Monday, April 27, 2009

Record Collecting Manifesto: Ritual Devotion

There’s been much ballyhoo these days regarding vinyl LPs. In fact, vinyl records have gotten to be downright trendy, as evidenced by an entire display of record-related products at the local Urban Outfitters. My guess is the resurgent interest in vinyl will be short-lived. Most recent band wagoners will discover the pain-in-the-assness of listening to LPs and, worse yet, 45s: The inconvenience of getting up after 20 minutes to flip the record (or 3 minutes for a 45), not being able to skip a song or program songs with the click of a button. Then there is the tricky labor of mounting and aligning the cartridge on the tonearm, adjusting the tonearm tracking force and azimuth, and keeping all the records and equipment clean. Do any of this incorrectly and you risk permanently ruining your record collection. I just don’t think most people will have the patience and commitment to stick with vinyl, because that’s what it requires of the vinyl aficionado.

It also takes commitment to an album to listen to it straight through, as the artist intended, without skipping songs. Who has that kind of patience in this age of fast-forwarding and channel-surfing? Listening to LPs requires slowing things down and paying attention. In the best moments, it takes on the ritual of a Japanese tea ceremony: Hunching over the record cleaning machine applying cleaning fluid, brushing the fluid across the record surface, and vacuuming it dry (“wax on, wax off” in the words of Mr. Miyagi); taking the newly cleaned record and placing it on the record platter, making sure to hold the record by the edge; carefully dropping the needle in the lead-in groove; and then sitting reverently in front of the speakers to soak in the warm analog sound. That takes devotion. And the experience can be, if not transcendent, spiritually resplendent.
(Note: In the photo above, Elvis is not holding the record correctly.)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Recent Acquisitions: 4-26-09

The 2nd annual Record Store Day came and went. It was like a holiday for the record collector and like most made-up holidays it was an exercise in consumerism. I celebrated by buying the following RSD exclusive releases:

Pavement, Live Europaturnen MCMXCVII (Unknown label - Matador? new, $15). A live recording of a 1997 concert in Koln available only on vinyl. This album demonstrates Pavement could really rock. Is Stephen Malkmus the David Foster Wallace of the rock music world? He just seems smarter and more literate than everyone else on the field.

Bob Dylan, "Dreamin' of You"/b-side "Down Along the Cove (Live at Bonnaroo)" (7" single, Columbia, new, $6.50). Included a bonus lithograph of a young Dylan.

Whiskeytown, "San Antone"/b-side "The Great Divide" (7" single, Geffen, new, $5). Two previously unreleased songs from Ryan Adams' former band.

Camera Obscura, "French Army"/b-side "The World Is Full of Strangers" (7" single, 4AD, new, $5). My favorite Scottish twee band this side of B&S. Their b-sides are unfailingly good.

Flaming Lips & Stardeath and White Dwarfs, "Borderline"/Black Keys "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" (7" split single, Warner Brothers, new, $5). The Lips doing a psychedelic cover of a Madonna song. Yes!

Other acquisitions from the past 2 weeks:

U2, No Line on the Horizon (Island, 2-LP, new, $27). I bought this for collecting purposes. It's already out of print. But it turned out to be an enjoyable listen.

John Coltrane, Giant Steps (Atlantic/Rhino reissue 2-LP, 45rpm, new, $54). Limited edition 1195 of 2500.

Ween, La Cucaracha (Schnitzel Records, UK pressing, new, $23).

The Sword, Ages of Winter (Kemado Records, new, $8). I was getting low on Black Sabbath riffs, so I filled up with The Sword. The thing most Sabbath-influenced bands completely miss is the lyrical side of Sabbath.

The Sword, Gods of the Earth (Kemado Records, new, $12). See above.

Pink Floyd, The Division Bell (Columbia, US pressing, $14). I had never seen a vinyl copy of this post-Waters album, so of course I had to pick it up. I'm betting it sucks.

10cc, Deceptive Bends (Mercury, $2). It's got the jaunty "The Things We Do for Love" and a cool Hipgnosis-designed cover (see previous post).

Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, Fancy Meeting You Here (RCA, original Canadian stereo pressing, $3). This is a sure sign I'm getting old. I actually enjoy this music. More swinging than you'd expect.

B.B. King, Completely Well (Bluesway, original pressing, $2).

Curtis Mayfield, Live (Curtom, 2-LP, $2).

Al Green, Livin' for You (Hi Records, US pressing, $4). I'm hoping the US version sounds better than the UK pressing I have. Life is hell for an audiophile.

Mile Davis, Sketches of Spain (Columbia, stereo 2-eye label, $2). I thought I only had the mono version, but it turns out I also had an original stereo pressing. Now I've got an extra stereo copy. Life is hell for a record collector.

Chet Baker, Jim Hall, Hubert Laws, Studio Trieste (CTI, $2).

Mahler, Symphony No. 3, Haitink, Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips, Dutch pressing, 2-LP, $2).

Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Solti, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (London, FFSS pressing, 6-LP, $4). When am I going to have time to listen to this? Probably when I'm dead.

Pet Shop Boys, Actually (EMI Manhattan, US pressing, bonus pack with "Always on My Mind" 12" single, $4). Until I started listening to a lot of soul music recently, I never knew how much early electronica was influenced by soul music.... Okay, it's disco. So what.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Album Cover Gallery: Hipgnotic Art

Hipgnosis was an English design team that created some of the most recognized rock album covers of the 70s, including Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and T. Rex's Electric Warrior. They did some truly creative photographic work, much of it involving manipulations in the darkroom, e.g., extra color saturation for a hyper- or sur-real effect. (This was before Photoshop.) A few examples are posted below.

If you ask me, this cover of Led Zeppelin's Presence is much creepier than the cartoonish satanic and monster images found on a lot of metal albums.

This is an original pressing of Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother. Later pressings had the album title and band name added to the cover, across the top.

If you look closely in the top half of the interior bulb, there's an image of the band.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Recent Acquisitions: 4-12-09

Morrissey, Years of Refusal (Attack/Lost Highway, new, $11). This might be a good album. I can't tell, because the sound sucks, like most modern recordings. Instead of spending the effort to engineer the album correctly, Morrissey (or the producer), on the back cover, instructs the listener to play the album loudly, perhaps hoping that if your ears are bleeding you wouldn't be able to tell how bad the album sounds. (File under: Music Industry Death Watch)

Pavement, Terror Twilight (Matador, $6). I've discovered this album is not a good one for listening in the car. It's so much better on the home stereo, spinning on a turntable.

PJ Harvey, Rid of Me (Island, UK original pressing, $10). Listening to this album, why do I picture PJ Harvey in a cage fight match with Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins)? Do I hate Corgan that much?

John Cale, Vintage Violence (Columbia, original pressing, $3). The title is a misnomer, unless Cale's referring to pillow fights and Hawksian face slaps, nothing truly violent like a cage fight with PJ Harvey. Cale's first solo album is downright pastoral; it's like Paris 1919 without all the beautiful moments.

David Bowie, Space Oddity (RCA, orange label reissue, $3). Old Bowie albums don't sound dated at all, probably because so many modern bands rip off his old material.

The Kinks, Kink Kontroversy (Reprise, pink-gold-green steamboat label, original mono pressing, $4). Includes the original inner sleeve, which advertises other Reprise artists of that era, including Sinatra, Dean Martin, Trini Lopez, Sammie Davis, Jr., and Don Ho--just what would be of interest to Kinks fans.

The Kinks, One for the Road ( 2-LP, $4). The unimaginative title should've been a tip-off to the uninspired performances on this unnecessary album. The title should've been We're Gonna Rip You Off. That seems more in character with Ray Davies' cynicism.

The Who, The Who Sell-Out (Classic reissue, new, $18). The back cover photo of Keith Moon holding an over-sized tube of acne medicine to a large red splotch on his face is hilarious! Oh yeah, the songs are good, too.

Led Zeppelin, Presence (Swan Song, original pressing, $4). This is the self-parodistic Spinal Tap album before there was Spinal Tap.

Van Morrison, It's Too Late to Stop Now (Warner Brothers, tan label reissue, 2-LP, $4). I wish I could've seen Van live during his prime. When I saw him in concert in the 80s, he didn't move his fat, mystical ass from behind the keyboards.

John Lee Hooker, Plays & Sings the Blues (Chess, 80s reissue, $7). I'm trying to like traditional blues, but there may be too much of a cultural barrier for me to feel it in my soul like other music that I love.

Wilson Pickett, The Exciting Wilson Pickett (Atlantic, plum label, original mono pressing, $4). This mono pressing sounds much better than a stereo pressing of a greatest hits album I have. These songs were recorded to be listened to as mono singles.

Al Green, Al Green (Bell Records, 70s reissue of original Hotline LP, $4). This is his first LP.

Al Green, The Belle Album (Hi Records, original pressing, $4). His last secular LP.

Peter Tosh, Equal Rights (Columbia, $3).

Nat "King" Cole, After Midnight (Capitol, reissue, $2). Listening to this album is one of those moments when one realizes that sometimes our forebears had much better taste than us. This is tremendous stuff.

Bud Powell, The Amazing Bud Powell (Blue Note, solid blue label, $3). One of the tragic stories of jazz. Powell suffered from mental illness after being clubbed over the head by a cop. Yet he was able to continue playing, at least for a little while.

Eric Dolphy, Outward Bound (Prestige, 70s OJC reissue, $8). Dolphy is always great as a sideman, especially for Mingus and Coltrane, but I've always been skeptical about his ability to lead a group. He seems like a musician who does best with outside discipline. Except for Out to Lunch, a great album, I've avoided picking up Dolphy records.

Charlie Mingus, Tijuana Moods (RCA, original mono pressing, $4). This original mono pressing complements the original stereo pressing in my collection. See Listening Session post below.

Marty Paich, I Get a Boot Out of You (Warner Brothers, Rhino reissue, new $22). This is a big band album, arranged by Paich, featuring the best West Coast jazz musicians of the late 50s, including Art Pepper (definitely pirate material). It's got to be good.

Beethoven, Late Quartets, Guarneri Quartet (RCA red seal label, 4-LP, $7).

Beethoven, Symphony No.9, Herbert von Karajan, Philharmonia Orchestra (Columbia, mono German pressing, $2). This was a pure impulse buy considering I have about a zillion recordings of this symphony, including von Karajan's classic account from the early 60s.

Beethoven, "Appasionata" and "Funeral March" Sonatas, Sviatoslav Richter (RCA, mono shaded dog, $2).

Monday, April 6, 2009

Listening Session: Charlie Mingus, Tijuana Moods

From Mingus's own liner notes on the back cover: "All the music in this album were written during a very blue period in my life. I was minus a wife, and in flight to forget her with an expected dream in Tijuana. But not even Tijuana could satisfy.... I walked from tacos to tacos, from tequila, salt and lime to all the hot chili peppers there were to stomach, throwing away all the money I had earned and more, trying to forget the blues that I brought with me.... It actually ends in a contest between Danny and myself to see who could outdo who in Tijuana's tequila-wine-women-song-and-dance. Danny lost: he was very hungry; I was starved."

The liner notes are illuminating for the personal history that gave rise to the music. Listening to the album without that knowledge, one would never guess that it originated from a very “blue” period in Mingus’s life. The music is raucous, yet disciplined, in typical Mingus fashion. The sights and sounds of Tijuana—complete with corny castanets and mariachi pastiches—are artfully weaved into the gospel-blues-Ellingtonian-swing structures that define Mingus’s work.

The album is plain fun to listen to. But there are also two lessons that I take away from listening to this album. Like a lot of gospel and soul musicians, Mingus tackles his deep melancholy head-on with musical exuberance. What I imagine lifted Mingus from the blues he was suffering wasn't the trip to Tijuana, but rather the act of composing and playing the songs that comprise the album.

The second lesson is how the most successful innovators work within an established framework. As mentioned in a previous post, Mingus successfully bridges the traditional and modern sides of jazz like no other. His compositions are unmistakably grounded in the blues, gospel, and traditional jazz. This offers the listener a base from which to take off with Mingus on his musical flight. As much as Mingus embraces traditional musical forms, his songs usually fly past the boundaries that define traditional song forms. There is no mistaking a Mingus work from anything that preceded it. It is when musicians free themselves from that traditional framework (e.g., late Coltrane, 12-tone Schoenberg) that they also disconnect from most listeners. The totally free flights may have meaning to the avant-garde musician and a few others, but those of us who must start off on familiar musical terrain are usually lost before the first few bars are complete. It’s like trying to arrive at a destination without knowing one’s starting point.
. . . . .