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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Fair
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Vinyl Cave: Dollar bin diving with Larry Henley, Balance, Gypsy, The Dillards, Curly Putman, Grin

Here's a mixed bag of recent on-the-cheap pickups, some of which turned out to be more interesting than I may have expected.

Larry Henley: Piece a Cake
Larry Henley was the lead singer of The Newbeats, the man lending the 1960s trio the high vibrato-laden voice that made "Bread and Butter" a left-field hit. While this would remain the group's high water mark as hitmakers, singles would continue sneaking out into the mid-'70s. Concurrently, Henley released sporadic solo singles and turned to songwriting, at which he's piled up writing credits on many country and pop hits over the past few decades. Along the way a lone solo LP emerged: 1975's Piece A Cake. Recorded with Capricorn labelmates Fallenrock, Henley and company work in a swamp rock mode that's surprisingly funky at times with "Love Junkie" and "Rock & Roll Me a Number," tunes that showcase his inimitable vocals best. There is also an interesting take on an early Sam Cooke hit, "I'll Come Running Back to You," and another of a standard from his own pen, "Till I Get It Right." I guess I can forgive him for writing "Wind Beneath My Wings" now. (Capricorn, 1975)

Balance: Balance
Balance piqued my interest because the band includes singer Emil Thielheim, a.k.a. "Peppy Castro" of Blues Magoos. But the group's radio friendly rock is sort of an early 1980s anyband cipher, despite the occasionally jarring metal guitar moves by Bob Kulick (brother of sometime Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick). It doesn't help that the plaintive garage wail Castro used to good effect with the original Blues Magoos is nowhere to be heard, replaced by a vocal style recalling many other early '80s hitmakers. That's not a total surprise, as sounding generic was a formula Castro had also employed with the reconstituted Magoos in its ABC label era -- and, it could be argued that the vocal style I like was also a generic signifier, albeit one more pleasing to my tastes. To their credit, the formula worked to put the group on the charts, as Balance hit the Billboard Top 100 twice in 1981 with "Breaking Away" and "Falling in Love," both included on this self-titled debut. Castro still plays in the New York area, including occasionally with a reformed Blues Magoos. (Portrait, 1981)

Gypsy: Antithesis
This is the West Coast progressive/jam rock band's third album, following a pair of releases for Metromedia. Neither of the those albums made much of an impression when I heard them years ago, so Antithesis took me by surprise. It's a twelve-track set of tightly arranged early '70s hard rock -- there's tons of tasty guitar but no meandering jamming. Perhaps it's time to revisit their earlier albums. In an earlier life, Gypsy was known as the '60s Minnesota beat rockers The Underbeats; today a new version of Gypsy led by original member James Walsh plays in the Twin Cities area. (RCA Victor, 1972)

The Dillards: Roots & Branches
The Dillards were one of the first bluegrass bands to begin moving the form toward pop music, incorporating electric instrumentation, drums, and even some light orchestration by their fourth album, 1967's Wheatstraw Suite. The group also made pop culture inroads by bringing bluegrass into many homes that may not have ever listened to the genre otherwise, as "The Darlings" on The Andy Griffith Show. Even in their more traditional days, the rock 'n roll energy the group imparted to bluegrass directly influenced some of the California rock bands moving toward country music, partly due to connections made by initially sharing the same producer as The Byrds, Jim Dickson. Banjo master Doug Dillard would eventually leave the eponymous group to work with Gene Clark on his pioneering post-Byrds country rock efforts. Roots and Branches is The Dillards' third album after Doug's departure, and is pretty squarely in the country rock mode of the artists they had earlier influenced, with some bluegrass occasionally flavoring the mix. Interestingly, the group's only Top 100 single, "It's About Time," came out just before this album. It isn't included, though the B-side is. (Anthem, 1972)

Curly Putman: Curly Putman's World of Country Music
Curly Putman is responsible for writing or co-writing country music touchstones such as "Green Green Grass of Home," "My Elusive Dreams" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today," to name only a few of the heartbreaking hits from his pen. Over the years, he apparently hasn't done much recording of his own, as I can only find information on a few singles here and there and a pair of late '60s LPs on ABC. World of Country Music is the second, and includes mostly songs I'm not familiar with otherwise; of the songs I do recognize, "Love of the Common People" is the one non-Putman composition on the album (the other famous one being "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," which certainly is a Putman title). Putman's not the strongest singer in the world but his sometimes shaky vocals nail the emotional content of many of these songs, here recorded with fairly stark countrypolitan arrangements for the most part. After a four-decade (!) gap he recently released his third album, Write 'Em Sad-Sing 'Em Lonesome. (ABC, 1969)

Grin: Grin
Nils Lofgren is a guitar hero whose music I've never really connected with, other than his work in the Neil Young orbit. This debut album from his band Grin didn't do much to change that situation after a couple spins. Keepers include the acoustic "Take You to the Movies Tonight" and the trashy rocker "Direction." The crusty blues rocker "Had Too Much" gets close, but sounds half-finished and just sorta lurches to a stop. Otherwise, there's lots of flashy guitar work, and while the trio plays well together, the songs tend to be either downright repetitive ("Everybody's Missing the Sun") or somewhat derivative (the Young-esque "Outlaw"). However, the album attempts to take on an impressive range of styles, and Lofgren was still only about 20 at the time... perhaps it's time to try another of his later solo albums and see how his songwriting developed. (Spindizzy, 1971)

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