In the beginning, at the end
Minor Threat, Bright Eyes, Rory Gallagher revisited
In these troubled times of PATRIOT Acts, weapons of mass destruction and third-generation Reaganomics, Minor Threat's CD EP/7-inch single, First Demo Tape (Dischord), serves as a wake-up call. Politically, things are looking a lot like they did back in 1981, when D.C.'s seminal hardcore punk band committed these songs to tape. The eight tracks that make up this recording were originally intended as the group's debut single, but they were scrapped in favor of later takes. None of the material is new or unreleased, but updated production gives these songs a rigid sheen that makes them sound just as powerful as they did nearly 25 years ago.
Harrowing anthems such as "Minor Threat," "Bottled Violence" and "Seeing Red" explode with the same youthful energy from whence they came. "Small Man, Big Mouth" and "Guilty of Being White" contain background vocals from Henry Garfield (aka Henry Rollins), accompanied by a scandalous photo of an adolescent Rollins sporting bunny ears and short shorts. Banter between vocalist Ian MacKaye and session engineer Don Zientara fills the space between songs.
Fortunately, MacKaye and Zientara themselves revisited the recordings, rather than hand them over to an outside producer — a mistake the Dead Kennedys made with their Manifesto Records reissues. These are the same ears that crafted Minor Threat's recordings in the first place, so they know well how these songs are meant to be heard.-- Chad Radford
With Bright Eyes'most recent release, Lifted, pushing the group to new heights of popularity and achievement, the release of a mammoth, seven-album retrospective, Vinyl Box Set (Saddle Creek), documents what a long strange trip it's been. Bright Eyes' songsmith Conor Oberst began writing his wistful, folk-inspired songs at the tender age of 13. As would be expected, much of his work stems from a heightened sense of teen angst and insecurity. While critics have occasionally blasted this dramatic approach, it's this same earnest, juvenile quality that has made Bright Eyes an underground sensation. Oberst's songs are best experienced in the context of an entire album, i.e. no hit singles, but a stream of pieces that range from obnoxiously sensitive to silly non sequiturs.
Beginning with A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997, the production has been touched up a bit on icy numbers like "Patient Hope In New Snow," though not enough to alter the basic presentation. Juxtaposing those first recordings with later tunes such as "Something Vague" and "A Song to Pass the Time" (from a slightly expanded and remastered Fevers and Mirrors), one can see how far Oberst's songwriting has evolved.
The set can often feel like too much information. But even Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen got off to uneven starts. Whether Oberst is paramount to these figures remains to be seen, but certainly his future is looking bright.-- Chad Radford
Blues devotee and ace guitarist Rory Gallagher was the ultimate anti-hero in the pantheon of '70s ax gods: The soft-spoken Irishman's trademark check shirts, flowing locks and Elvis sideburns were as instantly recognizable as the sound of the battered Stratocaster he'd bought as a teen in the early '60s. He could count John Lennon and Bob Dylan among his fans, and got to record with some of his own idols, from Muddy Waters to Jerry Lee Lewis to skiffle maestro Lonnie Donegan. The posthumous release, Wheels Within Wheels (Strange Music/Buddha/BMG), rounds up a wide selection of acoustic tracks he'd recorded (but never released) between 1971 and 1994.
A superb studio take of Tony Joe White's "As The Crow Flies" (always a concert fave) is a delight, as is a live "Going To My Hometown" done with Lonnie Donegan, the man who inspired it. The collaborations here are as interesting as they are unexpected — including tunes done with English folk guitar innovators Martin Carthy and Bert Jansch, Spanish flamenco guitarist Juan Martin and Irish pub folk pioneers the Dubliners. The highlight — and proof positive that Rory far from a spent force at the end of his life — is an unrehearsed nine-minute romp with Bela Fleck from 1994, taking in Robert Johnson, Bill Monroe and "Amazing Grace" (the last foreshadowing its performance by former bandmates at the guitarist's funeral less than a year later).
Like his hero Elvis, Rory died much too young, in part a victim of his own success, lifestyle and obsession with privacy and perfection. Brother Donal, his lifelong manager, has done a great job of assembling and sequencing this release, which makes a nice companion to the stellar BBC sessions album from 1999.-- John C. Falstaff