Here are a few things that have been gracing my turntable lately. None of these tunes are “classics” by any stretch, but they're overlooked gems worth checking out, in my humble opinion. For me, the great joy of collecting records isn't filing away that pristine copy of some hen's-tooth rare private press masterpiece you just cashed in your war bonds to buy off eBay – it's the simple pleasures of digging in a crate of forgotten slabs of people's lives, and discovering some of the stories, some inconsequential and some monumental, contained therein. One finds as many bad ideas as good ones, but sometimes it's a seemingly bad idea that proves to hold a true pearl within its crusty shell. Every record is somebody's stab at making something great, so this list is in the spirit of open mindedness and patience. It can pay off enormously, if only you let it.
Ronnie Fray, “I Miss Mississippi” from Put This In Your Ear
From the janky, hand-drawn cover, to the unnervingly direct album title, this circa 1980 slab of wastoid country is definitely an acquired taste, but I daresay a delicious one. From the opening line, delivered in Ronnie's delightfully nasal snarl, “We packed up our shit and left our hometown far behind..,” this tune cruises across the border in a weed, whites & wine fueled binge of outlaw bravado. Certainly not for everyone, but if you're open to the critter-drifter, stoner-loner and beach-weirdo country vibes, this could be the record of your dreams.
Magnus Thor Sigmundsson, “Happiness Is Just A Ride Away” from Happiness Is Just A Ride Away
I picked this up in Reykjavik, Iceland based on the weirdo 70s homemade looking cover alone. I expected it to be some sort of elfin folk album but was surprised and delighted by the strange and heavy use of primitive drum machine, analog synths, and hooks big enough to land a deep sea marlin. Equal parts McCartney, Kraftwerk, Bowie and some unknown Icelandic ingredient that makes this thing completely unique, this is definitely a vibe I can live in for three minutes every day.
Added genius: someone uploaded a vinyl rip of the tune to YouTube using a still photo of the General Lee!
Albert Ayler, “Drudgery” from Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe
Henry Vestine was the great hard-hitting lead guitarist from Canned Heat, and he quit the band one week before Woodstock and spent that weekend recording with Ayler. Much as he probably regrets it now, given that Woodstock turned out not to be “just another gig,” I find something poetic and beautiful about skipping out on the generation-defining hippie love fest and spending it in Manhattan with the elusive and legendary avant garde saxophonist. It's like the famous story of Terry Reid turning down the offer to sing for the new upstart blues band “Led Zeppelin” to pursue his career of making obscure yet stunningly great solo records. Henry, Terry – you guys made the right decisions.
Sonny Charles & Checkmates, LTD., “Lazy Susan”
A half-time, hammond-led shuffle that owes 137% of its existence to Booker T. & the MG's. This blissfully happy little B-Side to the epic Phil Spector produced 1969 sweet soul hit “Black Pearl” is completely inconsequential, yet every time I play it I feel like I'm in the sweetest, most joyously sentimental montage sequence in a late 60s romantic comedy. It goes hand in hand with “Great Blue Heron” by Banana and the Bunch, which makes you feel like you're the clumsiest private eye ever hired by a femme fatale.
Lou Rawls, “Season of the Witch”
While digging for 45s at the Philadelphia Record Exchange a month or two ago, I pulled out this record and asked one of the proprietors, Harmonica Dan, if he knew this track. His response: “It's good, it's even got fuzz in it.” Sold.
I've started to love cross-genre covers. This is one of the best but there are tons. I've also been enjoying Buddy Miles doing “Down By The River.” Also pretty amazing is Sylvester doing “Southern Man.” For a while I got super obsessed with finding bluegrass covers of classic rock tunes, like Bill Keith doing “No Expectations” or Country Gazette doing “Teach your Children”, or about 50 different people doing “Proud Mary”, which is always hilarious.
Herbie Mann, “Come Together” from Muscle Shoals Nitty Gritty
If you're anything like me, and I'm sure you are, when you think of jazz flute you think of Will Ferrell in Anchorman producing his instrument from his sleeve and encouraging his band to keep the cymbals splashy and take the bass line for a walk. However, after spending time with Johnny Jenkins' Ton Ton Macoute, Judy Mayhan's Moments, and the host of far more famous records recorded at Muscle Shoals with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (even Cher and Lulu had rad records recorded there), those two words (Muscle Shoals) have started to translate to “Buy Me.” Since this record was called Buy Me Nitty Gritty, I had to do it. Next you're thinking, ok, this is a jazz flute record, which tune will be good? Definitely not the Beatles cover. When has the Beatles been the good song on a jazz record? I'll tell you when – never. But then I played this record, and shockingly the track that had the vibe, drenched in slow, swampy Muscle Shoals groove, is the 10 minute take on the most overplayed of all Beatles songs. The key here is there are two rhythm sections – two basses and two drummers. Yet rather than sounding like Neds Atomic Dustbin, or even like the Grateful Dead, it sounds like something off Gris Gris by Dr. John – full of late night voodoo stoned-out playing. Cool, restrained, sparse, dark, and awesome.