Saturday, April 17, 2010
I love the Numero Group!
Wow. I haven't posted anything here for a while. To rectify that situation, and in honor of Record Store Day (hello to all current and former independent record store employees, the most fun and shittiest paid job I've ever had, the only job I've had in which I cleaned toilets and met the drummer from Slayer on the same day), I want to write a post I've been meaning to write for more than a year. This is a guide to all the releases from my favorite reissue label in the world, the Chicago-based Numero Group. I read an article about this label when they had about five releases out. It sounded totally up my alley, so I purchased all five, was blown away, and have since purchased everything they've released in the six years since. I haven't been disappointed yet. I've mentioned this label to a handful of fellow music nerds, and they were unfamiliar with it. I decided to write a post to help spread the gospel. That was over a year ago, but I like to procrastinate. This post is mainly an unsolicited advertisement, so if that's not your thing, leave this page now and go look at some porno or a back issue of Reader's Digest (I recommend giganticasses.com or "Bravo for Life's Little Ironies").
Numero Group's mission is to release unfairly neglected, forgotten regional music that, for a variety of reasons, never caught on with the world at large. Most of their releases have been compilations, but they've also released a handful of single-artist records. Most of their stuff is available on CD and vinyl, and one release is even available on cassette. It might be the only new cassette printed in the last several years. In the last year, they've branched out into multimedia with a book of photography and a DVD of short films. Apropos of it being Record Store Day, the physical copies are way more satisfying than the downloads. The packaging is always gorgeous and the liner notes are full of great stories and information. Anyway, here's a little description of each release. I'm going to start with the series and move on to the one-offs.
Eccentric Soul: This series spotlights regional soul labels from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s and is up to 11 volumes. Nearly every permutation of soul is represented here, with plenty of songs holding their own comfortably alongside anything from Motown, Stax, Philly soul, or the heyday of funk. Only poor business decisions, provincialism, bad luck, death, lack of money, and/or disillusionment with the music business kept these songs from reaching a wider audience. These releases are also of historical importance. Who knew that places like Columbus, Ohio and Phoenix, Arizona had thriving soul music scenes in the 1970s? Here's a little breakdown:
#1: The Capsoul Label - Columbus, Ohio (my favorite out of a ridiculously strong bunch)
#2: The Bandit Label - Chicago (the boss of this label made Phil Spector look sane, but he managed to record a shitload of great stuff)
#3: The Deep City Label - Miami
#4: The Big Mack Label - Detroit
#5: Mighty Mike Lenaburg - Phoenix (Lenaburg was a soul freak who produced and released most of the local Arizona soul groups)
#6: Twinight's Lunar Rotation - Chicago
#7: The Prix Label - Columbus, Ohio
#8: The Outskirts of Deep City - Miami
#9: The Tragar & Note Labels - Atlanta
#10: The Young Disciples - East St. Louis, Illinois (The product of an after-school music program led by a high school coach, teacher, and former touring musician aimed at stopping inner-city kids from joining gangs, dropping out of school, doing drugs, and getting into crime somehow produced a shitload of unjustly neglected soul classics.)
#11: Smart's Palace - Wichita, Kansas (named after the nightclub that was the soul headquarters of Wichita)
Cult Cargo: There are two volumes of this series so far, which focuses on American-influenced world music. The first, Belize City Boil Up, covers soul, funk, and rock from Belize, and the second, Grand Bahama Goombay, does the same for the Bahamas. A special treat on the latter disc is Sylvia Hall's anti-teen sex classic, "Don't Touch That Thing," featuring the inspirational lyric: "Don't touch that thing/Your mama gonna know/How she gonna know?/Your belly gonna show."
Wayfaring Strangers: This series covers underground folk music.
#1: Ladies from the Canyon - 1970s female folk and folk-rock singers influenced by Joni Mitchell
#2: Guitar Soli - instrumental acoustic music in the John Fahey/Davy Graham/Sandy Bull school of jazz/rock/raga/psych/folk
#3: Lonesome Heroes - the male counterpart to the first volume, which features a song from a former NHL hockey player's sole LP
Good God!: This is a collection of kick-ass gospel funk that makes a heathen like me praise the Lord. There are two volumes so far, A Gospel Funk Hymnal and Born Again Funk.
Now for the one-offs:
Antena - Camino Del Sol: A welcome reissue of a long out-of-print early 1980s album. Antena is a French group that combines post-punk/early indie-pop and bossa nova. I hate to make these x + y comparisons, but this really does sound like a combination of Young Marble Giants and Tom Ze.
Yellow Pills: Prefill: A rare power-pop compilation co-curated by the guy who assembled the Yellow Pills comps. This is the only Numero Group release that is out of print because one band wouldn't sign the contract for repressing it, but used copies are easy to come by for now. I'm not the biggest power-pop fan in the world, but I love it at its best, and I love at least half of this record.
Fern Jones - The Glory Road: Jones is a country-gospel singer with a voice reminiscent of Patsy Cline's. Imagine Cline singing about Jesus instead of heartbreak and you're close to the sound of this record, but Jones has her own thing going.
Catherine Howe - What A Beautiful Place: This album was recorded but never released by her then-label, CBS. Howe was a BBC actress and singer/songwriter, and her music is a very British, melancholy hybrid of jazz, folk, and orchestral pop. She would sound really good next to Nick Drake on a mix-tape.
Home Schooled: The ABCs of Kid Soul: A compilation of soul groups comprised of, or featuring, children and adolescents trying to hit it big in the wake of the Jackson 5's success. This comp is so awesome. It's not cutesy-poo at all. These kids have some serious chops, and the songs are pretty emotionally affecting should-have-been classics.
Don't Stop: Recording Tap: This is a collection of disco and old-school rap from the ill-fated Tap label, based in New York City. The label owner was a part-time character actor and businessman who was not so good at promoting his acts, but this stuff is nevertheless pretty great.
Soul Messages from Dimona: This comp has the wildest story of any of Numero Group's releases. A group of African-American Chicago musicians inspired by separatist black power movements and Judaism start their own offshoot of the Jewish faith and move to a kibbutz in Israel where they make an indescribable music combining soul, jazz, and extremely freaky psychedelic rock. Life still blows my mind sometimes.
The Final Solution - Brotherman: Original Soundtrack: The unfortunately named Chicago soul group, The Final Solution (they were unaware of the Nazi connotations of their name at the time, thanks to the shitty inner-city public school educations they received), were hired to score a blaxploitation film called Brotherman. They finished a rough draft of the soundtrack, but the film was never made, so the music just sat in the can for years, until Numero Group unearthed it. It's great stuff, with some wildly original guitar playing. The guitarist played the horn parts on his guitar, to be filled in later with the real horns, but that never happened, so his crazy-ass guitar stylings kick this up a notch from your run-of-the-mill blaxploitation music.
Titan: It's All Pop!: Titan was a studio in Kansas City, Missouri that recorded nearly every Midwestern power-pop band in the 1970s and early 1980s. This compilation picks the best stuff, and features great, lost bands from Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and Illinois, including Lincoln, NE's Boys.
24-Carat Black - Gone: The Promises of Yesterday: 24-Carat Black was a jazz-influenced soul group on the Stax label. Their first album sold poorly, so Stax failed to release their second album. Unfortunately, the masters were improperly preserved, and about half of the music deteriorated. Numero Group were able to restore six of the songs, and the quality of this unique album makes me wish they'd been able to restore the rest of it. Like everything else they've released, it's good stuff.
Local Customs: Downriver Revival: A collection of gospel, soul, and garage rock recorded by electrician, steel guitarist, and gospel singer Felton Williams in the home studio in his basement in Ecorse, Michigan, a Detroit suburb. This release also contains a DVD with a half-hour documentary about Williams and a digital file containing hours and hours of music recorded by Williams. To beat a dead horse, it is very good stuff. This will eventually be a series focusing on regional music made in amateur home studios. The second volume, focusing on Beaumont, Texas boogie rock, will be out later this year.
Pisces - A Lovely Sight: This is a satisfying little home-recorded psych-rock album that sounds like a garage version of Sgt. Pepper's-era Beatles and Jefferson Airplane, made by a couple of guys in Rockford, Illinois, occasionally joined by runaway drifter and charismatic singer Linda Bruner. Fun fact: One of the guys in this band grew up next door to the parents of Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen.
Light: On the South Side: This is a beautiful book of photographs of blues clubs in Chicago in the 1970s by Michael Abramson. Instead of photographing the bands, he shot the crowds, and it's a compelling historical document of a black subculture in South Chicago in the 1970s. The book is accompanied by a double vinyl collection of unheralded blues artists who played the clubs documented in the photos. This isn't generic, shitty blues, either. It's blues influenced by and containing elements of the soul, funk, disco, and rock of the era.
Celestial Navigations: The Short Films of Al Jarnow: Numero's first non-music release is a DVD of short films by and a documentary about Al Jarnow. Jarnow alternated between experimental films for his own benefit and educational films for Sesame Street and 3-2-1 Contact. If you grew up in this country in the 1970s and 1980s, you've seen Jarnow's films as a child. His work is about geometry, science, space, time, movement, nature, architecture, and language.
Numero also has a couple of side labels, Asterisk and Numerophon.
Asterisk's releases so far:
Johnny Lunchbreak - Appetizer/Soup's On: A weird mix of Velvet Underground proto-punk and cheesy cock-rock. Of course, I like it.
The Four Mints - Gently Down Your Stream: Temptations-esque classic soul.
Propinquity - s/t: Fairport Convention-style folk-rock from Colorado.
Boscoe - s/t: Weird, political, jazz/funk/soul.
Wee - You Can Fly On My Aeroplane: '70s mellow, falsetto-ed, hippie-soul that would sound good played after Shuggie Otis.
Caroline Peyton - Mock Up and Intuition: The first record is in the Tim Buckley/Bill Fay/Tim Hardin netherworld, while Intuition is mostly Linda Ronstadt-style soft rock with a couple of disco songs.
Numerophon is a vinyl-only label with one release so far, Niela Miller's Songs of Leaving. She's an acoustic, traditional folkie, who is the original composer of the song that later became "Hey, Joe." She wasn't credited for it until this record came out, though. Her original is called "Baby, Don't Go To Town." Her then-boyfriend stole it and re-worked it as "Hey, Joe" in the electric rock arrangement we all know. Hendrix had the hit with it, but it's been covered by tons of other people, many of whom claimed credit for writing it. Miller's original is on this record. Their second release, a solo covers album by Pisces' Linda Bruner, comes out this month.
And that's about it, though they have a ton of soul, disco, and hip-hop 45s, too, but I've had enough diarrhea of the keyboard for one night. I just have mad enthusiasm for this label, as the white kids of today who appropriate the slang of the black kids of yesterday say. Numero Group, I love you!