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.)