By Spencer Davis. Time for another vinyl time capsule in our continuing series, The Vintage Collector. I’m making my picks for the essential classic albums you need in your vinyl collection. This time, we’re doing barroom piano ballads, proto-hair metal, sultry lounge standards, soul/blues fusion, and a lost album from a titan of jazz.
As always, each of these albums is available on vinyl or via your preferred digital music store or streaming service. But never forget the first rule of music collecting: if it was originally recorded in the vinyl era, it really does sound better on vinyl.
Tom Waits – Closing Time: I can thank my brand new bride for this one. Knowing only the 80s and 90s era Tom Waits, I’d long since come to dismiss him as unlistenable, nay unmusical growling—weirdness for the sake of weirdness. Little did I know that he has a whole decade’s worth of 70s output that is soulful, thoughtful, melodic, vulnerable, just perfect music for late night whiskey drinking in the dark. The best place to start is where he did, with his 1973 debut, Closing Time. Centered on Waits and his piano with minimal accompaniment, there’s an inviting emptiness to these songs, like you’re getting a private audience with a promising young songwriter rehearsing for his big break. That’s pretty much what it was, as Waits searched for his identity in an era where mellow, adult contemporary vibes from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, and Neil Diamond were already starting to typecast the budding singer/songwriter genre. Waits was still years away from entering his experimental phase, and honestly, Closing Time is so enjoyable that it makes you wonder how big he might have gotten if he’d had a little more restraint in that department. Boozy and sentimental, it’s nothing cutting edge—but it doesn’t need to be. There’s magic sometimes in simple yearning.
Tom Waits – “Ol’ 55”
Jeff Beck – Truth: It’s difficult to pinpoint the definitive beginning of metal. While I’d give it to Black Sabbath’s 1970 debut, there’s a lot of people who would nominate an even earlier work: Jeff Beck’s 1968 solo album, Truth. Beck’s time with The Yardbirds yielded some pretty heavy blues/rock fusion tracks, and the next step in his evolution as a guitarist was this proto-metal opus, backed by an all-star band that included future Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, and on vocals … Rod Stewart? You won’t even recognize Stewart’s voice as he wails his best Robert Plant impression, which brings us to why Truth is considered by many to be the birthplace of metal. “Metal” means many things to many people, and while this isn’t at all like the darker, heavier metal of bands like Black Sabbath and Metallica, think more of the bright, fun riffage you’d hear from Kiss, Thin Lizzy, Aerosmith, or Van Halen and you’ll get the picture. Truth sounds like hair metal arrived fifteen years too early, the guitar solos flying and the drums rolling in a way that seems best enjoyed in a Firebird Trans Am with the windows down. If nothing else, it makes Rod Stewart seem just a little bit cooler—which is no small artistic accomplishment in and of itself.
Jeff Beck – “Shapes Of Things”
Julie London – Around Midnight: So far as historical importance is concerned, the music of Julie London can probably be relegated to a footnote. But as examples of a particular era of recordings, these songs shine. Popular music in the 50s and early 60s focused on songbook standards, with vocalists as revolutionary as Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald each taking their crack at arranging and recording the same well-known tunes. Actress-turned-singer Julie London worked in this same milieu, but her sultry, almost husky voice gave her variations a distinctive flavor. On Around Midnight, she’s backed by a full orchestra that gives familiar numbers like “‘Round Midnight” (Miles Davis), “Misty” (Johnny Mathis), “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” (Sinatra), and “Lush Life” (Nat King Cole and John Coltrane) a sweeping, romantic flair. It’s fitting that London came to music by way of her acting career, because her music sounds like it comes straight from the soundtrack of a classic black-and-white melodrama. Like a blanket of nostalgia, Julie London is a time capsule from a faded era.
Julie London – “‘Round Midnight”
Bobby “Blue” Bland – Two Steps From The Blues: Coming up under the same Memphis blues scene that gave us B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland may not be given the same stature now, but his influence lives on in every corner of popular music. While most blues music centered on the guitar, Bland’s only instrument was his voice—but what a voice it was. Nicknamed “the Sinatra of the blues,” his vocals howled and wailed over arrangements that blended blues, soul, and gospel into a new sound that would forge the tip of the spear of what would soon be called Motown. Two Steps From The Blues, his full-length 1961 debut, is full of horns and rhythmic licks that come together like whiskey and bitters. Danceable, singable, bob-your-head-able, it’s anything but bland.
Bobby “Blue” Bland – “I Pity The Fool”
John Coltrane – Two Directions At Once: The Lost Album: John Coltrane is the rare jazz artist who is both an enduring classic and a radical strain on even today’s tastes. He was a huge commercial success whenever he restrained himself, like on his biggest hit “My Favorite Things” or his early collaborations with Miles Davis. But during those many moments where he was hellbent on challenging the limits of what could be called music, his soloing mutated into a carpet bomb of screeching noise, the notes coming in such a blur that they can no longer be separated from one another. At the intersection of those dual personalities lies Both Directions At Once, a new collection culled from an abandoned studio session in 1963 that finds Coltrane’s classic quartet playing around at the crossroads of safety and chaos. Over multiple takes, you can hear the band airing out ideas; on separate takes of “Vilia,” for example, Coltrane tests things out on both soprano and tenor sax. Nobody knows why Coltrane never released these sessions, but perhaps because they weren’t expected to be the final word, the playing here is loose, flirtatious, a bit mischievous. If anything, these sessions show that there’s intense calculation behind the chaos; Coltrane was an artist who revised himself over multiple drafts, always pushing then pulling back, always questioning how far was too far. It’s essential listening for anyone wanting to peek behind the creative curtain and hear a genius in the process of plotting his exact course over the musical Rubicon.
John Coltrane – “Untitled Original 11383 (Take 1)”