Tuesday , October 27 2020

Music Reviews: The Underrated Barbara Lewis, Plus Bristol Sessions, Allman Brothers, Justin Farren, and Christian Kjellvander

You don’t have to venture far into a new three-CD, 68-track retrospective of Barbara Lewis’s work to conclude that she deserves such a comprehensive anthology. The soul/pop singer, who recorded five albums for Atlantic from 1962 to 1968 and later spent a year (1972) on the Reprise label, is remembered today mainly just for her two fine big chart successes, the organ-flavored “Hello Stranger,” a No. 3 hit in 1963, and the bouncy “Baby, I’m Yours,” which made it to No. 11 two years later. But much of the rest of her catalog is just as impressive.

Everything you need from Lewis is in Don’t Forget About Me: The Atlantic & Reprise Recordings, which is arranged chronologically by recording session date and includes the highlights of all of her albums, plus non-LP singles, B sides, and a previously unreleased 1968 track. The set marks the first CD appearance of most of the tracks from 1964’s Snap Your Fingers (Barbara Lewis Sings the Great Soul Tunes) and 1966’s It’s Magic. A 20-page booklet contains extensive notes on the material and an essay that incorporates quotes from a new interview with the now 77-year-old singer.

The set demonstrates her impressive versatility. Lewis seems equally at home with material ranging from James Brown’s soulful “Please, Please, Please” and Ray Charles’s funky “What’d I Say” to pop standards like “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “A Taste of Honey,” and the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” She scores with every genre she tackles but give her a first-rate ballad and she absolutely soars. Her version of “Let It Be Me,” for example, is exquisite—as good as or better than any of the many other versions of this song. Ditto her readings of such pop standards as Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “I Only Miss Him When I Think of Him” and Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me).”

And Lewis could write ’em as well as she sang ’em: she composed nearly two dozen of this anthology’s best songs. In fact, she penned most of the numbers on her debut album—including the often-covered “Hello, Stranger”—at age 16. 

Inevitably, a collection this large includes a few throwaways. But the lion’s share of this anthology argues convincingly that Lewis’s work is on a par with that of such better-known singers as Mary Wells and Diana Ross.

Also Noteworthy

Various Artists, We Shall All Be Reunited: Revisiting the Bristol Sessions 1927–1928. The so-called Bristol Sessions, which captured first-ever recordings by Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and other seminal country artists, are among the most important documents of the genre’s early years. The material garnered fresh attention in 2011, when Germany’s Bear Family label collected them on the Grammy-nominated The Bristol Sessions: The Big Bang of Country Music, a five-CD box set that came packaged with a hardcover book. 

Now, for those who want a more modest-sized first taste of this music, the same label has issued We Shall Be Reunited: Revisiting the Bristol Sessions. Produced by Ted Olson, who also produced the 2011 box, the release features newly remastered copies of 26 of its predecessor’s best tracks, including Rodgers’s “Sleep Baby Sleep,” the Carter Family’s “The Poor Orphan Child,” and numbers from such other notable performers as Ernest V. Stoneman and Blind Alfred Reed. Olson’s well-researched liner notes reassess the sessions “based on recent scholarly research and discussion.”

The Allman Brothers BandWarner Theatre, Erie, PA, 7-19-05. This concert—which fills two discs and clocks in at about two and a half hours—is being billed by publicists as “the best show you’ve never heard.” You can’t be sure that’s true, of course, until you hear all the shows you’ve never heard, but it is good indeed. 

The impeccably recorded set opens with a terrific 12-minute reading of “Mountain Jam,” which uses Donovan’s “There Is a Mountain” as a jumping-off point for guitar work that builds to an orgasmic finale. Also here are such Allman Brothers favorites as “Dreams,” “One Way Out” and “Melissa,” plus some covers you might not expect, including ones of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (with vocals by Susan Tedeschi), the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.”

Justin FarrenPretty Free. When an album begins with a song about a marriage that includes references to standing on the returns line at Costco and the picture on the back of the singer’s membership card, you know you’re in for something a bit different. 

The Sacramento, California-based Justin Farren, who sounds a bit like Loudon Wainwright III, is an engaging singer and guitarist; and these songs—about love, parenting, and the ups and downs of life—mark him as a deft lyricist as well. The video below isn’t from the current album, but it should give you a sense of the warmth and intimacy that Pretty Free projects.

Christian KjellvanderAbout Love and Loving AgainThe baritone of Sweden-based Christian Kjellvander—an instrument almost as attention-grabbing as Leonard Cohen’s voice—occupies centerstage on this album, which in some ways recalls Eric Andersen and the 1970s folk/pop outfit Mark-Almond. 

The leisurely paced performances (Kjellvander fits only seven on this 48-minute CD) offer the singer/songwriter’s atmospheric meditations on relationships and life-changing moments, ostensibly including the recent dissolution of his marriage. The lyrics sound as personal as journal entries, and the haunting instrumentation—which features guitar, synthesizer, soft percussion, piano, and just a touch of bass—provide a perfect complement to the words.

About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains half a century's worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.

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