I had never heard of the Ru-Jac label until Omnivore Records bought its assets and began reissuing material from its vaults last year. Chances are, you still aren’t familiar with this Baltimore-based soul/R&B company, which operated primarily from 1963 until the mid-1970s. It issued only singles—not one album—and gave birth to zero stars. The only artist you’re likely to know among its acts is probably Arthur Conley, but he spent just a brief period at Ru-Jac and scored his hits (notably 1967’s “Sweet Soul Music”) later on. Winfield Parker and Gene & Eddie, billed in a press release as “two of the label’s biggest names,” never had a major national hit.
What is surprising in light of the label’s obscurity is how consistently good its recordings are. The evidence is on The Ru-Jac Records Story, four individually available discs, which contain music pulled from tapes and acetates of unissued work, master recordings, and—when those were unavailable—the best-quality 45s that the producers could find. The CDs, which collectively cover material dating from 1963 through 1980, come with liner notes that tell the story of the label and include artist bios.
This is urban soul with more than a hint of pop and even doo-wop. You’ll be reminded of early rock acts like Betty Everett, Little Eva, and the Essex. An artist billed as (Mr. T) Tiny Tim (not the “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” guy) sounds as if he could have sung with the Platters; Little Sonny Daye is one of several artists here who seem to have been influenced by the great Sam Cooke; and “You Won,” by a singer named Celestine, sounds redolent of Barbara George’s 1961 R&B hit “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More).”
Backed by terrific brass sections and guitarists, such little-known vocalists deliver one fine performance after another on the Ru-Jac CDs. It’s no exaggeration to say that much of this anthology is as good as what you’ll find in the classic Complete Stax-Volt Singles collection, which features similarly styled and much better-known music from approximately the same period.
NRBQ, NRBQ. Having recently issued both a new album and a five-CD retrospective, the pioneering New Rhythm and Blues Quartet have gone back to the vaults to deliver a remastered version of their eponymous 1969 debut. The group—which had already been together for about four years when the LP first appeared—had their act down and their famous eclecticism on full display. Who else could open an album with a strong rock cover of Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody” and follow that with the experimental jazz of Sun Ra’s “Rocket #9”? These guys could and did, on a record that also includes diverse originals. If you file your CDs by genre, you’re going to face a challenge here.
The Super Saturated Sugar Strings, All Their Many Miles. You can hear the influences of jazz, swing, and blues in this Alaskan indie-folk sextet’s live-in-the-studio recording. The group boasts two strong lead singers (one male, one female), and many of its songs build to a frenzied climax that features strings (cello, violin) and brass (trombone, trumpet, flugelhorn). This is a big sound, energetic and playful. A few of the numbers just aren’t my thing, but there’s more than enough talent and creativity in evidence on tracks like “Precipice,” the moody instrumental “Crocodile,” and the bouncy title cut to make me want to know where the group will go from here.
Various Artists, Memphis Rent Party. Back in the days when people listened to LPs all the way through, multi-artist albums as diverse as this one suffered from a lack of cohesiveness. These days, though, you can just import everything into iTunes and put the tracks in the playlists where they fit. You should do that with this album, which covers a wide range of blues, soul, and rock and serves as a soundtrack to a book of the same name by writer Robert Gordon. Among the many highlights: Jerry Lee Lewis’s hard-rocking “Harbor Lights”; a cover of Guy Clark’s classic “Desperados Waiting for a Train” by the late Sun artist Jerry McGill (a felon who recorded the number while on the run from the FBI); bluesman Furry Lewis’s charming “Why Don’t You Come Home Blues”; and a punked-up reading of the Slickers’ reggae chestnut, “Johnny Too Bad,” by Big Star’s Alex Chilton. This music is all over the place, but it’s all good.
The Furious Seasons, Now Residing Abroad. This is the sixth album from the Furious Seasons and its second as a trio consisting of brothers David and Jeff Steinhart and Paul Nelson. The richly detailed lyrics deserve a careful listen, David Steinhart’s lead vocals are excellent, and the acoustic guitar work, which reminds me of Aztec Two-Step, is a treat. There’s not a bad track on the album but among those that grabbed me first are “The Loyal Canadians,” a subtle comment on the Trump era that incorporates the album title and a sublime instrumental coda; and the lilting “Expo Line,” which boasts an evocative, impressionistic lyric about city life and a passionate vocal.
Kris Lager Band, Love Songs & Life Lines. Backed by a drummer, a bassist, and a saxophonist who makes large contributions, vocalist/guitarist/pianist Lager serves up a heady brew that seems to incorporate influences ranging from Otis Redding to the Allman Brothers. Lager’s vocals are captivating, and so is much of the original material on this 13-track program, which draws heavily on personal experience. Lager wrote “Sweet Magnolia,” for example, as a response to his father’s death from cancer, and “San Francisco Bound” is about a drive north from San Diego with the new girlfriend who later became his wife. The momentum never slows on this thoroughly engrossing and ultra-soulful release.