June 11, 2010
The Numero Group
Over the past five years or so, the Chicago-based Numero Group label has established itself as one of the best reissue labels on the market. Numbering each release in a manner similar to the DVD giants at the Criterion Collection, the label’s crate-digging efforts have revived the excellent work of a few has-beens and a lot of never-weres. I am an unabashed fan of this label’s work, and I prize so many of their releases that it was hard to pick just four to feature, but here goes…
Eccentric Soul | The Capsoul Label
The first-ever Numero release introduces their most popular series, Eccentric Soul. The idea is simple: the folks at Numero find out about a creative soul-music record label off the beaten path (in the case of this collection, it was located in Columbus, Ohio) and they try to obtain as many master tapes (or, failing that, playable records) from the key figures at the label as they can. They also do their best to piece together the history of each label, which they retell in generous and picture-filled liner notes. This collection from the ‘70s highlights, among others, the supergroup-that-never-was Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr, the Sam-and-Dave-like Kool Blues, and deep-voiced ballad crooner Marion Black. By focusing on the best of each artist instead of going for completism, the album comes off sounding like a hits compilation of songs you just didn’t happen to hear before. That said, the vocal group The Four Mints from this collection inspired Numero’s first full-album reissue (of the Mints’ Gently Down Your Stream) on their Asterisk imprint.
Wayfaring Strangers | Lonesome Heroes
One of the other main types of music Numero also tends to feature apart from soul is obscure work by ‘70s singer-songwriters, more often as full-album reissues, although the Wayfaring Strangers series skims the cream off of assorted other releases. To be honest, even as a folk fan, the first two entries in this series – focusing on female folkies and on acoustic guitar soloists – were pleasant, but kind of a snooze. This third entry, Lonesome Heroes, features male folkies, and successfully cherry-picks a bunch of occasionally oddball, emotionally direct, and affecting songs. As a frequenter of New York open mic nights, I can tell you the success of this compilation is quite a feat, because no one can be more annoying than a belly-aching male singer-songwriter. Despite that, this album works both as a sampler of different artists’ work and as a top-notch folk mixtape with a sustained melancholic mood.
Don’t Stop | Recording Tap
Of the many behind-the-scenes stories the Numero Group relates in their liner notes, there are minor successes, bitter failures, and many combinations of the two. But Jeremiah Yisrael, who ran the Tap label in the early ‘80s, comes off as a mad genius when it comes to recording late disco and early hip-hop while simultaneously ensuring no one would ever listen to it. He would labor over a 12-inch disco single in the studio and then release it in an unappetizing plain white cover with a business card taped to it with the song titles. “Invisible Wind,” despite the overkill of its title (yeah, most wind is invisible), is an irresistibly catchy disco anthem featured in two versions, once as a midtempo showcase for female vocalist Jackie Stoudemire and later as an uptempo workout for Arnie Love and the Lovettes. The two early hip-hop tracks, from Missy Dee & the Melody Crew and the Fabulous 3 MCs, feature the same kind of charmingly clunky rhymes and extended lengths (both tracks run about 8 minutes) one would associate with contemporaries like the Sugar Hill Gang.
Fern Jones | The Glory Road
A classic melding of ‘50s country, rock, and gospel, Fern Jones’s music must have seemed like a little too much of everything and not enough of just one thing to achieve national recognition. Even though most of this collection is taken from an album released by a big-time label (Dot Records), and even though a number of rockabilly ringers – many from Elvis’s band – are backing her up, and even though this collection would likely hit the spot with fans of Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jones never broke out as a star. Since the posthumous release of The Glory Road, Jones’s cover of Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening Every Day” found itself a spot on one of the soundtrack CDs for the TV show Weeds. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of the rediscovery of Jones’s tremendously entertaining work.
by Justin Remer