Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Tommy James & the Shondells - 2 in 1

Tommy James & the Shondells -- the very mention of their name, even to someone who doesn't really know their music, evokes images of dances and the kind of fun that rock & roll represented before it redefined itself on more serious terms. And between 1966 and 1969, the group enjoyed 14 Top 40 hits, most of which remain among the most eminently listenable (if not always respected) examples of pop/rock. The group was almost as much of a Top 40 radio institution of the time as Creedence Clearwater Revival, but because they weren't completely self-contained (they wrote some, but not all, or their own hits) and were more rooted in pop/rock than basic rock & roll, it took decades for writers and pop historians to look with favor on Tommy James & the Shondells.... MORE

I Think We're Alone Now 1967

"I Think We're Alone Now" was the first Top Five hit for Tommy James since his 1966 chart-topper "Hanky Panky," and a redemption of sorts for/from the album that came in between, the sugary It's Only Love. Ritchie Cordell is in total control here, writing the first eight songs on the disc, including all three that charted: "I Think We're Alone Now," the exquisite "Mirage," and "I Like the Way." The album cover is brilliant, total black with two pairs of feet taking two steps forward, then one pair turning around and facing the other; neither person is wearing shoes. The tension of the opening guitar and bass riff coupled with the great melody and theme make for an all-time rock & roll classic. It's more "hanky panky" in theme, "Hanky Panky" all grown up. "Mirage" opens side two and it is a brilliant sequel to "I Think We're Alone Now," with similar structure but enough production tricks to make the songs sound different. The harpsichord from side one's "Trust Each Other in Love" is used again in "Mirage" to great effect, while the underlying riff in "Trust Each Other in Love" also borrows from the title track. Co-produced by Bo Gentry and Cordell, with the ever-present Jimmy Wisner arranging and conducting, the album features the band and production team working as a cohesive unit to solidify Tommy James' foundation on pop radio. There's a credible cover of the Rivieras' 1964 hit "California Sun," as well a short and nicely chaotic rendition of the Isley Brothers' perennial "Shout." James' voice and personality carry the record and Cordell continues rewriting the title track with "Run, Run, Baby, Run," inverting the inspired riff. He and the singer then compose "(Baby, Baby) I Can't Take It No More," which has the feel of the Rascals' "I Ain't Gonna Eat out My Heart Anymore," while "Gone, Gone, Gone" sounds like Ritchie Cordell was listening to Pennsylvania's Eddie Rambeau or U.K. group Unit 4 + 2's "Concrete and Clay." There are plenty of flavors from the day slipped into this wonderful mix, a true pop concoction that has stood the test of time. In concert both "Mirage" and "I Think We're Alone Now" are major moments; James' hit material over the years contained a rich variety of composition. This album is Ritchie Cordell's vision for Tommy James and is an important and highly entertaining piece of the Shondells' catalog.
1. I Think We're Alone Now (02:12)
2. Trust Each Other In Love (02:10)
3. What I'd Give To See Your Face Again (03:25)
4. Baby Let Me Down (01:44)
5. Let's Be Lovers (02:13)
6. Run, Run, Baby, Run (02:21)
7. Mirage (02:39)
8. I Like The Way (02:42)
9. California Sun (02:58)
10. (Baby, Baby) I Can't Take It No More (02:25)
11. Gone, Gone, Gone (02:10)
12. Shout (01:50)

Travelin' 1970

The last (1970) album made by Tommy with the Shondells is also considered by many fans to be their best. It s without a doubt their edgiest, recorded with very few technical effects ('gritty and grainy, like dust in your mouth and sand in your boots,' says Tommy).

Travelin' is a solid and respectable recording from the innovative and totally underrated group who became synonymous with bubblegum music. They didn't go out in a blaze of glory as the Beatles did with Let It Be, but this final album from the Shondells on Roulette before Tommy James went solo (enabling Peter Vale and Mike Vale to come up with their own production, a band called Hog Heaven) is a good study in creativity. The nondescript cover of James driving the horse and carriage away from outlaws hardly represents the music inside, but it is prophetic (the texture is like Elton John's Madman Across the Water, meaning Roulette spent some money on the heavy cardboard gatefold). Perhaps the man sitting next to James is co-producer Bob King, while the band is smiling and peering out of the small stagecoach. Maybe it's the music business executives chasing them, as James and King move on to solo careers. Inside is another story. "Candy Maker" and the title track, "Travelin'," are serious psychedelic episodes, with "Red Rover" excellent bouncy pop song and "She" a classic Tommy James ballad with guitar stops, hooks, great backing vocals, and a wonderful falsetto vocal. Sure, some of this album plays out like the forthcoming solo Tommy James, be it "Talkin' & Signifyin'" or "Moses & Me," and as good as these tracks are, it is clear that Tommy James wanted to stretch out. The dramatic work with Nashville legends on My Head, My Bed, and My Red Guitar probably would not have happened if there were still the Shondells in James' life and though the title track would have been a more cohesive follow-up to Cellophane Symphony if it led off this album, the work still stands as undervalued music that collectors and '60s fans in general should seek out and cherish.

 1. Travelin' (03:51)
 2. Gotta Get Back To You (02:56)
3. Early In The Mornin' (03:02)
 4. Moses And Me (02:49)
 5. Kelly Told Anne (03:27)
 6. Bloody Water (04:52)
 7. Red Rover (02:35)
 8. Candy Maker (03:34)
 9. She (02:00)
 10. Talkin' & Signifyin' (02:43)
 11. Travelin Promo Spot (Bonus) (00:32)

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