Tuesday, December 14, 2010

1969-1974

This has to be the most fertile period in popular music. Sly Stone had liberated R&B music from the formulaic, radio friendly confines of Motown, and you had Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and countless other singers on independent R&B labels creating some wicked tracks thereafter. Miles Davis was ripping off Sly Stone in creating fusion jazz. Santana was ripping off Miles's fusion jazz and combining it with latin rock. Tim Buckley was ripping off old Miles in creating jazzy folk. The Who were experimenting with synthesizers. Entire synthesizer bands like Tangerine Dream were cropping up in Germany. Kraftwerk were ripping off American R&B and fusing it with experimental electronic music and classical minimalism. Faust and Amon Duul II were ripping off American R&B and fusion jazz and mating it with weird Germanic psychedelia. There was some crazy cross-pollination going on. The Beatles hegemony was over. Not everyone was covering Beatles songs or trying to sound like the Stones. Bob Dylan got tired and dropped from the scene. There was room for others to create.

During this period, I was listening to Captain and Tenille and The Monkees. Jesus! Now, when I look for new music, I don't seek new releases from 2010. I look for albums from 1969-1974 by bands and artists that I had never listened to before. That new Syl Johnson box set looks pretty sweet.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Little Giant

This photograph of a boy was inside the sleeve of a Johnny Griffin album I bought a while ago. The name of the album is The Little Giant. The photo appears to be a school portrait. It's cut crookedly on the right side. For some reason, I'm convinced the album was owned by the boy's father, who rarely saw the boy due to a divorce. The boy had some unusual attribute that made his father think of him as a little giant. Perhaps the boy survived some kind of childhood disease. The father slipped the picture of his boy in the album sleeve to remind himself every time he played Johnny Griffin's The Little Giant of his own little giant.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Songs without Music


Reading Nicholson Baker's Anthologist has given me the itch to read and listen to some poetry, not just any poetry, but rhyming poetry, what Baker calls poems with a four-beat meter. It made me think that these poems are just songs without the music, kind of the inverse of Mendelssohn's "Songs without Words".

I took a trip to Moe's in Berkeley looking for poetry by Louise Bogan, who I had never heard of before reading Baker's book. Moe's has about 50 feet of seven-foot tall shelves filled with poetry books, but not a single one by Louise Bogan. In the "B" section I did find the Collected Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, who is also praised quite a bit in the Anthologist. I read a few poems and decided to pick it up. I was carrying it around until I reached the "R"s. I put it down to pull Roethke: Collected Poems from the shelf. It was a first edition hardcover from 1966. The cover was a little frayed and torn, but still looked nice with a photographic image of an unsmiling Roethke on a blue monochromatic field, a crude likeness to the Blue Note album covers of that era.

I remembered that a high school teacher of mine gave me a book of Roethke poems as a graduation gift. I remembered that it was good, but it didn't really leave a strong impression. As I perused the Roethke volume at Moe's, I started to wonder what my former teacher saw in my 17-year-old unformed self that made her think of Roethke. Perhaps my more mature present self could find out. It seemed like an interesting bit of psychological sleuthing with a touch of nostalgia. As I was thinking about all this, I forgot about Elizabeth Bishop and left her behind. Don't worry, Liz, I'll be back for you.

The other thing I wanted to pick up was a record of a poet reading his or her own poetry. So I went across the street to Amoeba Records. Their poetry section turned out to be surpisingly skimpy. It seems like Nikki Giovanni was popular in the day people listened to poetry on records. There were several records of hers, some with a choir. Dylan Thomas records were also popular apparently. There was one of William Carlos Williams reading his poems. I like W.C.W., but he didn't write rhyming four-beat poems. I ended up picking up a Robert Frost record. It was recorded in 1957. I hope his voice was still strong when he recorded these poems. Frost isn't among my favorite poets, but it was the closest to the thing I was looking for and the thought of listening to the actual poet was still exciting

So, I'll be spending a few evenings reading Roethke, listening to Frost, and finding out if poetry unlocks any mysteries.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Recent Acquisitions: Exciting New Albums!

Collecting requires focus that I just can’t muster. Someone who hunts down every album and single released by an artist is a collector. Someone who buys everything that has to do with psychedelic music produced in San Francisco during the 1960s is a collector. Someone who spends a grand to get a pristine stereo copy of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today with the “butcher” cover and laments that he also doesn’t have a mono copy of the butcher cover is a collector. What am I? I’m a librarian compiling a musical library of vinyl records. Except you can’t check anything out of my library. Sorry. Actually, I’ll let you borrow Abba’s Greatest Hits 2. I can always replace it for a dollar if it's never returned.

New to the Rocky Dennis Non-Lending Music Library is a mid-70s UK pressing of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. A Nick Drake collector would sniff disdainfully at such a trifle. Only an original UK pressing with a pink-rimmed Island label would make him happy. That’ll cost upwards of $500. The copy I found has the same matrix number in the dead wax as an original pressing, which means it was made from the original stamper. The sound quality should be pretty darn close to an original pressing. That’s a prime concern for the library. It cost me $10. It’s a great addition to the library. I’m happy, because I’m not a collector.

I had also been looking for an original pressing of Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. This is the first Mingus album I ever heard, on CD unfortunately. I’ve passed on picking up a vinyl copy, because I hadn’t come across a clean original pressing. Last year, I found a kinda worn playable copy priced at $55. I almost pulled the trigger. I’m glad I didn’t, because I would’ve been bummed out to have seen a pristine copy this month for only $25. It plays beautifully. The album is even better than I remember it. The magic of vinyl is undeniable!

Since I’m building a library, I feel compelled sometimes to buy an album because I feel it needs to be part of the library even though it doesn’t appeal to me personally. That’s how Weezer’s debut album (often called “The Blue Album”) found its way into my collection. Because it’s one of the most influential albums of the 90s. And it’s the only Weezer album that is out of print on vinyl. The copy I found is a European import. I’m not sure if it was ever released on vinyl in the US. The music isn’t that bad. The sound quality isn’t that good. Still I’m happy it’s now part of the library.

I probably listen to more krautrock now than any other musical genre. Good luck finding any original pressings of krautrock albums in your neighborhood record store, aside from Kraftwerk. There are a lot of reissues available, but most of them have indifferent sonics. So when I came across an original UK pressing of Faust IV recently, I did a mental somersault. Not only was it an original pressing, the matrix number indicated it was made from the first stamper. On my list of things to do is to compare this record to the CD I have.

A few more LPs I can check off my list are:

Horace Silver, Finger Poppin’ (Blue Note, 70s pressing with blue label, Van Gelder in dead wax, $10). It seems like I have a ton of Horace Silver albums, but this one has eluded me until now.

Jennifer Warnes, Famous Blue Raincoat (Cypress, original pressing, $10). An entire album of Leonard Cohen covers done in AOR style. Still enjoyable, and a reference recording for many audiophiles even though it’s a digital recording.

Introducing the Beau Brummels (Autumn, original stereo pressing, $10). Not as great as their second album, but gorgeous San Francisco 60s pop rock nonetheless. Surprising excellent sound quality, too.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Soul Music

My latest trip to the thrift shop yielded a gold nugget, an original stereo pressing of Sam Cooke's Hits of the 50's. I've never listened closely to any Sam Cooke until now, which is a crying shame, because this record convinced me that he's the greatest singer ever. His voice has a certain sweet undertone that's missing in singers with a voice as smooth as his, like Sinatra, and singers with the same kind of bewildering ranges that he has, like Orbison. It's a sweetness that makes you believe music is a transcendent art. The songs on the album are simple in melody, orchestration, and sentiment. Sam Cooke's voice provides a beneficent spirit to the song that make them seem like a gift from God to comfort us.

It's records like this that make me thankful for vinyl and my stereo. After hearing the album, I bought a CD of Cooke's greatest hits. The CD sounds good, but his voice lacks the body that's present on the album and, therefore, doesn't have the same visceral impact. RCA records from the late 50s/early 60s are among the best LPs ever recorded. I've listened and appreciated this album many times, scratches and all, more so than the CD. After writing about the folly of new music, it's uplifting to find something that I consider essential.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Poser

Rocky's notes: The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour is playing on the crappy portable turntable. She's holding a copy of David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. Judging by the black RCA label and the barcode on the back cover, it's an 80s pressing of the album. Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde is on the floor. There's an Impulse! jazz album on the shelf. Oh, and she's sitting in a beautiful Eero Saarinen Womb chair.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The State That We Are In, Pt. 2: The Suburbs

Some albums make you think. Some albums make you feel. Some albums make you think about how you feel. If you're like Win Butler and his band Arcade Fire, you feel something and you sense it's important but you're not quite sure what it is. The chorus of the song "Modern Man" from the excellent new album The Suburbs is "Makes me feel like. . . /Makes me feel like. . . /Makes me feel like. . ." Those ellipses go to the heart of the problem. What this album isn't is a facile critique of the banality of the suburbs. The album isn't really about the suburbs despite the title and the number of songs in which the word pops up. It really has to do with finding one's self in an uncentered world, for which the suburbs is the perfect geographical metaphor. If the metaphysical world, like the physical world, has no sense of place, how does one navigate through it?

As Regine Chassagne sings in "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)": "These days my life I feel it has no purpose, but late at night the feelings swim towards the surface" and then later, "I sometimes wonder if the world's so small, that we can never get away from the sprawl." The latter line suggests the dilemma of our age: There is no escaping the all-enveloping presence of the modern world; it even pours into our internal world, crowding out all else.

Throughout the album the songs intimate the potential of breaking through the meaningless chaff that surrounds us. It offers no answers, although it gets close when Win Butler sings in "Deep Blue": "Hey, put the cellphone down for a while./In the night there is something wild./Can you hear it breathing?/And hey, put that laptop down for a while./In the night there is something wild./I feel it's leaving me." (In case you're wondering "Deep Blue" is a reference to the IBM computer that played Gary Kasparov in chess. Kasparov won in 1996 and Deep Blue won the rematch in 1997.) The answer seems to be found at night, in darkness, with the world shut out, reinforced in the line from "Half Light I": "Night tears us loose and in the half-light we're free."

Having just read John Updike's novel Rabbit, Run, this album reminded me of the start of the novel in which Rabbit Angstrom goes to pick up his son at his parent's house and ends up driving across several states through the night only to end up near where he began. Except he doesn't return to his family. Instead, he ends up leading a different life in a town on the other side of the mountain from his own. He can't quite escape his small-town existence even though there is a life force in him that the small-town life can't contain. Driving also is a recurring act in The Suburbs, appropriately enough. It's more a metaphor for a search rather than an escape. Just like Rabbit Angstrom, who has the feeling, but doesn't know where it will take him, Arcade Fire feels there is a life to be found amidst the lifeless sprawl surrounding us. From "Empty Room": "When I'm by myself, I can be myself/And my life is coming but I don't know when."

The State That We Are In, Pt. 1: An Age of Folly

In the 18th century architectural follies were a popular component of European park design. These structures served no purpose except to delight the eye. They were often fanciful in design, replete with exotic ornamentation, but essentially ignored the primary purpose of architecture. One couldn't inhabit them or use them as shelters for a picnic or any other activity.

The idea of architectural follies came to mind when I was reading about an internet application that could form a playlist of songs about various points on a map based on a route selected by the user. It struck me as kind of neat and clever, but what does it have to do with anything? Sure, one could form a playlist for a road trip using the application and listen to songs that mention places along the way as you pass through them. So what? It's ultimately an impersonal exercise while you serve as a vector in the exercise. I'd rather choose my own songs for the journey.

We seem to be consumed by such follies these days, from the inane, such as video games, to the nefarious, such as the Ground Zero mosque controversy, that divert us from more substantial matters. Folly also dominates popular art forms. I can't stand to go to movies now, because film-makers aren't even trying to create something substantial; they're trying to create a successful folly. The same can be said about popular music. What are these artists trying to communicate? Nothing, really. Is there a recent film you watched that made you re-think your life or aspects of this world? Is there a recent album that stirred your soul?

Of course, I'm generalizing and ignoring the exceptions. There are substantial, worthwhile things being produced today. The problem is they're getting harder to find as more junk and clever inconsequential creations are made available to us. Sturgeon's Law should be updated to state 98% of anything is crap. And I'm not condemning follies. They can provide amusement. Let's just not begin to think we can live in them.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Back From Vacation

Well, I didn't come across any record stores on my trip abroad. It wasn't that kind of vacation. There were a couple of incidental vinyl moments though. The first was at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In the design room, amidst the vintage Eames and Mackintosh furniture, I came across album covers of the Beatles, David Bowie, and the Sex Pistols. I haven't quite figured what it means to have album covers in a legitimate art museum. Usually it's a death knell that a movement is over.

In the beach town of Salou, Spain, I happened across a sign for Bluesman Records on the main street along the coast. It seemed like a sign pulled off a bad-ass street in New Orleans and randomly placed along a sunny strip of souvenir shops, outdoor cafes, and gelaterias. Of course, there was no record store there. Why would anyone buy records here, when one could frolic on a Mediterranean beach? Even rocky would concede that one.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Going on Vacation



Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Swedish Pop Music Break

rocky needs to get to Gothenburg to see Sambassadeur live

Monday, July 5, 2010

Listening Session: The Doobie Brothers, The Captain and Me. . .

. . . or how rocky learns how to accept what he once hated.

I can't think of a song I hated more back in the 70s than "Takin' It to the Streets" by the Doobie Brothers. Listening to that song was like swallowing steel wool. 1976 was torture because that song was everywhere.

In a strange twist of fate I find myself living in Doobie Brothers country, about 30 miles from where the band got its start. Strange things happen with changes of scenery. Like one gets an urge to listen to "China Grove", which is on The Captain and Me album. So I plucked it out of the dollar bin and recently gave it a spin with my critical filters off.

I'll put it this way: If you were in a bar and the Doobie Brothers were the bar band and they played this album as their set and you had a light buzz going after a couple tumblers of whiskey, you'd think "Damn, this is one fine-sounding band". That is, if you could ignore the few folks who'd inevitably get up in front of the stage to impose their dancing skills (or lack thereof) on the rest of us. Yeah, it makes white people want to boogie. I now accept that as not such a bad thing.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Album Cover Gallery: Rocky's Worst


How you make a bad cover...

even worse:

Is Bing reaching in his pocket for some peanuts for Satchmo?

If homeless men designed album covers, they'd look a lot like this:

Keep your pantaloons on, gents, bawdiness ahead!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Recent Acquisitions: 6-18-10


The following albums were bought for the princely sum of $20. I can have my cake and records, too!

B-52’s, B-52’s (Warner Brothers, original pressing). A dadaist masterpiece with lines like, “Why don’t you dance with me? I’m not no Limburger.”

Beach Boys, Sunflower (Brothers Records, original pressing). The album before my favorite BB album, Surf’s Up. Side 1 of Sunflower is as good as any side they recorded.

Beach Boys, Holland (Brothers Records, original pressing). The album after Surf’s Up. I didn’t become a BB fan until I heard Surf’s Up. They’re later albums, which didn’t do well commercially, have richness and weight to them that is lacking in their more exuberant early albums. It’s called growing up. Even Pet Sounds seems kind of adolescent to me.

Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure (Atco, second pressing). Brian Ferry, Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, and Andy McKay trying to please rocky? Mission accomplished!

Astrud Gilberto, The Shadow of Your Smile (Verve, original stereo pressing, Van Gelder in dead wax). Do smiles cast shadows? Yes, in a bossa nova world.

Chico Hamilton, A Different Journey (Reprise, white label promo, original mono pressing). It’s a good thing Chico isn’t alive to see that they’re practically giving away his albums.

Charles Mingus, Mingus Dynasty (Columbia, 6-eye label, original mono pressing). This is almost as good as the masterpiece that preceded it, Mingus Ah-Um.

Shelly Manne, Shelly Manne & His Men at the Black Hawk, Vol. 3 (Contemporary, original stereo pressing). If I told you this was recorded in San Francisco, you’d probably guess by the title that it’s the soundtrack to a transvestite burlesque show at a gay strip club. You’d be wrong. It’s straight west coast jazz. So is their next live album, Shelly Manne and His Men at the Manne-Hole. I kid you not.

Michel Legrand, Le Jazz Grand (Gryphon, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab reissue). This 1978 album is like a bookend to Legrand Jazz recorded 20 years earlier.

Cannonball Adderly, 74 Miles Away (Capitol, original stereo pressing). The title begs the question, what’s 74 miles away? My guess: The last place Cannonball passed up a meal.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Inspiration

for setting up a bedroom:



This is the back cover of Ryan Adams' Gold. Notice the stereo with record player next to the bed, and drinks above and to the left and right of the bed. There's a song on the album called "The Bar Is a Beautiful Place". I'd choose this bed over any bar.

Monday, June 7, 2010

This Swedish Pop Music Break Has Been Pre-Empted by Bill Evans

I was going to make this a Swedish pop music break featuring a video of Monica Zetterlund singing "Waltz for Debby" in Swedish, accompanied by the Bill Evans Trio, as filmed in the style of Fellini. The video is notable because Evans rarely backed singers. But alas the video has disabled embedding. You can go here if you want to view it. Instead, here's a superior version of the song performed by the Bill Evans Trio sans singer:

Recent Acquisitions: 6-7-10


Bill Evans and Jim Hall, Undercurrent (United Artists Jazz, mid-60s stereo pressing, $18). This has been on my list for as long as I can remember. It’s one of the best jazz duo recordings ever. The cover featuring a woman floating in water is also beautiful and haunting, worth having in the large LP format. There’s a cheap reissue available, but there’s nothing like having an original.

John Coltrane, Coltrane (Impulse, Analogue Productions 45rpm reissue, 2-LPs, $20). This is the first recording of Coltrane’s classic quartet. It’s one of the few Coltrane Impulse records I didn’t have. So when I saw this mint reissue at less than half the cost of it new, I snapped it up.

Chico Hamilton Trio, Chico Hamilton Trio (Pacific Jazz, original mono pressing, $10). The price of used records has been increasing steadily in the last few years even in the midst of the recession. There are exceptions to this trend. Some very expensive records have a hard time selling. And a few artists seem to have gone out of favor, as reflected in the price decline of their records. Chico Hamilton seems to be one of them. This is good news for a Hamilton fan. His recordings from the 50s and 60s are consistently worth listening to. Foreststorn Hamilton (real name) had something in common with Art Blakey besides being a drummer and band leader. He was a prodigious discoverer of talent. Eric Dolphy made his first commercially recorded appearance on a Chico Hamilton record. Other notable sidemen in Hamilton’s band included Jim Hall, Paul Horn, Charles Lloyd, Gabor Szabo, and Larry Coryell. One could attribute the lack of appreciation for Hamilton on the general bias against West Coast jazz. Whatever the reasons, if I can pick up original pressings of his 50s records for ten bucks, I’m not going to complain.

Leonard Cohen, New Skin for an Old Ceremony (Columbia, second pressing, $1). This copy has an alternative cover with a black-and-white portrait of Cohen, which I had never seen. The original cover has an illustration of a winged couple from an alchemical document. Whenever I think of Leonard Cohen, I’m reminded of a scene from college. Our film class was having class outdoors on a beautiful spring day. We were discussing McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which features a number of Cohen songs (one of many unconventional touches in Altman’s “Western”). The discussion steered toward Cohen’s songs and was guaranteed to go nowhere when the professor admitted she was embarrassed to having liked Cohen when she was our age. Yet she didn’t seem embarrassed about letting everyone look up her skirt the way she sat open-legged on the grass. That’s what I think of when I think of Leonard Cohen.

Michel Legrand, Legrand Jazz (Columbia, original mono pressing, 6-eye label, $2). This album would be the answer to a good trivia question: Which non-compilation jazz album features Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Hank Jones, Ben Webster, Art Farmer, Donald Byrd, and Phil Woods? Second clue: Playing arrangements by a French guy who wrote the score to The Ode to Billie Joe and the theme to Brian’s Song?

Gang of Four, Solid Gold (EMI, original pressing, $8). Remember when bands had something to say? Remember when punk, reggae and rap music had social and political messages? Remember what it was like to have fun and be politically conscious? Okay, there were popular airheaded acts back in the day (cf. Madonna, the 80s equivalent to Lady Gaga), but what is today’s equivalent to Gang of Four? I can’t think of one either.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

God Help the Girl

A very long time ago, I bought my first and only Marianne Faithfull album, Broken English. What I remember is how bleak the album sounded--the songs delivered in Faithfull's cracked and weary voice, the expression on her face on the cover while shielding her eyes with a hand holding a cigarette just gave off the vibes of a defeated person. So I was surprised to hear this:



The Jagger-Richards penned song launched her career at age 17. The following year, the Stones recorded their own, now more famous, version. Around that time Faithfull gained sympathy for the devil, getting romantically involved with Jagger and with heroin. It all led to the person who recorded Broken English.

I've been listening to her eponymous debut album a lot lately, which I picked up in the dollar bin a while ago. It's a bunch of sad songs sung in her then sweet and innocent voice. It's not artistically notable, but charming nonetheless. There's something refreshing in her understated delivery that is the opposite of, say, Whitney Houston. It also makes the sad songs not so sad, quite the opposite.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

Listening Session: Jimmy Giuffre, Free Fall

Jimmy Giuffre (pronounced JOOfray) isn’t a household name in jazz although he possibly could have been, had he followed a more conventional musical career path. He certainly started on that path when he worked as an arranger for Woody Herman’s big band, penning one of its hits, “Four Brothers”. When Giuffre led his own group in the mid- and late fifties, he produced a number of accessible cool jazz albums to moderate commercial success. But even at this point something was off-kilter, most notably the composition of his band. He mainly performed in a trio with himself on saxophone or clarinet and Jim Hall on guitar and a bassist or a trombonist. Not your typical jazz trio.

Giuffre really let go of conventional music-making in the early sixties when he ventured into free jazz with a trio consisting of Paul Bley on piano and Steve Swallow on bass. He released albums with titles like “Thesis” and “Fusion” which tipped off the abstract nature of the music. I recently listened to his last album with this group, “Free Fall” (1962). It was pretty much dismissed upon its released, but its reputation has grown ever since. It’s a difficult album to listen to, because there’s no discernible melody or harmony or rhythm. It doesn’t sound much like jazz at all. In fact, the nearest musical analog is Oliver Messiaen’s classical chamber works. Giuffre’s clarinet on “Free Fall” is reminiscent of the oft-used clarinets in Messiaen’s music, which evoke the calls of other-worldly, mystical birds. Whereas Messiaen usually had religious—specifically Catholic—themes in mind, Giuffre doesn’t seem to have any narrative or theme in mind. It’s more like an abstract painting done with sound. “Free Fall” differs from other free jazz in the way that the abstract expression of Mark Rothko differs from that of Jackson Pollock: There’s less frenetic energy and more calm moodiness.

I listened to “Free Fall” straight through willingly, unlike my recent session with Cecil Taylor for which I forced myself to listen. “Free Fall” is captivating in its own inscrutable way. The title is indicative of the musical experience as the listener must let go of all musical convention and just go where the artist takes him. It also describes the commercial trajectory of Giuffre's record. It was three years before he released another record, on an independent label. The Columbia PR man who decided to put the sticker on the cover heralding "A New Star on Columbia Records" obviously didn't bother listening to this difficult album.



The copy of “Free Fall” I have is a white label promo. These are promotional copies that were distributed for free to radio stations and industry representatives. As the name suggests, the labels are white instead of the standard color—in the case of Giuffre’s album the standard red Columbia label. Record collectors value WLPs because of their scarcity. Audiophiles value them because they are usually among the first copies pressed and thus benefit from fresh, unworn stampers.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Talking about music is like dancing about architecture." --Thelonious Monk.

Hmm, might this be a pointless endeavor?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Listening Session: Jonsi, Go

I’ve got a problem with most new music: it all sounds inconsequential. There’s very little sense of urgency and emotional involvement on the part of the band. Even critically acclaimed bands sound like self-involved craftsmen who are dazzled by their own cleverness (e.g., I mean you, Grizzly Bear!) Sometimes listeners fall under their spell. But in the end, who’s actually moved by these bands?

Thank god there are a few exceptions to this wave of banality. Sigur Ros is a band that wants to move you. They want to take you to a higher plane. Each song is a hymn. Sometimes they fail, but when they succeed, they’re one of the few bands that will deliver that ecstatic moment. People have been known to cry at Sigur Ros concerts. I’ve had out-of-body experiences listening to their music, where my consciousness or soul seems to disengage with my physical being and intermingle directly with the music. It’s hard to explain.

If you’ve seen the documentary film Heima, it’s clear the band members are good in the highest moral sense. The documentary follows the band performing a series of free concerts across Iceland. There are touching scenes where they play in remote villages, outdoors on a chilly day or in the town hall, to mainly old people and families with children running around during the concert. (Sometimes, the band is able to captivate the children with their music.) They play acoustic versions of their songs mixed in with traditional Icelandic tunes in these venues. The effort the band takes to connect with rural Icelanders is brought home at the end of the film when you witness the typical, full-blown sonic assault of a Sigur Ros concert in Reykjavik. Both the pastoral, acoustic versions and the electronic, feedback-laden versions of their songs work, because their songs have good bones.

Jonsi is the front man with the castrato’s voice for Sigur Ros. According to Wikipedia, he’s openly gay and a vegetarian who prefers to eat only raw food. Why am I not surprised? I was surprised by his new solo album Go, which is the best new album I’ve heard in a long, long time. Go shares some similarities with Sigur Ros albums in the use of heavy orchestration and dense arrangements. But in spirit it’s a departure from Sigur Ros albums. The comparison that comes to mind is of Baroque composers who wrote religious song-cycles for religious occasions and secular song-cycles for secular occasions. Go sounds like a secular work; it features shorter, more direct songs (four or five minutes instead of eight to ten minutes), faster rhythms, and a lighter feel than a Sigur Ros album. There are no weak songs on the album. Despite its “secular” spirit, the album is filled with beautiful moments. This guy just can’t help it.

(A word about the sound quality: Sigur Ros albums are among the most sonically impressive records produced these days. Whereas a lot of contemporary albums are loud and compressed with the intent of being noticed and end up delivering an approximation of music, Sigur Ros albums possess a startling clarity in sound. Jonsi's album is no different. These guys care.)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Album Cover Gallery: Posers

With poses like this on the cover of their debut album, it seems redundant to have titled their next album Nurds.

Karma: Pharaoh Sanders must've killed some children in a previous life to have had to pose like this on an album cover.

Madonna's Confession on the Dance Floor: "Dear Lord, I know I'm vain, because striking this pose really hurts like hell on my middle-aged body."

If I remember my physics lessons, I'm fairly certain Sly Stone is breaking a law of thermodynamics by going airborne in platform boots.

There's a German word for this. It's volksdummposen.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tax Refund!


I have no idea what the Tea Baggers are belly-aching about. The federal income tax was lowered last year for 95 percent of Americans. I certainly got a larger refund than expected. That gave me the excuse to get this deluxe Bill Evans box set containing all ten of his Riverside albums plus a Cannonball Adderly album on which Evans played. These are 45 rpm audiophile pressings and among the best sounding records I have ever heard. Of course, the music is sublime. Evans is the most elegant of jazz pianists; he never seems to take a false step.

Here are a couple choice Evans quotes from the booklet included in the box set:
"Discipline and freedom have to mix in a very sensitive way. . . . I believe all music is romantic, but if it gets schmaltzy, romanticism is disturbing. On the other hand, romanticism handled with discipline is the most beautiful kind of beauty."

"My creed for art in general is that it should enrich the soul: it should teach spiritually by showing a person a portion of himself that he would not discover otherwise. It's easy to rediscover a part of yourself, but through art you can be shown a part of yourself you never knew existed. That's the real mission of art. The artist has to find something within himself that is universal, and which he can put into terms that are communicable to other people. The magic of it is that art can communicate this to a person without his realizing it. Enrichment, that's the function of music."

Everybody digs Bill Evans.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Quick Listening Notes


It's been a while since I had an entire evening devoted to listening to music. Here's what was spun on the old deck:

Donald Byrd, Byrd in Hand (Blue Note, Classic Records reissue in mono). This is a very enjoyable set, as are most of Byrd's Blue Note blowing sessions, before he went Funking Up My Life (yes, that's a title of one of his later albums--actually it's Thank You for F.U.M.L. (ed. ROTFLMAO!)) But this is a straight bop session where Byrd plays in his typically polished style that goes down real easy. I also like Pepper Adams on this album. No one makes a baritone sax growl like Pepper Adams.

Roxy Music, Stranded. I've been listening to a lot of Roxy Music lately, especially the early stuff. I've made peace with Bryan Ferry, whose singing/crooning style and warbling voice seemed like such an affectation to the point of being annoying. Yes, it's total affectation. Some critics have interpreted it as being ironic, which, as we all know, is the humor of the resigned. Let me share my recent revelation: Ferry is faking the irony. The over-the-top crooning is just to throw us off, it's the shield that guards his earnest romanticism. Then there's also adventurous music-making on the early albums, thanks to Brian Eno (though not on Stranded) and Phil Manzanera.

Gerry Mulligan, Mainstream in Jazz (Emarcy). I picked up this monophonic original pressing from 1956 for cheap because it looked beat up. After cleaning it on the record cleaning machine, it actually played real nicely. You never know with vinyl records. I've also had pristine-looking records play like Rice Krispies. Unlike Pepper Adams, Mulligan's baritone is smooth as velvet. This session features a pianoless sextet playing cool West Coast jazz and it really Swings. It doesn't hurt to have Zoot Sims playing tenor.

The Byrds, Turn! Turn! Turn! (Columbia mono original pressing). This was the only album of the listening session that sounded dated. I was trying to figure out what made the music sound so dated. After the first three songs, it occurred to me that each one had Clark, McGuinn and Crosby singing in harmony most of the time. No one sings that much harmony anymore, whereas the 60s had the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, the Righteous Brothers, etc., etc. Well, there are some bands now introducing more harmonic singing, like Grizzly Bear, but they do it oh so lamely. Fuck you, Grizzly Bear!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Swedish Pop Music Break

The Tallest Man on Earth is Swedish and I think he's 8 foot 2.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What They Left Behind

As noted in previous posts, used records are sometimes weighed with the personal information of the previous owner. An entire collection of records begins to sketch a picture of its owner, certainly his or her musical taste, from which one can infer a larger idea of the person. I discovered that an estate sale is an even more intense exercise in material biography. I went to my first estate sale held at a residence last weekend. Everything inside the house was for sale. It was a fascinating and unsettling experience. It was fascinating only because the former owners seemed to have led interesting lives and had amassed things that reflected their experiences and aesthetic values.

From the ephemera in the den, it was easy to surmise that the former resident was an accountant and a music lover. Accounting books and an old-fashioned calculator sat next to a classic Fisher 400 tube receiver and Garrard turntable. The record collection consisted mainly of classical and ethnic music from around the world. It was obvious the couple loved to travel, as the hallway was adorned with photographs taken in exotic locations. I found in the bedroom a small, framed, black-and-white photo of a woman standing in front of a crude stone building with a crenelated top, which I guess could have been taken in North Africa or the Middle East. I took this home. I also took home a collection of used matchbooks that was a travel log in themselves. The man smoked a pipe, which I did not take home, and had saved the matchbooks he had picked up in restaurants, clubs, and hotels from Portland to Brussels.

Their house revealed that the couple had traveled extensively in Asia and had fallen in love with Asian art, which was found throughout. Although there wasn’t anything in the collection of Asian art and artifacts I cared for, I was moved by the collection itself. I could tell that it was assembled with love.

This estate sale was like the disassembling of a person, the break-up of a coherent entity into disparate incoherent parts. This was the unsettling part of my visit to the estate sale. I guess the most positive way to look at it is the pieces that are disassembled are re-assembled in the lives of others.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Listening Session: The Flaming Lips Doing The Dark Side of the Moon

There’s a conceit in rock music that one has to write one’s own songs to be considered seriously. Cover bands are for proms and bar mitzvahs. It wasn’t always like this. The first album by the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan were nothing but covers; the great Motown albums of the 60s were mainly penned by the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland; going further back, great popular singers such as Sinatra and Ella built their reputations as interpreters of songs and practitioners of the craft of singing rather than as songwriters. So why is there such currency given to artists performing original material these days? I have a half-formed theory involving our baby-boomer-driven solipsistic culture and mass-Freudian group-think. But that is neither here nor there to appreciate The Flaming Lips’ new album Doing the Dark Side of the Moon.

Like all great covers, the Lips’ album stands on its own and also makes the listener see the original in a new way. With respect to the latter point, this listener realized how English the original is after listening to the Flaming Lips version. The original is infused with a particularly English pastoral sensibility in its ruminations on mortality. Think A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The pace and mood of the album, as well as quaint touches like the clocks that go off at the start of “Time”, reinforce this pastoral vision. One can imagine if Wordsworth were alive in the 1970s, he’d be one of those smoking weed, staring at stars inside a planetarium while listening to The Dark Side of the Moon.

The Flaming Lips’ DSOTM strips all Englishness from the album—quite literally in “Time”, where the original line “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” ends with the word “desperation”. Instead of an album that elicits pot-smoking and gazing at stars, the Lips’ DSOTM conjures a Benzedrine-fueled ride down a super-highway. In other words, it sounds more American. The transformation is created by a faster pace, more aggressive rhythms, and arrangements that rely more electronic processing. Otherwise, the new album, from what I can tell, is close to a note-for-note, word-for-word cover of the original album. More significantly, if Pink Floyd’s vision is dominated by a wistful, resigned sense of decline of the individual soul under the force of modern dehumanizing civilization, the Flaming Lips’ version sounds more defiant and optimistic. The original album ends with a drum simulating a heartbeat and of course the heartbeat stops when the album ends. The new album maintains the beat but it sounds more like a mechanical valve inside a spaceship. Are we dead or embarking on a new journey? Perhaps we should ask the child on the cover of the Lips album shooting rainbow rays from his eyes.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Record Store Day 2010

Record Store Day seems to be catching on. This is the third year it's been "celebrated". Amoeba Records was swamped with vinyl collectors, mostly young. I arrived half an hour before Amoeba opened to browse at Moe's Books across the street. A line had already formed. When I finally entered Amoeba shortly after it opened, it was a mob scene in front of the racks displaying the "exclusive" releases. There were a lot more merchandise than in previous years and even more people picking them up. The recession must be over.

Some of the releases were pure gimmick for the hardcore collectors, like the reissue of REM's Chronic Town on blue vinyl and the limited reissue of Neko Case's Middle Cyclone on clear vinyl. Not worth buying again if you already own a copy. I did pick up a sort of gimmicky release, Pavement's Quarantine the Past with a different track listing than the regular release (chosen by a fan who won a contest) and different artwork.

Other releases I picked up were The Flaming Lips' Dark Side of the Moon (with Henry Rollins and Peaches), Goldfrapp's new album, a Soundgarden single, and a Rolling Stone's single of a never-before-released song from the Exile on Main Street sessions. I also got a schwag bag full of promo CDs, a Weezer 45, band posters, pins, magnets, stickers, and a sampler LP. Last year, I probably would've picked up more stuff, but maybe I'm just a little less crazy this year. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the music industry has finally caught on to the vinyl revival and is working extra hard to separate us from our cash. It seemed to be working on Record Store Day.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Creatures of the Vinyl Forest


The harsh reality facing the record collector is the dearth of listenable morsels in the vast vinyl forest of record stores and record swaps—and a proliferation of forest creatures after the same tasty morsels. In the Soul and R&B section, you’ll find DJs, hipsters, and collectors digging through worthless 70s and 80s soul and disco records for that obscure, rare 70s soul album that may be tucked away in the bins. You usually won’t find the most prolific creature of the vinyl forest, the doughy middle-aged man, in this corner of the forest. He’s foraging in the Classic rock and Jazz section, looking for original pressings of Neil Young albums or Miles Davis albums. Sometimes the doughy middle-aged man has his spouse in tow. You may think this is an advantage for the doughy middle-aged man, being able to scour twice as many albums in the same amount of time, but the spouse is invariably useless. Rarely does she come up with anything of value. A common scene in the vinyl forest is of a spouse approaching her record-collecting husband with a handful of records and excitement in her voice only to be deflated by the shake of his head as he glances at the worthless rubbish she has dug up.

Then there are doughy middle-aged men who have developed a special diet, say, of mono classical records, in which no one else has the faintest interest. I envy this sort. They can be found gorging by themselves in this untrampled corner of the vinyl forest. I’ve seen them walk away with boxes full of records from a store, while I could only manage to find two or three albums worth taking home. Other creatures not to be concerned about are the young pups just starting to collect records, lacking in the knowledge of desirable pressings and rare titles. When they mature into doughy middle-aged collectors with accumulated knowledge of the vinyl forest, they will become more formidable competition.

By far, the fiercest competition for Rocky is the hipster, who, despite his youth, has somehow honed his skills in sniffing out rare indie rock from the 80s and 90s, jazz and soul jazz from the 60s, and other staples of Rocky’s diet. I’ll never forget the unnerving feeling I had standing elbow-to-elbow with a twentysomething hipster at a record store, the sidelong glances that came my way as I was checking out the Replacements’ Stink, and the cool tone of his voice as I made a motion to return the album to the bin, “Are you going to get that?” Even though I had decided not to get it, I almost responded, “Yes, I am”, as my hoarding instinct kicked in. These hipsters may look like they sleep 18 hours a day, but their voracious appetite for vinyl knows no bounds. They will lay waste to the richest of the vinyl forests.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cool Things


The new Rega turntable for the Anglophile in you.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Record Store Day

This Saturday, April 17, is Record Store Day. It's just an excuse to splurge on records. I'll probably end up picking up a few limited edition records, including this intriguing release.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Play Jazz!


It's rocky's favorite time of the sports year--the start of the baseball season and the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Tigers mounted an incredible comeback today with a 3-run ninth inning to beat the Indians 9-8. The Giants made a more modest comeback behind the superhuman pitching of little Timmy Lincecum. Both of my teams are off to a fast start. Go Tigers! Go Giants!

I actually had tickets to today's Giants game, but ended up not going due to a 4-hour rain delay. Instead of "play ball!" it was "play jazz!" Namely this lovely album of jazzy interpretations of baseball standards by Andre Previn and Russ Freeman--fine West Coast Jazz for the start of the baseball season.

Recent Acquisitions: 4-11-10


Went to my first record swap of the year. Picked up a few things to fill in gaps in my collection.

Curtis Mayfield, Curtis (Curtom, $5). I've been looking for an original pressing in good condition of Mayfield's debut album for a long time. Bingo! This is one of my favorite record covers of all time. It's got such a hip, sunshiney feel--the yellow suit, Mayfield's reclining pose, the distorted perspective, and the bright sunlight coming from just outside the frame.

Al Green, Green Is Blues (Hi Records, $2.50). It's been a while since I've added to my Al Green Hi Records collection.

Lalo Schifrin, Music from Mission: Impossible (Dot Records, $2.50). Dum..Dum..da.dum..Dum..Dum..da.dum..Dum..Dum..da.dum..dadadadummmm,dadadadummmm. 'nuf said.

Van Morrison, Astral Weeks (Warner Brothers, W7 label, $5). This is, I think, the fifth copy of this album I've bought and the second original pressing. My other original pressing is fine, except it has an edge warp which gives the needle a wild roller coaster ride on the first track. This copy is flat.

Buffalo Springfield, Last Time Around (Atco, purple and brown label, $2.50). The last of BS's three studio albums and the last one to make it into my collection.

David Bowie, Images 1966-1967 (London, 2-LP, $5). Before Bowie discovered glam, he was a folky hippie. This collection of his early songs is bound to be bad, but I hold out hope that it'll surprise me.

Roxy Music, Roxy Music (Reprise, original pressing, $10). Growing up in the 70s, it seemed like the world was full of Roxy Music LPs. Yet these days the early Roxy Music albums seem hard to come by. My early memories of their plenitude prevent me from paying more than ten bucks for a copy. Even that's probably too much. Why do I even bother?

Brian Eno, Before and After Science (Island, $5). We're in the "after science" phase. No, the album's not about Sarah Palin and Christian fundamentalists. Wouldn't it be fun though to take these so-called "christians" who defend Bush-Cheney torture techniques and subject them to Brian Eno albums played at 100 dBs 24 hours a day? Just a thought.

Eno Moebius Roedelius, After the Heat (Sky, German pressing, $5). I really liked Eno's collaboration with Cluster, so I thought I'd give this one a try. (Note: These ambient albums by Eno shouldn't be used for the enhanced interrogation of "christians". Too tranquil.)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Annals of Excess


Rocky got flamed recently on an audio forum for calling $100,000+ turntables obscene. Take a look at one (the Clearaudio Statement pictured on the left) and decide for yourself.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Thrift Store Stories (cont'd)

When I walk into a thrift store, I’m hit by a sense of self-consciousness and social anxiety. I usually drop by during my lunch hour. So I tend to be better dressed in my work clothes than the other patrons. Most people who shop at thrift stores do so out of economic necessity. Then there are folks who are interested in picking up vintage pieces for thrifty prices. I count myself in this group. Who else would be buying $8 Dylan records?

I’ve never felt more self-conscious than the time I visited the Beunas Vidas Thrift Store on a Friday. Every Friday, Buenas Vidas distributes free loaves of bread in the back room, where furniture and other large items are kept. I was back there one day checking out a manual typewriter. There was a steady stream of people, mostly ragged-looking men, picking up bread while I fiddled with the typewriter, checking out its keys and stuff. Here I was thinking of buying a totally useless thing because it was kind of cool, surrounded by people who lacked the most essential thing in life. The contraposition made me feel a little guilty of being on the fortunate side. I attribute this to a nagging liberalism. I ended up buying the typewriter. There are many good reasons for shopping at thrifts, chief among them is the money goes to a charity and the purchased item doesn’t go to a landfill. Sometimes, though, reason can’t overcome self-consciousness and an in-grained sense of guilt.

Thrift Store Stories (Recent Acquisitions 3-22-10)

In my recent round of visiting local thrift stores, I’ve picked up amateur paintings, prints, hand-made pottery, vintage postcards, clocks and the like. I’ve pretty much avoided looking at records, because it’s usually a dreary affair having to flip through a dusty pile of records only to encounter countless albums by Streisand, Jim Nabors, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Mitch Miller. The time it takes to go through all the trashy records to find a decent one usually isn’t worth it. There are stories of thrift stores allowing record dealers to go through donated records before putting them on the floor. I believe it. Goodwill operates an online auction site for selling merchandise of any value, including records. I’ve found exactly one record worth buying at a Goodwill store (Jacqueline Du Pre’s recording of the Dvorak cello concerto).

Now, the local St. Vincent de Paul store has started putiing its valuable records behind the counter, just like a commercial record store. These records are priced $3 and up, compared to 50 cents for the records found on the floor. They’re wising up. Still I didn’t mind coughing up un-thrift-store like prices for a couple of albums at St. Vincent de Paul last week. One was an original mono pressing of Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’ in pristine condition for $8. It’s less than what a record dealer would charge, but not a whole lot less, that is, if you come across a mint copy. The other record I bought was an original pressing of Sarah Vaughan’s After Hours at the London House for $3. This a live jazz date with a relatively small combo and not one of the pop albums with strings she made later in her career. Those can be found in the dusty dollar bins.

Thrift Store Stories


I’m back after taking a break from record collecting to do some nesting, that is, making some improvements around the house to make it more livable and wonderful. My house has become like my record collection in the mixture of high and low objects. By high, I’m referring to the Eames- and Nelson-designed furniture produced by Herman Miller or Vitra. By low, I’m referring to amateur, hand-made vases and vintage postcards and such. For the latter, I’ve been making the rounds at local thrift stores.

One of my recent finds was a portable cassette tape recorder/player from the 70s. The familiar squarish design—from bottom to top: a single speaker covered by a perforated metal plate, the tape transport with flip top, the row of mechanical control buttons that engage with a solid click, and a vinyl strap handle—caught my eye as it sat next to a pile of bread-loaf-shaped boom-boxes. I saw there was a tape in the machine and batteries in the compartment. So I pressed play to hear the tinny sound of Winona Judd. My reaction surprised me, considering I’m not particularly fond of Winona Judd or lo-fi audio equipment. I was transfixed by what I heard. I bought the tape player and listened to it in the car on the way home, not really minding the audible wow-and-flutter of this lowly piece of audio gear. It sounded so right. The nostalgic value of it certainly has something to do with its allure. But one thing I won’t be doing is listening to my favorite radio station with the tape player in hand, ready to press “record” when I hear the opening notes of a favorite song. At least in how we record songs, we’ve progressed quite a lot.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rocky's Favorite Albums of 2009, Pt. 1

2009 was another shitty year for new music. Animal Collective? Well, they can suck my dick. Grizzly Bear? They can lick my balls while Animal Collective's sucking my dick.

My first pick for best album of 2009 is Ida Maria's debut LP, Fortress 'Round My Heart. That's Ida Maria Sivertsen. No, she's not Swedish; she's Norwegian. I won't hold that against her. The album is all about being young and fucked up. It's unpretentiously exuberant--something that's missing in a lot of the bloodless wanking that passes as "good" music these days.

Also unusual is the excellent sound quality of the album (on vinyl. I haven't heard the CD.) I'm sure I wouldn't be as enthused about the album if it were typically loud and compressed.

These are first three songs (and the best) on the album. Thanks to shigeshoshi for posting these songs on YouTube with half-way decent sound quality.