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Throwbacks: Vinyl and digital reissues of note for winter-spring 2015

Music critic Randall Roberts tips reissues from Connie Converse, TJSA, Thin Lizzy, Adrian Sherwood, Ata Kak

With the winter-early spring 2015 new release schedule filling up, labels are making a strong argument for setting aside cash for vintage stuff. Over the next few months top-notch archival music will be seeing new life across genres and decades.

Below are 10 excellent reissues and/or archival recordings to arrive in the coming months.

Staple Singers, “'Freedom Highway' Complete - Recorded Live at Chicago's New Nazareth Church” (Sony/Legacy). Curious as to why Bob Dylan raved so much about the Staple Singers during his MusiCares Person of the Year speech? “Freedom Highway” is one reason. One of the most exuberant live recordings ever issued, the release was set to tape at the New Nazareth Church in Chicago not long after the Selma freedom march of 1965.

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Fifty years later Columbia/Legacy has remastered and expanded the original issue, and it sounds fantastic from start to finish. The song “Freedom Highway” opens with the group’s patriarch, Pops Staples, acknowledging the march “a few months ago” from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

He dedicates the then-new song to the freedom marchers as the entire congregation claps along. “The Funeral” traces the story of a child’s death, and the “silver tears” the parents are shedding. A story-song, it’s lifted by the sweet voices of Mavis, Cleotha and Yvonne singing harmony. This record soars throughout. Out March 3.

Ata Kak, “Obaa Sima” (Awesome Tapes From Africa). Described by its record label Awesome Tapes From Africa as a “mysterious electronic-rap-highlife icon from Ghana,” the artist Ata Kak released “Obaa Sima” in 1994. It didn’t make much of a dent until the label’s Brian Shimkovitz bought a tape in a music stall in Ghana and posted it on his blog. The recording started spreading.

No wonder. It’s a ridiculously tight fusion of aforementioned influences. Synthetic beats and sampled highlife guitar punctuations mix with West African rhythms. Musically, too, it suggests low-budget Michael Jackson, like maybe Ata Kak was trying to replicate the grandiosity of “Bad” minus the million-dollar gear. Out March 3.

Connie Converse, “How Sad, How Lovely” (Squirrel Thing). Few reissues of the past decade have struck me with more continued, joyous affection as “How Sad, How Lovely,” which gathers the mid-1950s recordings of Connie Converse. Partly recorded in the upstate New York kitchen of respected illustrator Gene Deitch (and father of artists Kim, Simon and Seth), the songs capture Converse with her guitar singing strikingly intimate, poetic self-penned folk songs.

Converse’s story is fascinating: Having never made a living as an artist, she vanished in the 1970s after writing letters to her family stating her intention to start anew elsewhere. She hasn’t been heard from since. These recordings are tiny miracles, which makes the two-LP vinyl reissue something of an event (at least to me). Available March 17.

Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, “Straight to Video” (Straight to Video Records). One of the great unsung rock scenes of the 1990s was centered in the Midwest, along a Cleveland-Columbus-Akron axis and featured bands including Guided by Voices, Gaunt, Great Plains, the New Bomb Turks, Prisonshake, Monster Truck 5 and dozens of others.

For my money the best of them was Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, a quartet of ragtag miscreants who somehow snagged a big label contract (with Onion Records, then a subsidiary of Rick Rubin’s American imprint) in the wake of the great Nirvana uprising. The band released the treble-heavy punk album “Bait and Switch,” to little fanfare.

“Straight to Video” was the follow-up, named so because the label shuttered before the album came out. It’s a catchy record, filled with buzz-guitars, layers of feedback and singer Ron House’s whiny snarl. Tracks like “Rump Government,” “Secret Museum” and “Where the Entertainment Ends” seem pretty simple, and maybe they are, but House is a smart cynic with his words, and the rock surrounding him moves with a simmering intensity and lots of noisy thrills. Out on vinyl for the first time on March 24.

Jon Gibson, “Visitations” (Superior Viaduct). “Visitations” is the meditative 1973 debut album from Jon Gibson, whose early work with Terry Riley (Gibson performed in the premiere of “In C”), Steve Reich (he performed at the premiere of “Drumming”), Harold Budd, Philip Glass and others hints at where the artist’s aesthetics lie.

Two album-side-length instrumental compositions featuring percussion, flute, synthesizers and many untethered frequencies, “Visitations” is a soothing listen, but underneath the floating tones are ominous textures that add tension. It was originally issued on Glass’ Chatham Square Productions imprint (also home to Arthur Russell’s first release, “Tower of Meaning”), and will see a reissue through Superior Viaduct on March 31.

Thin Lizzy, “Thin Lizzy,” “Vagabonds of the Western World” and “Shades of a Blue Orphanage” (Light in the Attic). Light in the Attic’s Thin Lizzy obsession is cemented with the arrival of the first three albums from the working class Irish band best known for “Smokin’ in the Boys Room.” Helmed by the late Phil Lynott, these early Lizzy records most recall maximum R&B as practiced by Rod Stewart-era Faces. 

Lynott’s got a similar gnarl to his voice, and founding guitarist Eric Bell plays a mean slide guitar that he runs through thick distortion. The self-titled first owes obvious influence to the Jimi Hendrix Experience, but with a more meandering sensibility. “Vagabonds” is a strange concept album, a period piece with notably thick bass sounds and heavy with groove. “Shades of a Blue Orphanage” is funkier, like Band of Gypsies-era Hendrix with a post-psychedelic tinge to it. Out Tuesday. 

Judas Priest, “'Defenders of the Faith' 30th Anniversary Edition” (Sony/Legacy). Leather metal heroes Judas Priest’s platinum “Defenders of the Faith” arrived in 1984, and the band and its sound tore through America one arena at a time. A little late, this 30th anniversary edition celebrates the post-Motorhead sound of England in the early ‘80s. Twin guitar solos rage, singer Rob Halford barks and yelps above chords and solos that helped set the stage for speed metal and its many dark offshoots.

For the reissue, Legacy has beefed up the offerings with a full live set from the Long Beach Arena that same year. It’s a blistering recording, capped by an eight-minute version of “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming.” The package will be released on March 10.

Adrian Sherwood, “Sherwood at the Controls, Vol. 1” (On U Sound). One of the great British producers of the ‘80s (and beyond), the deep, bass heavy work of Adrian Sherwood and his On U Sound System merged dub, punk, post-punk, electronic tones and African percussion into a bottom-heavy feast of rhythm. This first volume of productions includes his crucial early work with the Fall, the Slits, a post-Pop Group Mark Stewart, Shriekback, Sherwood’s own group, African Head Charge and others. The record is capped by a dub version of Vivien Goldman’s unsung classic, “Private Armies.” Out April 6.

Game Theory, “Real Nighttime” (Omnivore). Fresh off their Grammy-winning best historical recording of Hank Williams “The Garden Spot Programs, 1950,” Omnivore jumps three decades forward to celebrate unsung pop genius Scott Miller and his band Game Theory. The band’s second album (and first for the then-fledgling L.A. label Enigma) is my favorite.

Produced by Mitch Easter, the sound of R.E.M.-suggestive jangle fills the record, as do nods to Alex Chilton and Big Star. Featuring fewer new wave synths than the group’s debut, “Real Nighttime” is rife with undistorted strum, the kind that the Feelies were perfecting on the other side of America. This reissue includes the full album, along with a second disc of bonus tracks and live recordings. Out March 17.

R. Stevie Moore, “Ariel Pink’s Picks, Vol. 1” (Personal Injury Records). Those who consider Ariel Pink to be a one-of-a-kind pop creator might find comfort (or dread) in knowing that he’s got predecessors. One of the most beguiling is R. Stevie Moore, who has been making strange bedroom pop for much of the past 40 years.

The new “Ariel Pink’s Picks, Vol. 1” is what it says: the Los Angeles artist’s selection of Moore jams from throughout the years. Originally issued in a limited run of 100 cassettes, Personal Injury has just made it available on vinyl and as an iTunes download. You can also grab it at Bandcamp.

Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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