or even Duke Ellington to conduct the music for the series. This is timeless, classic big band jazz that set a new standard for television scoring for the late fifties; I can’t think of anything that comes to mind that has surpassed it in the more than 60 years since it’s debut. The tunes are all classic, even if they aren’t really part of the mainstream of jazz standards: “Peter Gunn,” “Sorta Blue,” “The Brothers Go To Mothers,” “Dreamsville,” “Session At Pete’s Pad,” “Soft Sounds” — and the interplay between conductor and musicians is absolutely superb throughout the proceedings. It really doesn’t get any better than this. When the soundtrack album was released in 1959, the record buying public snapped it up — it was one of the best-selling albums of the year, and won the Grammy Award for Best Album of the Year. Not too shabby for a man who eighteen months earlier had been given his walking papers by the studio!
The 1999 CD reissue wasn’t remastered by anyone really noteworthy, but I don’t think that makes much of a difference — the sound quality of the original tapes is just about beyond reproach, and this is maybe one of the very best big band jazz albums of that vintage I’ve ever heard. There’s an occasional trace of tape hiss in a few places on some of the quieter numbers, but it’s nothing that will interfere with your listening enjoyment. As much as I’ve enjoyed this CD, I’ll probably start digging around to find a vinyl copy. Very highly recommended!
Buddha/RCA Records, CD (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)
Roger Waters — Amused To Death
If you’ve read much of my stuff in Copper, you probably realize that I’m a little conflicted by the music of Roger Waters, especially in the aftermath beyond his split from Pink Floyd. I don’t really care for his politics, I hate that he fired Rick Wright during The Wall recording sessions, and I especially haven’t cared for how he bashed David Gilmour and the “new Pink Floyd” in the years since Waters’ departure. All that said, I find Amused To Death to be a particularly enjoyable and entertaining disc — with only a minimum of the “Watersisms” that he inflicted on every Pink Floyd album he participated in from The Wall and on.
The version I’m reviewing here is a CD from the original 1992 release of the album. I’d never heard anything from this record until about a week ago; apparently, it has become available on all the online streaming services, and an audiophile friend had posted a lengthy tirade on Facebook about how the version available for streaming is vastly inferior to the original. Which apparently isn’t available for streaming — Roger Waters revisited the album in 2015, and apparently made significant revisions to the work that altered the album’s scope and musical flow, and rubber-stamped his new version as the official one for streaming release. He focused on the 2015 release as a surround sound SACD disc — which won the Grammy in 2016 for Best Surround Sound Album. Waters was highly vocal in the press about the fact that Amused To Death was an extremely underrated album, and which easily stands alongside such classic Pink Floyd works as Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. The critics were less than enthusiastic about his assessment, essentially damning the album with faint praise. Despite all that, Waters insisted that his revisions to the album — which includes the voice of the HAL 9000 computer from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey — represented his true vision for the work. Apparently, Waters had wanted to include some of the dialogue from the movie in his original version of the album, but was rebuffed by Kubrick, who declined to give his blessing to the project.
But Stanley Kubrick is now gone, along with his objections, and the HAL 9000 inclusion wasn’t the only thing my friend was complaining about. Apparently, there are numerous new overdubs and edits, with certain segments from the original being either masked over or entirely removed. He felt that the new revision — while still good — essentially emasculated the power of the original while changing the narrative significantly. Also, the 1992 original was encoded by the new (at the time) QSound technology, which combined out-of-phase elements into isolated tracks with the rest of the recording to create 1) a pretty spectacular sense of surround sound from a stereo recording, and 2) to use those same effects to create a much greater stereo spread than you’d get from a typical stereo recording. Whether that encoding is still present on the 2015 remaster, I’m not sure; I’d imagine with it now available as a surround sound SACD, they’d go full-tilt remaster to achieve all the surround effects on discrete channels. Anyway, at the very least, I was greatly intrigued, and found a minty copy on Discogs that was delivered from Arizona to Atlanta in less than a week, and for $7 total!
Right out of the gate, I was blown away by the QSound presentation; the opening track, “The Ballad of Bill Hubbard,” exhibits a massive soundstage that spreads surprisingly far in both depth and width — you really get the impression that your listening room has about doubled in every dimension. There’s this kind of synthesized, atmospheric background that sets the stage; suddenly, a dog starts barking from off in the distance — seemingly about fifty feet behind you! A trademark and tasteful Jeff Beck solo then sears across the soundstage; suddenly. a voice begins to speak that’s directly to your left — again, seemingly much further away than the boundaries of your listening room. At another point in the album, a telephone startlingly rings behind you; my initial impulse was to jump out of my chair and answer it, even though I haven’t had a conventional telephone at my home in over thirty years!
That’s not to say that the album is strictly about surround sound gimmickry; Amused To Death is probably the most musically involving album Roger Waters has released since leaving Pink Floyd. While continuing to focus on his usual litany of complaints with the problems of modern life that include rampant greed, organized religion, overbearing bureaucracy, uncontrolled egotism, and continual global conflicts such as seemingly never-ending wars — he still managed to deliver what is perhaps his most lyrical album ever. The core group of players includes Randy Jackson, Patrick Leonard, Steve Lukather and Jeff Porcaro, and Jeff Beck solos on no less than seven of the album’s fourteen tracks. Michael Kamen conducts the National Philharmonic Orchestra, who make multiple appearances throughout, and the cast of supporting players and vocalists who make appearances is simply staggering, to say the least.
Waters has said that he “abandoned his ego” during the almost five-year period it took to record Amused to Death, and that doing so allowed him to more closely embrace the subject material of the songs. I can’t comment on whether that rings true, but I find the album very musically engaging, and a true audio spectacle with its QSound encoding. I actually did quite the internet search on QSound, only to discover that it was essentially a failed technology for audio purposes; the company still exists, but the number of albums that successfully incorporated the encoding is apparently few and far between. Amused To Death is quite possibly the crowning achievement of QSound’s legacy.
I’d strongly suggest you dig around and procure a copy of this excellent album for your collection — the classic version is the 1992 release with the ape staring at the TV screen on the cover. I’ve seen countless copies over recent years in thrift stores, and there’s a gazillion available online for less than ten bucks. Very highly recommended — well worth it for the music, and the audio spectacle.
Columbia, CD (download/streaming Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
New Order — Republic
Republic was the first New Order album for the Warner Brothers label following the collapse and demise of Factory Records, the band’s longtime imprint all the way back to their Joy Division days. Republic came four years after 1989’s Technique, and duplicated that album’s runaway success by also rising to the top of the UK Billboard charts. It reached No. 11 on the US charts, making it the highest-charting New Order album in the US. In addition to the album’s commercial success, it was also critically very well-received, eventually being nominated for a prestigious Mercury Prize. Despite a successful UK and European tour, the band decided to forego touring in the US and North America in support of the album, resulting in what was effectively a lengthy hiatus. Rumors abounded that vocalist and guitarist Bernard Sumner hated flying — especially trans-Atlantic travel — and that killed any possibility of a US tour in support of the record.
I have to admit that my exposure to New Order was previously limited to everything prior to 1987’s double-disc Substance, which was kind of a “greatest hits” package, only in full-blown remix mode. It’s probably the best album that exists for anyone who doesn’t have New Order on their radar and who is interested in learning more about the band. It’s also probably one of my favorite albums of all time. As I mentioned above, I stumbled across a trove of New Order discs at a thrift recently, and I immediately grabbed Technique, but almost balked at Republic when I picked it up, based solely on its cover. That cover — a Peter Saville design, as are all New Order albums — featured artwork that has a house engulfed in flames on the left, and to the right, a guy and girl playing at the beach. Apparently Saville had relocated to Southern California, and wanted to use images that portrayed the whole California experience — including destruction from forest fires. I’d seen this CD in racks countless times, but didn’t get far enough beyond the cover to fully realize that it was a legit New Order release. I recently saw an interview in The Guardian with Peter Saville, where he was asked about his iconic cover designs for Joy Division and New Order. He said there was really nothing to it, and the band never gave him any pushback on the designs; Joy Division was completely focused on trying to learn how to play their instruments, and New Order were too busy arguing with each other in the studio to pay any attention to his album covers.
Upon exiting the thrift and inserting Republic into my car’s CD player, I was immediately grabbed by Bernard Sumner’s guitar intro to the opening track “Regret,” which is quickly followed by a crash of cymbals and a propulsive drumbeat courtesy of Stephen Morris. It’s a really catchy tune that doesn’t completely abandon the acid/house/dance/rock of Technique and earlier offerings, but was definitely a new direction for New Order. The songs on the album portray a surprising variety of moods, but almost all are awash in Gillian Gilbert’s and Sumner’s layered synths. And Sumner’s guitar playing, while not always the focus, is much more skillful and omnipresent than on New Order’s previous records. Peter Hook’s bass playing perfectly underpins the proceedings, and Morris’ drumming — whether programmed or acoustic — is constantly energetic and dynamic.
Republic has been in constant rotation in my listening room for a couple of months now; it’s an intelligent and entertaining display of New Order at the absolute peak of their creative powers. I’ve always had this really kind of microcosmic manner of focusing on certain periods of bands as their “creative peaks,” often finding out years later that I’ve missed a lot of really great music found at other points along the band’s timeline. That has definitely proved to be true with Republic, which is now one of my favorite releases by the band, but it’s at least opened my eyes to checking out works I might otherwise have passed on. New Order’s Republic is very highly recommended!
Qwest/Warner Brothers Records, CD (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
New Order — Get Ready
New Order went eight years between releases from 1993’s Republic to 2001’s Get Ready, which would end up being the final album that featured the original incarnation of the band’s lineup. Gillian Gilbert had family health issues she had to deal with; one of her daughters had a serious illness, and Gilbert’s husband, Stephen Morris (the band’s drummer), volunteered to become the child’s caregiver. Gilbert decided that would be too drastic a move for New Order; the loss of Morris’ trademark drumming might spell the end for the band, so she made the decision to drop out instead, just prior to Get Ready’s appearance in the record stores. She was replaced by guitarist Phil Cunningham, a move that was considered by critics and fans alike to be pretty much a disaster as the band went through a poorly-considered guitar-driven phase. Gilbert eventually went through a health crisis of her own when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007; she fortunately was a survivor, and eventually rejoined the band in 2016 for the album Music Complete (though by that point, bassist Peter Hook had departed, to significant fan outcries).
Get Ready received quite favorable reviews from UK music critics in general, but US reviews were considerably less kind. In his review in The Village Voice, Michelangelo Matos complained: “…the album Get Ready feels as if they’re psyching themselves up for the task at hand — like they’re raring to go but aren’t exactly certain where they’re going, or even necessarily why they’re doing it. The songs carry this out — it’s them, not the sonics, that make this the second disappointing New Order album in a row.” And not all the UK publications were kind — Mojo was even less enthusiastic than the Voice, referring to the album as “less a call to arms than the sound of an old man wheezing out of a creaky armchair.” Talk about harsh! As a kid, I’d hear a song, thinking it was pretty great, and rush out and buy the album and seriously enjoy listening with rarely a negative thought about the band or the music. As I got older and started reading magazines like Creem and Rolling Stone regularly — where the critics would often trash the band I was so enamored with — I became highly conflicted. Like, I really love this new album, but the critics say it’s absolute rubbish — holy crap! It only took a short while for me to get beyond what the naysayers were spewing, and learn to enjoy and appreciate music that spoke to me and not give two cents for those it didn’t speak to. Despite the mixed critical reception, Get Ready was a commercial success, reaching No. 6 on the UK charts and No. 41 in the US.
And so with Get Ready, from the first bars of the opening song, “Crystal”; Gillian Gilbert’s beautiful keyboard vamp is accompanied by a soaring female vocalist — the sort who appear in a lot of New Order remixes. Suddenly, you’re hammered by Stephen Morris’ pounding drums and Bernard Sumner’s searing guitar chords — the moment he sings “We’re like crystal,” I knew this was going to be one of my favorite New Order songs of all time. It’s a driving, propulsive song that barely lets up for its almost seven-minute duration, only slowing for a bit midway, then Sumner’s guitar chord motif and Morris’ drums hammer back at full speed — it’s seemingly unstoppable. There are at least five great songs on this record, and several really good ones; the second half of the album starts with the track “Slow Jam,” which isn’t really quite that slow, and has a really solid guitar-driven vibe throughout that’s complemented by Gilbert’s textured keyboard work. That’s followed by “Rock The Shack,” which features more amazing, crunching guitar work by Sumner. Don’t get me wrong, Bernard Sumner is no Clapton, but his excellent fretwork adds a significant level of diversity and interest to what is otherwise a synth-driven tune. If there’s a downer moment on the album, it’s probably the closing song, “Run Wild”; it’s maybe the closest thing to a ballad I think I’ve ever heard on any New Order record. It’s not a bad song — and possibly the most personal and humanized that Bernard Sumner has ever seemed in his songwriting — but it seems disjointed with the rest of the record.
Get Ready may not be a perfect record, but I don’t think that disqualifies it from being a great one. Don’t listen to the naysayers — twenty years after its release, it still resonates with stirring authority. Very highly recommended!
Reprise Records, CD (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Header image of New Order courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/RL GNZLZ.