FAO#32: Rainer, Lee Hazlewood & Moe Tucker

Sometimes it’s hard not to wish for a year or more’s moratorium on new musical releases, just to catch-up on all the archival archaeological work that needs to be done.  This doesn’t have to mean simplistic wallowing in the heritage of forever reissued old masters (such as The Stones, Bowie, Hendrix et al.), it’s more about setting aside time to carefully pick through all the strange and wonderful things that have been left behind carelessly in the rush to the next big things.  These three anthological releases below follow such a path less-travelled by attempting to reclaim recordings previously lost in the mire of tape vaults, deletions, legalities, shambling YouTube clips and eBay bloodsuckers.

Various ArtistsThe Inner Flame: A Tribute To Rainer Ptacek (Fire Records, CD/LP/download)

Various Artists - The Inner Flame

Fire Records has already begun a respectable retrospective rescue mission for the scattered discography of Howe Gelb (and his multiple limbs on the Giant Sand family tree).  Now another onetime Tucson, Arizona legend’s canon is to be returned to the music-buying planet, with a reissue campaign for the late great blues master Rainer Ptacek.  Yet rather than starting at the beginning of the under-told Rainer story, Fire has elected to focus on its tragic but redemptive penultimate chapter.

With Rainer having been diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1996, The Inner Flame was originally conceived as a fundraiser by friends and collaborators to help cover his crippling medical costs.  Newly augmented with several fresh contributions (albeit in lieu of a few original cuts), The Inner Flame now acts more as a by proxy introduction to Rainer’s borderline-unique muse.  Although having bred his combination of impassioned songwriting and improvisational guitar-playing through the earthiness of blues idioms, Rainer distinctively eschewed the archetypal lyrical laziness and machismo of other bluesmen, in favour of more meditative routes, seemingly inspired by both Eastern philosophy and the environmental expanses of the Arizona desert.  The best tracks spread across this reignited version of The Inner Flame – some featuring Rainer as a guest player and/or co-vocalist – undoubtedly capture and commemorate this sage sui generis approach to the blues.

For all of his flakiness over the years, Evan Dando’s beatifically intimate reading of “Rudy With A Flashlight” proves his occasional knack for transcendental covers.  Equally snug, though perhaps more earnest, are respective impassioned versions of “The Farm” and “The Good Book” from country-rock godmothers Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris.  At the more rowdy and celebratory ends are deliciously ragged renovations of “Losin’ Ground” from PJ Harvey, John Parish and Eric Drew Feldman, “Where’s That At?” by Vic and Tina Cheshnutt and “Limit To It” courtesy of Chuck Prophet.  Others tap into the more atmospheric realms of Rainer’s world, with Jonathan Richman’s instrumental “Broken Promises” and Grandaddy’s wistful rewiring of “Junkpile” being the most effective.  However, it’s Rainer’s closest comrade, Howe Gelb, who unquestionably delivers the highest-watermarks; with the Giant Sand and Rainer duet magic of “The Inner Flame” itself and a solo Gelb makeover (with gospel choir backing) of “That’s How Things Get Done.”

Inevitably as with any tribute set, there are some quality dips and compromises.  Hence, Robert Plant and Madeleine Peyroux smother Rainer’s songs with their own overbearing artistic personas.  Moreover, the decision to replace Bill ‘Buffalo Tom’ Janovitz’s gutsy rendition of “Powder Keg” with an inferior one from Chris Whitley is somewhat questionable.  Altogether though, the positives by far outweigh the negatives on this rekindling of The Inner Flame and the desire to re-devour the full Rainer album catalogue is sure to start burning in the wake of its release.

Lee Hazlewood The LHI Years: Singles, Nudes & Backsides (1966-71) (Light In The Attic, CD/LP/download)

Lee Hazlewood - The LHI Years: Singles, Nudes & Backsides (1966-71)

When it comes to properly uncovering the secrets of Lee Hazlewood’s vast and rare body of work from the last four decades even the keenest and wealthiest of hard core fans have previously been defeated.  Now finally, the folks at Light In The Attic have secured the rights and reels to unleash a large chunk of the Hazlewood catalogue back into the public domain at sane prices and in reupholstered configurations.  This salivating programme, which seems set to include albums briefly available at the turn of millennium on Steve Shelley’s Smells Like Records (like the seminal Cowboy On Sweden) and others never before on CD (such as A House Safe As Tigers), along with barely-seen film material, begins with this selection of one-off singles, album extracts and rarities originally put out on the short-lived LHI (Lee Hazlewood Industries) label.

From initial examination, for those of us who stocked-up on the Smells Like reissues, The LHI Years feels like a slightly overfamiliar and somewhat unrevelatory start to this new wave of old Lee releases, given that tracks from 1969’s The Cowboy And The Lady, 1970’s Cowboy In Sweden and 1971’s Requiem For An Almost Lady dominate the bulk of the tracklist.  However, given how sonically superior the recurring tracks sound here and how well they fit around the remaining cuts, such minor disappointment soon dissolves.  In effect, Light In Attic have skilfully compiled a compendium that reminds diehards why the love has endured years of frustrated collecting as well as showcasing to newcomers what all the fuss has been about.

The 17 gathered tracks cover a solid and largely representative spectrum of Hazlewood’s solo repertoire outside of his more famous work with Nancy Sinatra.  Gliding between richly-produced and more spartan arrangements, flipping between canny self-deprecation and dolorous beauty, The LHI Years is a baritone-deep taster of an eccentric genius in his prime.  Thus, there are lush duets (with Suzi-Jane Hokom, Ann-Margaret and Nina Lizell) that play with lustiness and mournfulness in equal measures (with the joyous Bacharach-like “Hey Cowboy” being the biggest delight here); evocative orchestral ballads (such as “The Night Before” and “The Bed”); layered psychedelia head-trips (“Nobody Like You”); subtle political ruminations (“No Train To Stockholm”); and stripped-down Leonard Cohen-like confessionals (“Won’t You Tell Your Dreams”).  For those itching to hear something truly rare plucked from the studio library, the collection delightfully concludes with the stripped-down shaggy barfly jewel “I Just Learned To Run.”  Hopefully, more such gems will be unearthed over future entries in this must-monitor series, which is set to run comfortably into 2013.  In the interim, this lovingly-packaged and well-annotated compilation is a warm initiation.

Moe Tucker – I Feel So Far Away: Anthology 1974-1998 (Sundazed, CD/LP/download)

Moe Tucker - I Feel So Far Away: Anthology 1974-1998

Having an established reputation for top quality archive curating for both cult garage, surf and psychedelic rock groups and the backwaters of more famous bands, Sundazed seems like a purpose-built home for salvaging the barely-heard solo work of erstwhile Velvet Underground drummer, Maureen ‘Moe’ Tucker.  For VU fans who loved Moe’s fleeting lead vocal contributions with the band (specifically with the guileless “Afterhours” and the honeyed “I’m Sticking With You”) in addition to her inventive percussive prowess, then this new compendium from her slender but scattered solo discography will certainly appeal.  However, I Feel So Far Away is far more than just a vanity project for the VU brand.

Surrendering big career aspirations due to familial commitments and poverty, Moe’s solo years are testament to finding solace in saluting formative loves and influences (from Chuck Berry to Phil Spector), keeping in touch with VU bandmates (Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and even Doug Yule) and collaborating with disciples (such as Jad Fair, Jonathan Richman and members of Sonic Youth).  Not precious about fleeing VU’s iconoclastic shadow, Moe’s solo years perhaps stayed truest to the group’s twin love of unpretentious melodicism and avant-garde dissonance, across a handful of albums and slew of singles/EPs on several small labels.

There’s such an engorging buffet to digest from the 32 tracks assembled within I Feel So Far Away, that to fully break it down and absorb it all could take months.  With material framed in garage-rock scuzz (“Bo Diddley”), propulsive post-punk (“Fired Up”), lilting lo-fi piano pop (“Do It Right” with Daniel Johnston), cacophonous post-rock (“Chase”) and VU’s drone-led experimentation (on the remarkable Cale, Reed and Morrison-assisted “I’m Not”), Moe’s multi-instrumentalist abilities and sense of sonic escapism serves many of these tracks better than anyone might have expected.

Besides there being many successful aesthetical gear-shifts, Moe also reveals herself as both a charming interpreter of other people’s songs and a smart observational lyricist in her own right.  Thus, several of her favourite VU tracks are notably revisited (most successfully in the shape of a dreamy epic “Pale Blue Eyes” and a hushed gentile “I’m Waiting For The Man”) alongside nuggety takes on rock ‘n’ pop relics (such as Chuck Berry’s “Around And Around”).  Highlights from her own pen come in the shape of a touching Warhol eulogy (“Andy”), via sardonic slurs on the flipside of the American Dream (“That’s B.A.D.” and “Spam Again”), through a wry homage to avoiding domestic drudgery (“Lazy”) and inside a plaintive tribute to departed VU colleague Sterling Morrison (“Last Night I Said Goodbye To My Friend”).

Admittedly, not everything inside I Feel So Far Away is top-notch (an unnecessary reheat of “Afterhours” is made somewhat grating due to dated production values for instance), but the quality-control is still remarkably high nevertheless.  It’s just a shame that it has taken this long for Moe Tucker’s solo travels to be properly mapped.  Still, there’s no place like the past for burying lost treasures…