Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Vinyl Tourist: Bakersfield, California

The downtown of the "Downtown Records" sign refers to downtown Bakersfield; the records refers to what was once sold inside the building on which the sign is affixed. Downtown Bakersfield is full of empty storefronts and empty of crowds on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Like countless American cities, the building boom of strip malls along the highway at the edge of the city had sucked the downtown dry of commercial activity.

I had stopped in Bakersfield to see if there were any signs of the vital country music scene that started a new genre, "The Bakersfield Sound", the original alt-country movement back in the 50s and 60s. My favorite country artists are Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, both hailed from Bakersfield and helped define the Bakersfield Sound as an alternative to the sleek, mainstream country music coming out of Nashville at the time.

I thought I'd find something on Buck Owens Boulevard. It looked promising on the map. But it turned out to be a five-lane road lined with fast-food joints, gas stations, motels and chintzy stores. If Buck Owens had ever seen the ugliness of the street named in his honor, I'm sure he would've cried.

I managed to find a record store that was still open, located across from Rabobank Arena, home of Bakersfield's minor league hockey team. The man running the store told me he used to work for so-and-so, a famous country music DJ, who he assumed I knew. (I didn't.) I asked him if there was still an active music scene in Bakersfield. He just shook his head.

Gone is the downtown; gone is the vital country music scene; gone are most record stores in Bakersfield. Bakersfield is representative of what has happened in this country over the past 40 years or so. Vibrant downtowns have been replaced by soulless strip malls; the authenticity in country music has been replaced by cynically marketed pop-country music; and the warmth and tactileness of vinyl records have been replaced by cold digital compact discs and now digital downloads on the internet. I couldn't help but think all of these trends were connected somehow. It may sound reactionary, but the feeling of loss in that city was strong. That was my Bakersfield state of mind.

(Postscript: I drove out of Bakersfield with an original pressing of Merle Haggard's Mama Tried. Alas, the record store only had a second pressing of I'm A Lonesome Fugitive. The Bakersfield Sound lives on in the grooves of these records.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Recent Acquisitions: Dollar Bin Finds (12-22-09)

Frank Sinatra, Come Fly With Me (Capitol, gray label, original pressing). Rule #16 in rocky's record collecting manifesto: never, ever pass up a Sinatra album on the Capitol gray label in good condition for a buck.
Gerald Wiggins Trio, The Loveliness of You (Tampa, original pressing). Tampa was a short-lived jazz label based in Hollywood, CA. The only reason I'm aware of the label is because Art Pepper recorded a couple albums for the label. Those albums sell for crazy money. Gerald Wiggins isn't nearly as well-known or collected as Pepper. The music is pleasant, West Coast cool jazz that wouldn't be out of place in a fancy piano bar. This pristine copy only set me back a quarter.
Nina Simone, Sings the Blues (RCA, German pressing). I love the cover of this album. It wouldn't matter if the music sucked for the 50 cents it cost. But the music is good to boot.
The Allman Brothers Band, The Allman Brothers Band (Atco, yellow label, 2nd pressing). This is their debut album and the only one of ABBs first five albums missing from my collection. No longer. They're all great.
The Allman Brothers Band, Live at Fillmore East (Capricorn, pink label, original pressing, 2-LP). The cover has some ring wear and edge wear, but the records play beautifully. I would've been happy with this copy if I didn't already have a mint original pressing of this album. I'll probably sell this copy. Clean pink Capricorns of this album are pretty hard to come by.
ZZ Top, Tres Hombres (London, original pressing). This is what happens when albums are only a dollar. You buy albums by bands you don't like. This is my second ZZ Top album. This one is actually pretty good though. It's a dollar well spent.
Isaac Hayes, In the Beginning (Atlantic, reissue of Presenting Isaac Hayes). rocky b confuzed. rocky bawt reeishoe not nowing it reeishoe. such a dumkopf rocky. oh, only sumtimes--may be, no, yes?
Jean-Michel Barre, Zoolook (Dreyfus, French pressing). I took a flyer on this one, even though: it's 80s French electronic music; the credits on the sleeves are in over a dozen languages, including some kind of cuneiform (those pretentious Frenchies! [good name for a band btw]); there's a credit for an "ethnologist" (I've never seen that on an album before, but then I don't own every single David Byrne or Ry Cooder album); Laurie Anderson is credited with vocals on one of the songs, and the cover has garish 80s colors. It's gotta be bad, you say. Well, you'd be half right.
John Hiatt, Slow Turning (A&M Records). I had to rescue John Hiatt from the dollar bin. It was too sad to see him mingling with Englebert Humperdink, Hall and Oates, and Heaven 17.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Album Cover Gallery: Body Shots (Gatefold Covers)

Try doing this with your CD cases:

The inside of the Three Degrees gatefold is worth showing, too:

Isaac Hayes takes the gatefold to a whole new level on his epic double-LP Black Moses:

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Listening Session: Cecil Taylor, Unit Structures

Do you find yourself bored by Ornette Coleman's compositions? Are you of the opinion that Eric Dolphy plays it too safe? Then, my friend, Cecil Taylor is for you. There is no one I've listened to that stretches the limit of jazz more than Taylor. Among his many recordings, Unit Structures and his subsequent album on Blue Note Conquistador are recognized as two of his best.

These are not your typical Blue Note blowing sessions. If there's a fault with the Blue Note house sound, it's that it can get awfully formulaic. What separates the Blue Note hard bop albums from each other is the improvisational quality of the soloists. Well, what if you make an album that's total improvisation? No stated melody, no chorus, no obvious time signature. Welcome to Cecil Taylor's world, where everyone is free.

The cool album cover for Unit Structures by the genius Blue Note tandem of graphic designer Reid Miles and photographer Francis Wolff doesn't give away the music inside. However, unusual for a Blue Note album, the liner notes on the back cover isn't written by an esteemed jazz critic, but rather by the artist himself. One wonders whether Blue Note was unable to enlist a jazz critic who could write intelligently about the music. Cecil Taylor certainly doesn't elucidate his music. His notes further mystify. What is the reader/listener to supposed to make of this line: "Rhythm then is existence and existence time, content offers time quantity to shape: color, mental physical participation. Passage is search against mirror held--reveal the waters of greed, running love an older child set to the pain in fire." If you can make sense of those words, perhaps you have a shot of making sense of his music.

Despite the music's obtuseness, there is something there that can hold your attention. I've listened to the album straight through three times. I was just as lost on the third listen as on the first, although by the third listen it was evident that Taylor is a phenomenal pianist. I wanted to hear a solo album by him. Listening to Unit Structure is not a pleasant experience and surely not meant to be. The album feels like a challenge issued by the artist on the complacent listener. It even challenges the old jazz idiom about "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing". This album certainly doesn't swing. So what does it mean? Perhaps the artist expresses the meaning the best in the final line of the liner notes: "now a lone rain falling thru doors empty of room-Jazz Naked Fire Gesture, Dancing protoplasm Absorbs." Got that?

Saturday, December 5, 2009


For the winter Rocky has left the sunny climes of Swedish pop music for the Germanic freak scene of krautrock. Lately, Can's Tago Mago has been getting a lot of airplay, even if it's the ear-bleeding CD version. (If any readers come across any Can vinyl, drop me a line.) Sometimes one has to sacrifice to hear great music. And this album is a stone-cold masterpiece despite the suspect vocals of Damo Suzuki. The story goes the original vocalist of the band Malcom Mooney suffered a nervous breakdown in the middle of performance, repeatedly chanting "upstairs, downstairs!" during one of Can's trademark grooves. No problem. The band replaced the African American Malcom Mooney with the Japanese Damo Suzuki. Then Damo left the band after recording a couple of classic albums, returning to Japan to become a Jehovah's Witness.

All I can say is: the world is a surprising and amazing place when it has room enough for this (a performance of "Paperhouse", the opening track of Tago Mago):

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Recent Acquisitions: December 2, 2009

Radio Moscow, Radio Moscow (Alive Records, new, $6). This copy of their debut is pressed on pink vinyl. My copy of their second album is on lilac-colored vinyl. Do I see fuchsia vinyl for their next release?
Editors, An End Has a Start (Fader, new, $8). A while ago, I expressed hopes for an Echo-and-the-Bunnymen revival. Well, here it is.
Klaus Schulze, Timewind (Brain, original German pressing, $7.50). I bought this because it was on the German Brain label, which is to 70s krautrock as SST is to 80s punk rock. This is another foray into ambient music. Schulze is another discovery for me. If you can imagine the spacey synth interludes of Dark Side of the Moon stretched to fill an entire album, it would be something like Timewind.
Lee Morgan, Cornbread (Blue Note, 70s reissue with blue label, $12). About five years ago I had a copy of this album in my hands at Amoeba, but decided to put it back in the bin. As soon as I returned it, the guy standing next to me snatched it up. I’ve looked back at that moment regretfully. Has it been completely rectified now? Even though I now have a vinyl copy of Cornbread I still feel a sense of loss about that moment at Amoeba.
Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2 (Blue Note, late 60s reissue with Division of Liberty Records label, $16). This is a regular 33rpm version to play when I don’t feel like listening to my 45rpm audiophile pressing.
Cal Tjader, Plays Mambo (Fantasy, mono original pressing on red vinyl, $12). If I ever hosted a party for imps and pixies, this album would be on the turntable as quickly as you can say “fabulist's fantasy farts!”
Lalo Schifrin, Brilliance (Roulette, original stereo pressing, $8). It's an apt album title, although not as clever as There's a Whole Lalo Schifrin Goin' On.
Duke Ellington, Piano in the Foreground (Columbia, stereo 2-eye label, $8). Duke playing a rare trio date in a pensive mood.
Donald Byrd, Catwalk (Blue Note, 70s reissue on blue label, $10).
Hank Mobley, Roll Call (Blue Note/Music Matters reissue on 180-gm, 45-rpm vinyl, new, $50).
Wayne Shorter, Juju (Blue Note/Music Matters reissue on 180-gm, 45-rpm vinyl, new, $50).
Isley Brothers, Doin’ Their Thing (Motown, $1). There's a thrift shop in town operated by a women's shelter. Judging by their record selection, most of their donations come from Christian fundamentalists (who listened to a lot of Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Tennessee Ernie Ford) and aging soulsters (who listened to a lot of Patti LaBelle and the Isley Brothers).