Thursday, February 19, 2009
Love Is the Song We Sing - San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970 (Rhino, 2007)
Had I not received this four-CD set as a gift, it probably wouldn't be in my collection. I remember when it came out a couple of years ago, and I looked at the track listing. In one form or another, I already had 95% of the songs featured on this extensive compilation. In some cases, there was stuff that I never really wanted in the first place. While I'm pretty obsessive about all the great music that came from the San Francisco Bay area circa 1965-1970, I never really considered Love is the Song We Sing - San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970 to be a must-have.
And now that I have it, I'm still of the same opinion. Don't get me wrong. This is still a fantastic collection representing what is often inaccurately referred to as "The San Francisco Sound." There's a lot of great music here. The handsome packaging, which is essentially a hardcover book with first-rate essays, detailed song-by-song notes, and a spectacular section of photos, almost justifies the price. But in the end, this is still disappointing. Box sets and collections like this need to feature more rare material to justify such an expensive price tag. While Love is the Song We Sing occasionally delivers the goods in spades, it just doesn't do it often enough.
In similar fashion to the original double-LP Nuggets anthology that inspired the like-named box set of the late 1990s, this collection has its roots in the San Francisco Nights compilation from 1991. The first disc, "Seismic Rumbles," features reappearances of "Johnny Was a Good Boy" by The Mystery Trend, "You Were On My Mind" by We Five, and "Hello Hello" by the Sopwith "Camel." Ho-hum. These songs didn't do much for me the first time around and don't necessarily sound any better here. As I've grown to appreciate Dino Valenti more over the years, his original folkie version of "Let's Get Together" sounds better and better. The two Country Joe & the Fish tracks from their early EPs are wise inclusions as they are both superior to their later incarnations that would appear on the Vanguard albums. "Number One" is a favorite of mine but more of an early Mike Wilhelm solo piece than something definitive of the early Charlatans. The otherwise lackluster "Can't Come Down" at least demonstrates that members of the Grateful Dead could play rock 'n' roll, even garage rock, at one point in their lives. "Don't Talk to Strangers" is a beautifully jangly number and an underappreciated part of the Beau Brummels oeuvre. No problem with the pleasant "Anything" by the Vejtables. Jefferson Airplane Takes Off remains my favorite album by that group, and "It's No Secret," an example of the more organic sound that could have characterized them had Marty Balin remained at the helm, still appeals to me in all of its folk-rock glory. They should have used used the alternative version of the Great! Society's "Free Advice" that opened Sundazed's Born to be Burned CD instead of the released version with the lame overdubbed drums featured here. One could make the claim that the Grass Roots have no business being on this collection, but "Mr. Jones" is actually a damn fine Dylan cover. "Stranger in a Strange Land" by Blackburn & Snow is good but not the best thing they did. The demo version of "Who Do You Love" pales in comparison to the magnum opus treatment Quicksilver gave it on Happy Trails, although it remains an interesting listen nonetheless. I still think the Mojo Men suck despite the fact that "She's My Baby" isn't that bad. I'd like the Wildflower's "Coffee Cup" a lot more if they hadn't included those somewhat annoying bongos which just don't work that well in a folk-rock context. The Family Tree's "Live Your Own Life" is solid, while the fuzz guitar and powerful blue-eyed soul vocals of "Fat City" make it my favorite Sons of Champlin song. Being a huge Moby Grape fan, I was eagerly looking forward to hearing "Human Monkey," a single by the Frantics featuring Jerry Miller, Don Stevenson, and Bob Mosley. Unfortunately, it doesn't really go anywhere. Bummer. ("Uncle Willie" by Mosley's earlier group, the Misfits, remains the ultimate pre-Moby Grape artifact.) The Tikis sound as wimpy on "Bye Bye Bye" as they would after their transformation to the super-lame Harper's Bizarre.
The second disc, "Suburbia," which mostly focuses on bands from the surrounding population centers of the Bay area, surprisingly may be the strongest group of songs in this collection. While "Psychotic Reaction" is a great single and the best thing Count Five did, does it really need to appear on two different volumes of the Nuggets series? Raise your hand if you think "Merry-Go-Round" or "Revelation in Slow Motion" would have been better choices. The Front Line's "Got Love" is awesome but too short, while the Mourning Reign's "Satisfaction Guaranteed" is actually pretty good. OK, we're probably all familiar with "Foolish Woman" by pre-Kak/Blue Cheer band the Oxford Circle, but it's one of those songs that psych-garage lovers can't get enough of. For me, the real revelation on San Francisco Nuggets is the beautifully baroque folk-rock masterpiece "My Buddy Sin." I always thought the two LPs by the Stained Glass were mixed bags, but the arrangements, first-rate vocal harmonies, and excellent harmonica make this the group's crowning achievement. I've always loved "Streetcar" by the Otherside as well as "Suzy Creamcheese" by Teddy & his Patches, the latter sounding a million times better than what's heard on the bootleg Acid Dreams Epitaph CD. The Immediate Family's "Rubiyat" and Syndicate of Sound's "Rumors" are OK but nothing special. The Harbinger Complex offers the fine, almost sensitive "Sometimes I Wonder," while the New Breed gives us the overly-twee wannabe Beatles tune "Want Ad Reader." I never cared much for Cold Blood (featuring Lydia Pense), but the original version of "I'm a Good Woman" by the Generation really cooks. "No Way Out" by the Chocolate Watchband is, of course, rightly regarded as a garage-psych classic , and I can't say enough good things about Butch Engle & the Styx's "Hey I'm Lost." "I Love You" by People kinda sucks, but Public Nuisance's "America" is absolutely exhilarating. I was smitten upon first hearing the four Country Weather songs that appeared on the California Acid Folk bootleg double-LP. The improved sound quality on their best composition, "Fly to New York," helps make for a transcendent listening experience. "Thing in 'E'" is pretty damn close to transcendent too and probably the best thing from the overrated eponymous Savage Resurrection album. I love Frumious Bandersnatch. Let that be recorded in heaven's unchangeable heart. They were like Quicksilver Messenger Service crossed with Moby Grape. I like "Hearts to Cry" a lot. But I think I would have chosen "Chesire," "Woodrose Syrup," or "45 Cents" to represent them instead.
The term "Summer of Love" is somewhat cringe-inducing for me since it marked the beginning of the end for the truly underground nature of the Haight-Ashbury scene, but that's the title of the third disc. The version of "Alabama Bound," the Charlatans' signature song which leads things off, is the greatest piece of psychedelic folk-rock of all time. Even my friends who are Deadheads bow to its magnificence. What's with producer Alec Palao's fixation with The Mystery Trend? Why do we need two tracks by them on this collection? They were an obscure band not because they were ahead-of-their time iconoclasts but because they just weren't very good. "Carl Street" sucks. The Great! Society's live version of "White Rabbit" would have been preferable to this live rendition of "Somebody to Love," which ain't bad but still the lesser of two compositions that would later become part of the Jefferson Airplane canon. OK, "Superbird" is probably one of the better Country Joe & the Fish songs from their Vanguard LPs. "Two Days 'Til Tomorrow" is decent later-period Beau Brummels. While perhaps an overly-obvious Moby Grape selection, one cannot deny the rightful place that "Omaha" occupies in the pantheon of the all-time greatest psychedelic songs. The charming nature of "Up & Down" has made me reconsider my initial assessment of the Serpent Power, and "The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)" remains just about the only Grateful Dead song that I actually like. As much as I love Quicksilver, this overwrought rendition of "Codine" is decidedly inferior to The Charlatans' definitive version. "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" would have been a much better choice to represent this phase in the band's history. Big Brother's live take on "Down on Me" is good, but you all know what I think of Janis Joplin, even though she's in pretty restrained form during this performance. "Think Twice" represents Salvation at their best. Damn if this song isn't really good. Did the Airplane's version of "White Rabbit" really need to be on another 1960s comp? I'm not the biggest Steve Miller fan, but "Roll with It" is mighty fine. Notes from the Underground never really interested me that much, and "Why Did You Put Me On" doesn't persuade me to think any differently. "Underdog" is a pretty underwhelming Sly & the Family Stone song that is representative of their early phase when they were still honing their sound. I always thought Blue Cheer's version of "Summertime Blues" was just stupidly loud (as opposed to intelligently loud, which can be done), and it's not an incredibly imaginative selection for this anthology. "Glue" demonstrates that the hippie chick group Ace of Cups had their moments but overall were better in theory than in practice. "Soul Sacrifice" is Santana at their best, but more on them later. "The Bells" by The Loading Zone typifies a mediocre song by a mediocre band.
In response to the title of the fourth disc, "The Man Can't Bust Our Music," I say perhaps not, but he can bust us for downloading it or making it available for others through bit torrents or blogs. Santana's "Evil Ways" ranks just a little too high on the overfamiliarity meter to be included in this collection. If you're going to put two cuts by Santana on a comp like this, at least come up with selections a little less predictable. You know, surprise us. "Red the Sign Post" certainly is a great song by Fifty Foot Hose. I would have preferred "Fantasy" instead, but its length probably prevented it from being chosen. Just about every song on Kak's lone album is a masterpiece, so I guess "Lemonaide Kid" is as good of a choice as any. While "1982-A" is pleasant, I've come to the conclusion that the earlier the better for material by the Sons of Champlin. The overly-cute "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away" was better when Dan Hicks performed it as a member of the Charlatans. Had it been my decision, I would have instead picked "Canned Music" or "I Scare Myself" as a selection from Dan Hicks & his Hot Licks' first album. The EP version of "Amphetamine Gazelle" is better than the version from Mad River's debut LP that appears here, and "Quicksilver Girl" is a nice, mellow piece by early-period Steve Miller Band. I'm usually not big on horns in bands from the Bay area, but I must admit I like Mother Earth's "Revolution." I'll confess that I'm biased when it comes to Moby Grape. They're one of my most beloved bands. So I'll spare you from an essay on why I think "Murder in My Heart for the Judge" is so great. I'll also spare you from an essay about how this collection should be accused of providing Quicksilver Messenger Service a major disservice. (OK, lame pun, I know.) "Light Your Windows"? Are you kidding me? Clearly, "Pride of Man," "Gold and Silver," or even "Dino's Song" would have been a far better choice. The playing is not bad, but Gary Duncan and David Freiberg just don't have the pipes to pull off this kind of song. "I'm Drowning" is a fine slice of early, Roy Loney-era Flamin' Groovies, a good band that was cursed with one of the worst names in rock history. I really dig "Portrait of the Artist As a Young Lady" by Seatrain despite the band's superficial resemblance to It's a Beautiful Day, whose "White Bird" is an example of the kind of shit that helped give hippies a bad name. I never liked any of the epic live versions of "Dark Star" my Deadhead friends forced me to endure, and the Grateful Dead's single version is better if only for its relative brevity. However, the 45 version of "Fool" makes one realize how much Gary Yoder improved Blue Cheer after he had joined the band. "Mexico" demonstrates that the Airplane could still come up with a good tune even this late in their career. "Mercedes Benz" only serves to reinforce all the negative stereotypes about Janis Joplin, so why bother? And finally, I guess you gotta come full circle and close a collection like this with the Youngblood's version of "Get Together," even if you really don't need to hear it for the millionth time.
Two closing comments: First, since the text and photographs are the most appealing aspect of San Francisco Nuggets, I have included full PDF scans as a download for your reading and visual enjoyment. Second, I really had to laugh at the anti-copying statement on the CDs themselves which reads, "FBI Anti-Piracy Warning: Unauthorized copying is punishable by law...and also really isn't groovy!" Can you imagine Haight-Ashbury in an alternate universe where the counterculture had file-copying and downloading technology? "No, man! Don't rip and upload that new Quicksilver album! The FBI says it ain't groovy! And don't bogart that joint!"