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Fresh taste of the '70s is sweet, sour

At one point early on in the novel "Swann's Way," Proust's narrator describes how the taste of a madeleine -- a small, sweet cake -- soaked in tea so suffused him with pleasure that all the petty annoyances of everyday life seemed to melt away before him. It was as if he'd been whisked away to the Sunday mornings of his youth, sipping lime tea in his aunt's house in

Combray.

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But only for a moment; by his third mouthful, the potion began to lose its power. Soon, the magical madeleine was just a sweet cake to be eaten with tea, and Proust's narrator was once again mired in the present. That's typical of the way the mind works. Go back to some of the albums you swooned over in your youth, and often as not you'll find (as Proust's narrator did) that the thing itself is nowhere near as special as the memories that swirl in its wake. It isn't that we've necessarily grown wiser; it's just that tastes change, fads pass, and not all pleasures endure.

What brings all this to mind is the heap of reissues that turned up in the mail recently. Unlike the first wave of CD reissues, which emphasized historical recordings (vintage jazz, pre-war blues and the like) or classics from the '50s and '60s, this current crop focuses on a more recent period in pop music history: the '70s.

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For instance, there's the Warner Archives series, which has resurrected old albums by the Faces, Tower of Power and Maria Muldaur. Or CEMA's The Right Stuff program, which sifts through the Hi Records catalog to reclaim old albums by Al Green and Ann Peebles. Even the tiny Razor & Tie label has been at work, quietly converting old punk and new wave albums to the CD format.

At first, this flood of half-forgotten albums was exhilarating. Opening the packages and seeing these titles -- many of which hadn't crossed my mind in years -- left me awash in memories. It was like running into friends who hadn't been seen in years yet somehow all looked the same.

Where to start? Choosing almost at random, Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" (Hi 27121) was pulled from the stack and slipped into the CD player. And then: bliss.

Unlike Proust's madeleine, the pleasures of "Let's Stay Together" didn't fade with repetition. Granted, some of this had to do with the fact that digital remastering has significantly improved the album's sound, lending the music a depth and transparency the LP never had.

But that wouldn't have mattered if the music itself didn't hold up, and hold up it does. The performances producer Willie Mitchell pulls from the Hi Rhythm section, from the churning, tom-tom pulse of the title tune to the terse throb of "So You're Leaving," are enough to make Booker T. & the MG's seem like Memphis' second-best groove band.

As for Green, it's hard to find sufficient superlatives. There are times, as on "What Is This Feeling," when his voice almost slips sideways into the blues, flatting the notes until they seem as otherworldly as a muezzin's wail; there are also moments, like in the chorus to "I've Never Found a Girl," when his singing takes on a exuberance that almost surpasses the ecstatic release found in his gospel singing. And when he gets to "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," his singing reveals emotions the BeeGees never dreamed were there.

Nor did the other Green albums disappoint. "Green Is Blues" (Hi 67102) may not be one of his greatest efforts, but it has its share of pleasures, including a wonderfully slow and sensual version of the Box Tops hits "The Letter." And though his slow-simmering rendition of the Temptations' "I Can't Get Next to You" is easily the best moment on "Al Green Gets Next to You" (Hi 66709), his near-total rethink of the Doors' "Light My Fire" is a treat in itself.

Maybe it was just the Hi Records approach that did it. An album like Ann Peebles' "I Can't Stand the Rain" (Hi 66712), for instance, would hardly seem the likeliest of classics. Yet hearing it again, I was stunned at the reach of its emotions and the depth of its groove.

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Peebles was by no means a soul powerhouse -- with a tart, rubbery voice that sounds like a cross between Al Green and Leslie Uggams, she made her point more through understatement than any show of vocal force. Yet the emotional power she brings to these songs is astonishing. Whether it's the soul-weary ache conveyed in the title tune or the dark determination expressed in "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down," Peebles' singing has the kind of power and immediacy that doesn't diminish with time.

It would have been great if every album in the pile had aged as well as those, but I knew that wouldn't be the case. What I didn't expect, though, was which albums would bear up, and which wouldn't.

Back in 1977, for example, most punk fans would have laughed at the notion that the Tom Robinson Band would turn out to be one of the era's more enduring acts. Indeed, the group barely lasted three albums, with Robinson going solo in 1981.

Yet "Power in the Darkness" (Razor & Tie 2018), the TRB's debut, has made it through the years with barely a nick on its finish. It helps that Robinson and his mates kept their music lean and tuneful, with arrangements that minimize the clutter while maximizing the hooks. But the real appeal here is the material -- simple, catchy numbers with strong, engaging lyrics. Robinson wasn't above taking a stand in his songs (listen to the wonderful balance of anger and irony in "Glad to Be Gay"), but he was just as much at home with simple pleasures like speeding along the highway ('Grey Cortina"). And of the 17 selections here, not one can be considered padding.

Then there's "Maria Muldaur" (Reprise 2148), for example. Since about the only thing anyone remembers from Muldaur's debut is the semi-novelty hit "Midnight at the Oasis," it's easy to imagine that the album as a whole would be full of period pretension and jug-band frivolity.

Not at all. Although her second album, "Waitress in the Donut Shop" (Reprise 2194), nearly collapses under the weight of its aesthetic conceits (particularly the pseudo-swing stuff), "Maria Muldaur" turns out to be a true gem, full of sly wit ("Don't You Make Me High"), warm singing (as on Kate McGarrigle's hymn-like "The Work Song") and well-chosen covers (like Dolly Parton's "My Tennessee Mountain Home"). Hearing it now, I can't imagine why I thought so little of the album originally.

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On the other hand, after re-listening to "A Nod Is as Good as a Wink . . . To a Blind Horse" (Warner Bros. 2574) by the Faces, I can't believe I once bought into the idea that this was great rock and roll.

True, "Stay with Me" sounds as raucous and inspired as it ever did, and Rod Stewart's singing on "Miss Judy's Farm" has its moments of glorious abandon. But on the whole, what seemed like reckless rock and roll spirit 22 years ago just sounds sloppy and self-indulgent now, from the awkward and ill-sung "You're So Rude" (with Ronnie Lane taking most of the vocals) to the band's overlong and slightly turgid take on "Memphis, Tennessee."

Things weren't so bad on the other Faces albums. "First Step" (Warner Bros. 1851) doesn't have much in the way of great recordings, but there's something about the way Ron Wood's slide guitar grates against the warm purr of Ian McLagan's Hammond B-3 that keeps tracks like "Wicked Messenger" or "Shake, Shudder" from succumbing to the hokey mannerisms that make most early '70s blues rock seem so hopelessly dated. And though the slide guitar version of "Jerusalem" that closes "Long Player" (Warner Bros. 1882) seems fairly ridiculous in this day and age, Stewart's impassioned rendition of Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" seems as fresh today as it did back in '71.

Why some songs seem to improve with age while others seem more ridiculous with each passing year is hard to say, but I suspect the secret has less to do with style than with rhythm.

Take the Tower of Power, for example. Scan through albums like "Bump City" (Warner Bros. 2616), "Urban Renewal" (Warner Bros. 2834) or "In the Slot" (Warner Bros. 2880), and you'll turn up plenty of polyester-era corn. Who can help but chuckle hearing lyrics as dated as those to "You Got to Funkifize" (from "Bump City") or "Only So Much Oil in the Ground" (from "Urban Renewal")?

Moreover, TOP's tendency to confuse jazzy affectations with class and ambition undoes more than a few of their songs, particularly on "Bump City."

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Somehow, though, the grooves seem as vital now as they did then. And so, for every memorable ballad (like "You're Still a Young Man" from "Bump City" or "Treat Me Like Your Man" from "In the Slot") there are three or four tracks that show how powerfully TOP fused funk and salsa. In fact, just listening to the way Rocco Prestia's chattering bass locks into a 16th-note groove against David Garibaldi's fatback drumming on "Just Enough and Too Much" (from "In the Slot") or "Walking up Street" (from "Urban Renewal") is usually enough to lift me above my problems as surely as that madeleine delivered the narrator of "Swann's Way."

And what more could you ask of an old album?

FROM THE ARCHIVES

You can hear excerpts from CD reissues of albums by Al Green, Ann Peebles, Tom Robinson Band, Maria Muldaur, the Faces and Tower of Power on Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service.

You will need a touch-tone phone. Call (410) 783-1800, or from Anne Arundel County, (410) 268-7736. To hear excerpts from a specific artist punch in the appropriate code:

Al Green, 6131

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Ann Peebles, 6132

Tom Robinson Band, 6133

Maria Muldaur, 6134

The Faces, 6135

Tower of Power, 6136



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