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The Muffins — Baker's Dozen
(Cuneiform Rune 500-512, 2010/2022, 12CD+DVD)

by Peter Thelen, Published 2022-12-23

Baker's Dozen Cover art

In the mid-70s, a friend of mine took an extended trip to the DC area, and came back to the West Coast with stories of all the great music he had heard and seen out there. The first band he mentioned was Happy the Man, and in fact I had just picked up their first album weeks before based only on the cover; the other band he hailed was a group called The Muffins, a new name to me, but I added their name to my list of things to keep an eye out for in the future. That future came only a few months later when a sales guy at Rather Ripped Records in Berkeley showed me a copy of the Random Radar Sampler LP, and seeing that the closing track was by The Muffins, I couldn’t buy it fast enough. It’s true that at that point in time, even though The Muffins were the buzz of the town in the DC area, they still didn’t have a full album out, but that was about to change with Manna/Mirage. Here before us, as the subject of this review, is a thirteen disc (twelve CDs and one DVD) box set that follows The Muffins trajectory from their earliest days through their first breakup post-<185> (their third LP), and picks up again with the band’s reunion in the early 90s, on through their final split — although the latest recordings to be featured in this boxed set come from the Progday performance in September 2010. What’s important to note is that even if you have everything that The Muffins committed to vinyl and later to CD, you still won’t have what’s included in this set; as far as I’m aware all of the material here has never been previously available (unless you are one of the connected few who somehow managed to get some of their early tapes or live recordings along the way). One will hear some of the same songs like “Amelia Earhart,” “Under Dali’s Wing,” “Hobart Got Burned,” “Captain Boomerang,” “Zoom Resume,” and a handful of others, but they are previously unreleased versions.

In addition to the members of the band, who preserved some of these earliest recordimgs, live and alternate takes, and rehearsals, much credit needs to go to Steve Feigenbaum (Cuneiform) who meticulously sifted through all of the available recordings (far more than is included here) to choose the best performances from among them all, to Ian Beabout for the tape transfers, restoration and mastering (I’m sure that many of these cuts had to have been in pretty bad shape after all these years), and to each of the respective recording engineers for all of the included performances. Also to Eric Kearns for the graphics, layout and design of the 75-page booklet that accompanies the set, as well as to Dave Newhouse and the other Muffins and associates for remembering the stories and saving old photos all of which make this a world-class package that everyone involved can be proud of, and every fan of the band needs to hear.

The twelve audio discs are arranged chronologically, with disc 1 representing recordings by the earliest lineup featured on the box (1975): Dave Newhouse (keyboards, woodwinds), Tom Scott (woodwinds, keyboards, percussion), Michael Zentner (guitar, violin, voice), Billy Swann (bass, voice), and Mike Bass (drums), the latter who had temporarily replaced the band’s original drummer Mike Appareti, with Robert Wiser sitting in on classical guitar on a few of the tracks. The recordings are a combination of studio tracks for radio broadcasts, live tracks, and recordings from the band house. Even at this very early stage The Muffins were a formidable unit. Disc 2, covering the period from 1975-76 features the band’s third drummer, Stuart Abramowitz, again a mix of live and studio recordings, one highlight being a live version of “Chronometers.” Both Abramowitz and Zentner would leave the band at the end of this period. Disc 3 spans mid-to-late 1976, and is the first to feature drummer Paul Sears; it features an impressive early versions of “Amelia Earhart” and “Monkey with the Golden Eyes.” With disc 4 we have a number of mostly live recordings from 1977, seemingly highlighting a more improvisational side of the band, including four cuts from one of their backyard summer concerts. Disc 5 from October ‘77 features a complete live run through of the material that would become the Manna/Mirage album (and then some) at the WAFU Coffee House in DC, with one additional track on disc 6, which features more material from ‘77-‘78, including a Trinity Theatre show from December ‘78 with Fred Frith sitting in on one track, and Scitt Raffell (alto sax, bass clarinet) sitting in on two others, plus one cut from Giorgio Gomelsky’s Zu Manifestival in New York City. Disc 7 and Disc 8 feature a cornucopia of live and rehearsal recordings from 1979 to 1981, including live versions of much of their <185> material, including “Under Dali’s Wing,” “Queenside,” “Zoom Resume,” “Angle Dance,” and “Horsebones.” Following this is the place in time where The Muffins decided collectively to take a break from being a band. For ten-plus years.

The cautious baby steps for The Muffins’ reformation took place at the ‘black room’ (Paul Sears’ basement studio in DC) in 1993-94, as they prepared a piece for the Cuneiform Unsettled Scores compilation. Five of those historic recordings are here, opening disc 9. The remainder of the disc features various live recordongs from the 1998-2002 timeframe, including one cut each from the 2001 and 2002 Progday festivals, and two cuts from a September 2002 show at Orion Studios. Most of disc 10 is a great live show from the Knitting Factory in NYC on July 27, 2001, featuring material old and new, premiering many of the pieces that were set to appear on the Bandwidth album in 2002. Disc 11 features the unforgettable Muffins’ Nearfest 2005 show, where they were joined by Sam Newhouse (Dave’s son) on alto sax, Ena Scott (Tom’s daughter) also on alto sax, and her friend Nathan Berry on trumpet. This show is also presented on the DVD (disc 13 of this set, which also features the audio-only of the Muffins’ 2010 Palindrome album). Disc 12 is split between five tracks from a 2004 Orion Studios show, and another five tracks from their performance at Progday 2010. Throughout this set, the sound quality is superb, the presentation is world class, and I suspect every fan of the band will want this set because of the insight it provides and all of the historical performances herein, though one thing that needs to be said: times are tough and this thirteen disc set is not inexpensive, but Cuneiform is offering it as a download for roughly half of the box price, and they are making each of the audio discs downloadable individually as well. One way or another, if you’re a fan of The Muffins’ music, you need this set.

Filed under: Archives, 2022 releases, 2010 recordings

Related artist(s): The Muffins, Michael Zentner (ZenLand), Dave Newhouse (Manna / Mirage), Paul Sears

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