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Five for Friday: New Craft Recordings Reissues

Many musical treasures remain out of print, in the vaults, or in need of a sonically astute reissue. A valued reissue label, then, not only functions a solid business endeavor, but takes on the vital responsibility of preserving music culture for generations to come. Craft Recordings, a division of Universal's Concord Music Group, has of late been doing some important work. Possessing rights to recordings from Milestone, Musart, Nitro, Pablo, Prestige, Riverside, Savoy, Specialty, Stax, Telarc, Vee-Jay, Wind-up and more, Craft Recordings continues to uncover numerous gems. We recently highlighted the label's reissues of solo works from Tom Fogerty and Doug Clifford, integral members of Creedence Clearwater Revival. This week sees Craft unleashing another must-own album in the form of an underappreciated Ted Hawkins set. Here, we salute the imprint by highlighting five key reissues that have seen the light of day in 2018.

Ted Hawkins, Watch Your Step
Bluesman Ted Hawkins transcended difficult beginnings and numerous setbacks to find success as a musician. But said achievements came partly in spite of himself, as Hawkins was long said to favor stripped-down arrangements over the more fully fleshed songs desired by record labels. Watch Your Step is Hawkins at his unfiltered best. His debut, reissued for the first time, balances soulful warmth with the singer's scruffy vocals and streetwise wisdom. A been-there, done-that compassion instills "Sorry You're Sick," a song that addresses the alcoholism of a loved one. But Hawkins could also tackle everyday frustrations, such as the zany, rock-based "Who Got My Natural Comb?" Born into poverty in Mississippi, and often in and out of jail for theft or drugs, he often got by as a busker in Venice, California. Yet while his tough-as-nails voice reflected such harshness, tunes such as the sing-along "Sweet Baby" betray him as a good-natured free spirit.

Buddy Guy, A Man and the Blues
Still touring, and still setting fire to the blues, Buddy Guy remains a living legend with a relentless road schedule. A Man and the Blues, Craft's reissues remastered from the original analog tape reels to celebrate the album's 50th anniversary, stands as the artist's second studio effort and witnesses the Louisiana-bred icon helping popularize a Chicago blues tradition originally established by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and others. Guy took a larger-than-life approach, playing the blues like a rock star and accentuating songs with horns and pianos. A Man and the Blues shows Guy at his style-hopping best, from the soul-like revue of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" to the stark, lounge-like piano atmospheres of "One Room Country Shack." It may be too easy today to take a touring staple like Guy for granted, but as he makes clear on the groovy "Just Playing My Axe," he's simply doing his job – and better than most.

For Discos Only: Indie Dance Music from Fantasy & Vanguard Records (1976-1981)
A massive and fascinating historical document, For Discos Only, available as either a 5LP vinyl set or 3CD package, offers a grassroots look at the influential dance movement. This isn't a place, for instance, for the slickness associated with Saturday Night Fever. Instead, it captures the extended cuts and remixes heard in underground clubs. All the music here was originally issued on San Francisco's Fantasy Records and New York City's Vanguard Records. And the 30-plus songs serve as the connective dance thread between the funk and R&B of the 70s and hip-hop and new wave of the 80s. Some of the material sounds deliciously evocative – see Shep Pettibone's remix of Carol Williams' "No One Can Do It (Like You)," where the bass feels so heavy and slow that the song becomes slightly risqué. Other moments are designed to drench the dance floor in body heat, such as Sylvester's slinky, tender, and slippery "Dance (Disco Heat)."

The Pharcyde, Labcabincalifornia
Last month, Craft reissued five prominent hip-hop albums, including Tone-Lōc's Lōc-ed After Dark and Young MC's Stone Cold Rhymin'. The label also released this somewhat-overlooked effort from hip-hop quartet The Pharcyde, a West Coast answer to A Tribe Called Quest and a group that paved the way for the likes of Jurassic 5 and L.A.'s independent rap scene. Labcabincalifornia remains notable for production assists from a then-unknown J Dilla, whose eclectic style touched on soul and jazz and helped give rise to Stone's Throw Records. Dilla in particular helped bring a sense of crate-digging exploration to Labcabincalifornia. Moments such as "Drop" feel like lively excursions through dusty vinyl shops to find long-lost soul gems. There's also the oft-sampled "Runnin,'" a song featuring inventive use of Stan Getz's "Saudade Vem Correndo."

Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66, Greatest Hits
Long out of print, this svelte, 12-song collection introduces Sergio Mendes' intriguing and inventive blend of bossa nova, samba, and pop. It's also steeped in 60s cool, as covers of the Beatles' "Fool on the Hill" and "Day Tripper" teem with cocktail-party elegance and alluring female vocals. Indeed, throughout the 60s, producer/composer/keyboardist Mendes mixed and matched genres and languages – and did so with a formal-wear refinement. His take on "Mais Que Nada," sung in Portuguese, became a massive hit. No English translation is needed. The finger snaps and shimmying rhythms capture the carefree attitude. Regardless of influence or country of origin, the songs on Mendes and company's Greatest Hits doubles as the sound of romance.

Photo courtesy of Fantasy Records Archives

August 3, 2018

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