Thursday, September 13, 2012

Rocky Laughs at Himself and Then Wonders

Methinks Alex Braun in his article "I Own a Turntable, Therefore I Am Better than You" is poking fun at people like me. Have I ever said anything like:

One time I saw you at Best Buy checking out a plastic minisystem. I was on my way to the high-end Magnolia department – not to buy anything, of course, but merely to laugh at it. All in all, I considered the trip to be a rather amusing safari into the world of big-box retail and mass consumerism. I learned much about your kind. I learned that you do not have a turntable, and I do.

Really? Get outta here.

A Visit to Brokeland Records

"They were worth only what you would pay for them; what small piece of everything you had ever lost that, you might come to believe, they would restore to you. Their value was indexed only to the sense of personal completeness, perfection of the soul, that would flood you when, at last, you filled the last gap on your checklist."  -- Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue

Sunday, August 26, 2012

What Is Apple and Amazon Actually Selling You?

Apparently not much. Telling quote from an article about the ownership of digital content:

Part of the problem is that with digital content, one doesn’t have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a license to use the digital files – but they don’t actually own them.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Recent Acquisitions: Gay or Wuss?

Today I walked out of the record store with Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton's Just the Two of Us (RCA original pressing, $6), Andre Previn's Gigi (Contemporary original mono pressing, $4), and Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas (Analogue Productions, 45-rpm pressing, $20). I could've sworn the hipster clerk ringing me up raised his eyebrow. Was he thinking "he's obviously gay" or "what a wuss" or "this must be the three wussiest, gay records we have in the store and this guy  managed to find all three"? Yeah, rocky's that good.

rocky can't get enough that ol' classic country.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Seeing the Light

Sometimes I forget how fringe a medium vinyl is. Here's a brief article wherein a 20-year-old Q magazine intern listens to vinyl for the first time. It gives me hope. As a personal note, I got to visit Sister Ray record shop in Soho last year. It's a wonderful record store, if a bit pricey. I picked up an original UK pressing of Black Sabbath IV. They had four original pressings of the album! Only heaven may have more.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Vinyl News of the Weird

Well, there's one thing rocky and L. Ron Hubbard have in common, faith in analog recordings. From the Analog Planet website:
"One organization is very much into DMM* and that would be The Church of Scientology. It has bought up every DMM lathe it can find and uses them to transfer founder L. Ron Hubbard's speeches to DMM metal discs, which are then plated and sealed with a pop top kind of mechanism that they developed. The plating is done at a major American pressing plant in a room devoted exclusively to the Church's work.

The plated and sealed discs are then transported and stored in a bunker said to be in the Mojave Desert, along with specially developed solar powered turntables fitted with phono cartridges that don't use rubber dampers for their suspensions. That way they won't deteriorate over time.

Way into the future when all of digital data has disappeared of is no longer playable, some future civilization will find the bunker and figure out how to play these discs. They will conclude that L. Ron Hubbard must have been the most important person in our civilization since only he was accorded such special treatment (kind of like the Pharaohs)."
* Direct Metal Mastering is a method of producing vinyl records 
rocky is hatching a plan to sneak into the bunker to replace all the L. Ron Hubbard records with Hasil Adkins records.

Monday, June 18, 2012

In Dystopia We'll At Least Have Free Music

I just read some sad news of the passing of another venerable record store. Cutler's in New Haven, after 64 years, became the latest victim of illegal downloads. I have fond memories of browsing through the racks and discovering a lot of new music at Cutler's.

I thought about this particular bit of news more after reading this blog post by an NPR intern, which seems representative of the new normal. The part that really stands out (my italics):

"As I've grown up, I've come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can't support them with concert tickets and t-shirts alone. But I honestly don't think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience."

And this long, well-considered response to the NPR post, with the following rhetorical questions:

"Why do we value the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself?

Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?

Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals who create and sell music?

This is a bit of hyperbole to emphasize the point. But it’s as if:

Networks: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!

Hardware: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!

Artists: 99.9 % lower middle class. Screw you, you greedy bastards!"

The article could've also included "Stores: Independent record stores. Screw you, if I pay for music I'm going to give my money to Apple iTunes and Amazon, because it's too inconvenient to drag my lazy ass to your store."

I have more thoughts on the subject, which I may or may not post.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Swedish Pop Music Break: Sakert!

It's been a while since the last cheery Swedish pop music break. Enjoy!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Recent Acquisitions: June 10, 2012

It's getting damn near impossible to find good deals on used records at record stores. How times change. The vinyl section is now chock full of normal people. Just the other day, I saw a young couple who looked like they got lost on the way to Abercrombie and Fitch. No, they were checking out ELO albums. Cute! Not so cute if they start buying classic jazz and rare krautrock LPs. I'd have to hate them then.

Fortunately, normal people haven't discovered record swaps. I was among the hardcore misfits this morning at the local record swap, squinting at stampers in the deadwax, checking to see if the dog on the back cover of Diamond Dogs has genitals (more on that below). There are still good records and good deals to be found at record swaps.

Bob Cooper, Coop! (Contemporary, original mono pressing, $2.50). Just like in baseball and other great American traditions, there's an East Coast bias against West Coast jazz. You can still buy Contemporary albums for cheap, unlike Blue Note and Prestige albums of the same era. The music is usually excellent and the sound quality is as it gets. Most of the albums were recorded by Roy DuNann, who was the West Coast equivalent to Rudy Van Gelder. I pick up Contemporary original pressings whenever I get the chance. I really dig the cover of this one.

Teddy Edwards, Nothin' But the Truth! (Prestige, original mono pressing, $5). Edwards is another underrated West Coast jazz musician. This album, though, was recorded on the East Coast with a topnotch rhythm section consisting of Walter Davis, Jr., Paul Chambers, and Billy Higgins. But I really bought the album for the conga player, Montego Joe. Seriously, I've never heard of him, but feel like I should.

Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool (Capitol, early 60s pressing, $15). A while ago I bought a 70s reissue of this album. It has a cheesy sketch of Miles instead of the iconic photo of him blowing on the original cover. That's always bugged me. Now, I have one less thing to be bugged about.

Jonathon Richman and the Modern Lovers, self-titled album (Beserkeley, original pressing, $2.50). Yeah, I still listen to Jonathon Richman. So What? It's not like I still get excited by the sight of an ice cream truck and walk around town in Converse All-Stars. Oh, wait. Nevermind.

Ozzy Osbourne, Diary of a Madman (Jet Records, original pressing, $2.50). If you think about it, Ozzy's really the Jonathon Richman of the Satan worshipping crowd.

X, Los Angeles (Slash, original pressing, $2.50). I've already got an 80s reissue of this album, but I figure it was worth a couple of bucks to get the original pressing.

Cream, Wheels of Fire (Atco, 2-LP original pressing, $2.50). Just doubled my Cream collection. I only had Disreali Gears.

David Gilmour, self-titled album (CBS, $2.50). In college, I had room-mates who were really into Floyd. We sat around listening to this album as well as Roger Waters' solo album. We didn't get high, but instead discussed the philosophical aspects of Floyd. God, we were stupid morons!

Wanda Jackson, Sings Country Songs (Capitol, original stereo pressing, $5). Kind of a stupid title for its obviousness, unless you're just learning how to read. "Jane writes a book. Jesse runs fast. Wanda sings country songs." Oh, I forgot this album is for country music fans. Maybe the title is just about right. Just kidding!

Wanda Jackson, Blues in My Heart (Capitol, original stereo pressing, $2.50). I wonder whether country music fans understand metaphor? Maybe Wanda should've titled this one, I Feel Sad. Kidding, again! Good thing Jethro can't slug me across the internet.

David Bowie, Diamond Dogs (RCA, original pressing, $2.50). Another original pressing to replace a later reissue in my collection. If you remember the album cover, it's a gatefold cover with an illustration of Bowie with a human torso and a canine rear half. The dog half is on the back cover. A few original covers include the dog's genitals before they got the airbrush treatment. These are extremely rare. I check for the dog's balls every time I come across this album. It sounds kind of sick, doesn't it? Yes, we better keep the normal people separated from the record swap crowd.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Playing Records in Movies: Moonrise Kingdom

You know you're watching a great movie when there's an important scene involving a character playing a record. Before you dismiss it with a snort, think about it. Great directors know the cinematic appeal of the humble turntable and a black slab of vinyl, including Barry Levinson, Albert Brooks, Quentin Tarantino, and Sergei Eisenstein (okay, maybe old Sergei wasn't hip to records or audio technology in general; otherwise his films would've had sound). One director who sees the magic in records is Wes Anderson.

In Moonrise Kingdom, one of the protagonists runs away from home and one of the things she brings with her is a portable record player. The album she brings to play on it is Francoise Hardy's The "Yeh-Yeh" Girl from Paris*. If there was any doubt this was a great movie, it flew out the window after these details were revealed. But the critical scene occurs later when she and her fellow-truant/love reach their destination, an isolated cove on the island they inhabit. Here these two outsiders, self-knowing problem children, experience a moment of freedom and connection. She plays Francoise Hardy's "Le Temps de l'Amour" and they dance. The scene ends and the next scene begins with the two inside a tent pitched on the shore.

A couple, a record player, and a tent. The scene in Moonrise Kingdom is like a re-staging of the scene in The Royal Tenenbaums, in which Richie and Margo find themselves inside a tent in the living room of the Tenenbaum house, listening to the Rolling Stones' Between the Buttons on a record player. The similarities and contrasts between these two scenes sum up the profound difference between the two movies. The Royal Tenenbaums are about people who are already broken and the possibilities of putting them back together again. What kind of adult pitches a tent in a living room and sleeps in it? The act reveals a fucked-up longing to return to a childhood sense of security. In Moonrise Kingdom, the tent is pitched on a lovely island cove by children. It doesn't represent the sense of a beautiful, protected realm for the two. It is that realm, at least for a moment, between scenes where family members and acquaintances and indifferent social forces are in the process of turning them into the broken adult characters of Anderson's past and future films. In other words, Moonrise Kingdom captures the main characters in a moment of hope. The film seems more expansive, because of it.

* I couldn't tell from the passing shot of the album cover whether it was the mono or stereo version of the album. rocky recommends the mono recording.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

More Dollar Records: Making Your Wishes Come True

This is the most unusual stash of records I've across at a thrift store:

Tom Waits, Blood Money.  This album is for those who wished for an album of tender love songs and sad ballads sung by a carnival barker.

Johnny Cash, American IV: When the Man Comes Around.  This album is for those who wished Johnny Cash cover Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode songs. Seriously.

Mudhoney, Mudslide (bootleg).  This album is for those who wished they got to hear Mudhoney live in a small venue in Berlin with a really bad sound system. Best moment of the album is their spoken intro, "Howdy, we're from America."

Skip James, Today (original Vanguard pressing).  This album is for those who wished for a folk-blues album sung by Robin Gibb.

Beck, A Harvest Field by Moonlight (10-inch EP, Fingerpaint Records).  This album is for those who wished Beck would out-Beck himself.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Ode to Grunge

Grunge band names had a psychedelic, lyrical side to them. So it seemed natural to string grunge band names together in a Lewis Carroll-type poem. How many Seattle grunge band names can you spot in the following verse?

In that mad season I made my way through the forest
of screaming trees to the soundgarden by the green river
in search of mudhoney and sweetwater oysters
whose fruit I used to make pearl jam for her last meal--
Alice in chains, imprisoned forever when she discovered
nirvana was in her but couldn't be found, buried deep
like the mother love bone in the temple of the dog.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Come Back to the Five-and-Dime, Johnny Rotten, Johnny Rotten

By the post title I’m not suggesting we get together every year at a five-and-dime to reminisce about Johnny Rotten and divulge personal secrets to one another. My point is if there ever was a time to revive the spirit of punk music among youths it would be now. Seriously, when has there been a more bleak time in recent memory than now, especially for youths? Johnny Rotten snarl-sang, “There’s no future, no future, no future for you!” back in 1977. Sure, the 70s sucked, with the US and most of the developed world facing high unemployment and high inflation. Young adults had a hard time making a decent living. The future looked bleak. But that period turned out to be a cakewalk compared to what’s happening now. Eventually we emerged from the stagflation of the 70s. Times got good enough that the punks of yore, such as Johnny Rotten/Lydon and the Clash, turned their anger and energy into dance music. I’ve got no problem with that.

I do have a problem with the silence I hear from the generation that’s truly getting shafted. When I think about the hardships young adults face today, (1) I feel so fortunate not to be a part of this generation and (2) I think if I were part of this generation I’d be blowing shit up. Think about how expensive a college education is these days, about the amount of student loans the average college graduate is saddled with, about the jobs that aren’t there to pay off the student loans, about the social security that won't be there for retirement, and about the politicians and corporations that really don’t give a shit. And if you don’t go to college or don’t finish college, you’re even worse off. You’re job, if you can find one, will suck even more than the sucky job the college grad gets. “There’s no future, no future, no future for you!” It actually sounds true this time around.

Yet, yet, I hear no songs of protest (except perhaps from oldsters like Springsteen and Neil Young). Where is the voice of this generation howling at the injustice? Where have you gone, Johnny Rotten? This nation turns its weary eyes to you.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

What Disco Wrought

The recent death of Donna Summers got me thinking about the significance of disco in musical and cultural history. Growing up in suburban Detroit during that era I was surprised not by the popularity of disco but by the vehement backlash against it. One radio station started a club whose sole purpose was to express hatred of disco. Then there was the demonstration in between games of a baseball doubleheader involving a pyrotechnical destruction of disco records that went horribly wrong. The second game had to be postponed.

No other modern musical genre had generated that kind of active hatred. Then again no other musical genre was at its core urban, black and gay and that widely accepted by the public. If disco had remained in the clubs of urban areas, no one would have said a peep. Thinking back on it, the violent reaction to disco, like most violent reactions, was a product of fear and panic. The main participants of the anti-disco movement were white, suburban males. Before disco made it into the musical mainstream, popular music was dominated by what we know as "classic rock". While there was some musical variation that fell under this moniker, it had its roots in blues-based, guitar-centered rock and more importantly it was dominated by straight, white males.  The fans of "classic rock" probably sensed consciously or subconsciously that its domination was coming to an end.

They were right of course despite their desperate attempt to thwart the perceived "enemy". After disco no single musical genre dominated the musical mainstream. "Classic rock" morphed into grunge or various forms of metal or "alternative rock" (a horrible moniker), but never was as popular as it once was. It shared the airwaves with rap, R&B, electronica, and other musical genres.

I can't but help hear echoes of this musical history in recent events playing out on a wider stage involving the election of a black President, the over-the-top reaction of the Tea Party, and the heated battles over immigration and gay marriage.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Wish You Were Here, Again and Again and Again

Recently I picked up an original UK pressing of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. I wasn't completely satisfied with the sound on the three copies of the album in my collection. In record collecting there is this thing called the country-of-origin rule. The record pressed in the country in which it was recorded is usually the best sounding version. There's a good reason for this to be true, as the original master tape usually stays in the country while copy tapes are made and sent abroad. So a record pressed in the US of an album recorded in the UK is at least one generation removed from the master tape. Thus I had hope that the UK pressing would have satisfying sonics.

I usually don't like to do listening tests where I compare different pressings back to back, but I felt an un-rocky-like surge of curiosity tonight. In the photo above, the various pressings are, from left to right: US quad, US, Holland, and UK. They're all original pressings. As you can tell in the photo, the US covers have a different photo from the Dutch and UK covers. I prefer the wider shot and the lean of the man-on-fire of the Dutch/UK photo.

The only song I compared was the title track. The Dutch pressing was played first. The song starts with a recording of a low-fidelity radio. It's hard to tell the sound quality of a record from this part. The first test is a feint mechanical whining sound in the background, similar to the sound of whistling tea kettle, that changes pitch. It sounded clear on the Dutch pressing. Then comes an acoustic guitar solo. This also sounded excellent. Next up is Roger Waters' vocal. His voice sounded slightly veiled. When he's joined by the other instruments, the sound gets congested and the veil gets a little thicker. Most of the sound is centered between the speakers. 

Next I listened to the US pressing. The whining sound isn't as clear at the beginning. The pitch is uncertain. The sound of the acoustic guitar is clear, but the notes don't have as long a tail as on the Dutch pressing, i.e., the natural diminuendo of a plucked string was shortened. Waters' vocal sounds about the same as on the Dutch pressing. When the band joins in, the sound is less congested than on the Dutch pressing. The instruments are spread out a little more but still mostly centered between the speakers. The most significant difference is the sound is more forward and aggressive, making the song rock a bit more. The US pressing seems to emphasize the leading edges of notes rather than the trailing ends of notes.

The UK pressing suffers from some surface noise during the quiet passages. But even with the surface noise the whining sound comes across clearly and sounds more defined than on the other pressings. The acoustic guitar sounds slightly fuller because the notes have the leading transients of the US pressing and the trailing transients of the Dutch pressing. The slight veil over Waters' vocal is gone. More noticeably, the congestion is gone when the full band plays while Waters sings. There's nice separation of the instruments; there seems to be real space between the instruments. On the Dutch pressing, and to a lesser extent the US pressing, the instruments seem be bonded together in an atmosphere of sonic goo.

For the fun of it I played the US quad pressing. This is another species of the album altogether. The radio sounds at the start of the song emanate from the left speaker rather than from the right. The following guitar solo emanates from the right speaker instead of being centered between the speakers. The clarity of Waters' voice is about the same as on the US stereo pressing. The soundstage is wide, from speaker to speaker. The instruments are spread out far wider than any of the other pressings and placed differently. It's a little disorienting after listening to the song three times on pressings that are more similar than different.

The differences in the three stereo pressings of Wish You Were Here might go unnoticed to a casual listener. The variation in sound quality isn't huge. So what's the point of seeking the best pressing? Perhaps an analogy to the visual arts will provide a more convincing answer to the non-audiophile. Say you got to know a painting through a reproduction in an art book. The image is good enough for you to understand the subject matter, the formal composition, and, to a large extent, the color composition. Then you go to the museum to see the original painting. You notice details that change your perception of the painting. The black background isn't really black--there are actually faint objects in the deep shadows. The colors are a bit more vibrant. The brush strokes make the objects seem more three-dimensional. Just as you see more into a painting, you can hear more into a recording. A guitar note is more than, say, the sound of C-sharp. Different guitar players play the same note differently. Think of it as a brush stroke on a painting. The more the recording can reveal such details, the more the music comes to life. A recording may never perfectly reproduce the sound of a live musician. Some listeners just try a little harder in wishing you were here.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Adam Yauch

I salute you, brother. I'll miss you more than the others.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Origin of Band Names: Stereolab

When you spend enough time digging through dusty crates and bins of used records, you're bound to make some surprising discoveries. On the left is a Vanguard recording of G. F. Handel music from the 60s found at a thrift store for 50 cents. At the dawn of the stereo age, some record companies gave their stereo recording techniques florid names. Epic called its stereo technology Stereorama. Vanguard called it Stereolab for a brief period. Most people who didn't grow up in the 60s think of Stereolab as the pop-electronica band. It could have been a coincidence in nomenclature. But once I saw this Vanguard album, it was clear that the band took it's name from Vanguard Records. They even mimicked the cover of the Vanguard album for their own album Space Age Bachelor Pad Music.

Will a band in the future name itself mp3 or AAC? (How lame does that sound?) Will there even be album covers to inspire future bands? What will today's digital recordings inspire in future generations? I suspect with the abandonment of analog recordings and physical media, we're losing historical continuity and historical riches that can be mined to fuel music and musicians in the future. Digital music will exist in an ahistorical cloud, without the lovely little details of words and images that music used to come wrapped in.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Music Factoid

Back in the 80s, I remember one of my professors claimed to have invented the word “factoid”. I didn’t doubt him at the time, because he had written and published a number of books. The proper definition of a factoid is an unverifiable or false statement that gets repeated so often that it becomes accepted as a fact. It turns out that his claim itself is a factoid. Doing a little bit of research, I discovered the word was coined by Norman Mailer in the 70s.

This word was brought to mind when thinking about all the white musical artists who ripped off black artists. I’m sure you’ve thought or heard people state how unfair it is for white musicians to make their fame and fortune by exploiting black music. No one thinks about the reverse. Think about all the black musicians who popularized and made money off white musicians. One good example was posted recently on this blog: Joe Simon had his biggest R&B hit with the “Chokin’ Kind”, which was originally recorded by Waylon Jennings.

If you can't think of any other examples, you can refer to this rather lengthy list of examples. Some of the examples are silly and trite, but the main point is made.

Often we think that white musicians are always ripping off black musicians. It fits neatly into a liberal worldview of whites exploiting blacks. Hardly do we see it as a two-way street of musical exchange, which is probably closer to the truth. An even better way of looking at it is to realize that musicians are constantly borrowing songs and musical ideas from each other regardless of race.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Listening Session: Big Star, Third

It wasn't until last year that I realized Big Star was the greatest American rock band ever. Shit, if they had released a few more albums, there wouldn't be that qualifier in the previous sentence. Alas, Big Star left us with only two properly released albums (#1 Album and Radio City) and a third album that was released long after the band broke up (Third/Sister Lovers). All three are terrific. Which one you consider the best says more about you than about the album.

I find Third the most rewarding. The first two albums have great, memorable songs and anthems And, unlike the third, they're infused with youthful energy. What the third album has in abundance is emotional depth. You could say it's mature. But it's not a tired, over-ripe kind of maturity (say, post-The River Springsteen). The album documents the time, or better yet the feeling, of having shed the false bravado of youth and discovering the humility of being oneself. And along with that, the inevitable sadness of life. That may sound depressing. Indeed, Third has a reputation, a misguided one, of being a desolate album. No doubt, such bleak songs as "Black Car" and "Holocaust" feed this reputation. But that is to ignore the sincere joy of "Thank You Friends" and "Jesus Christ". All told, the album's songs cover the wide emotional range of a person reaching adulthood. The only other "rock" album that compares in capturing the bittersweetness of growing up is Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.

Emblematic of Alex Chilton's emotional approach is the cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale". He turns the song upside down. Nico sings it as if cooly documenting a character. Chilton sings it like he was number 32 in the femme fatale's book. "Kangaroo" is even more up front emotionally as Chilton recalls the first time encountering an old love. It's got that same deep longing for youthful love that Morrison brings to Astral Weeks

All the songs on Third are great in their own way, with inventive arrangements and instrumentation (again, something this album shares with Astral Weeks). Each one could launch a hundred indie bands. They probably did, directly or indirectly. But unlike the songs of today's bloodless, zombie bands, the songs on Third succeed in profoundly connecting to life--the joys, the sadness and the mixed feelings in between.

(Postscript: There's never been a proper song sequence to Third, since Chilton abandoned the album and wasn't involved in its release. The original release on PVC in 1978 almost ruins the album by placing "Thank You Friends" as the final song, the equivalent of a tacked-on Hollywood happy ending. The Ardent test pressing from 1974, which was released last year on vinyl, has the album end with "Kangaroo" and "Take Care", which is more fitting. Although the test pressing isn't necessarily a finished product, it's probably the most authoritative source. Here's an album that each devotee can create one's own song sequence.)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Record Store Day 2012

Record Store Day started off pleasant enough as I arrived 40 minutes before the opening of the Amoeba Berkeley store. The line was already half-a-block long by the time I arrived. It was the kind of quiet, sunny, beautiful Saturday morning that made standing in line a pleasant experience.  I was in a good mood, struck up a conversation with a fellow record collector in line next to me. I was Mr. Congeniality, Mr. Sunshine, and Mr. Conviviality all wrapped into one. Impossible, you say. But true.

Then the doors opened. And the scene turned ugly.  You read about scenes like this: Black Friday as desperate shoppers trample over each other to grab the hottest Christmas gifts, grocery stores in Third-World countries in the middle of a food shortage, and sold-out concerts with general seating. My good mood turned black as I was pushed through the single aisle that had all the limited edition RSD releases. My view of the merchandise was blocked by walls of people. I grabbed what I could see. At one point I said out loud to no one in particular, Where are the Luna albums? Incredibly I got an answer from a sweet woman, who told me exactly where they were. Bless her heart. I was able to get the last copy of Romantica and the second-to-last copy of Rendezvous. I really wasn't expecting to get these. Neither album had ever been released on vinyl and only 1,000 copies were pressed for RSD.

I also picked up a copy of the 45 rpm audiophile pressing of the Black Keys' El Camino, A Lee Hazlewood compilation LP, and a White Stripes 7-inch single. I was in such a haste to get the hell out of there that I forgot to look for the first ever vinyl release of Sigur Ros' Hvarf-Heim. When I got home I found an online source for the album. We'll see if that works out.

When I checked out, my records were placed in a RSD canvas tote that was a full of schwag--an Amoeba Music t-shirt (XXL!), a Yo La Tengo sampler CD, a bunch of CD singles (Dandy Warhols, Madonna), a Coachella booklet with a sampler CD, promo stickers and posters, a fan, a mask, a 7-inch single of a rapper covering Dylan, and a bunch of other junk. As I was leaving the store, I witnessed something I had never seen before: A customer being kicked out of a record store. He had been yelling at an employee, because he was told the store didn't have a certain RSD release in stock. Another employee stepped in and told him rather forcefully to get out of the store. Then ensued a tug of war as the employee tried to take away the records the customer had in his hands. I didn't stick around to see how it ended. I had had enough of celebrating records and independent record stores.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Capitol Records

On a recent trip to LA, I had the rare opportunity to go inside the Capitol Records building. I felt a child-like thrill standing in the same space where classic records by Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, the Beach Boys, Paul McCartney, and countless others were made. The recording studios inside the building still have analog tape recording equipment. I asked.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Thoughts of a Materialist

I am a materialist. In the past that would be putting myself down. It would be confessing that I was shallow, attentive to consumer goods at the expense of spiritual and intellectual pursuits. Being a materialist means something different to me now—more like keeping engaged to the physical world and appreciating the beauty in objects. On a superficial level, my materialism is expressed through the appreciation of vinyl records, with their often creative covers, well-written and informative liner notes, and high-quality mastering. MP3s and other digital music formats don’t exist in a physical world. Our engagement to the music has been reduced to an immaterial context. The way music is presented now provides fewer opportunities for creativity.

Another example of the contrast between the material and immaterial worlds we live in are childhood war games. As a boy, I often played war games with other boys in the neighborhood. We would use construction sites or the woods as battlefields. We used baseball bats as rifles, empty beer cans discarded by construction workers as grenades. We had to make up a narrative and adopt roles to set the action. It was fun crawling through the dirt, pretending a Louisville Slugger was an M-16, on a sneak attack on an imaginary fort. It was an extremely physical game and at the same time it was extremely imaginative. There were a lot of details we had to fill in ourselves to make the war seem real to us.

You probably know where I’m going with this. Video war games provide you with none of the physical engagement of the war game described above, and perhaps more importantly all the details are filled in for the player, leaving little room for the imagination. Video games are little more than elaborate and virtual mazes. The games are about directional choices the player makes and his dexterity in overcoming obstacles.

So in my current view, materialism doesn’t stand opposite of the intellectual and the imaginative or even the spiritual. The physical world co-exists necessarily with the spiritual and intellectual world. It is the immaterial world of video games and digital music that is a step removed from the intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual aspects of life that we value. In this modern context, materialism isn’t such a bad thing.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Album Cover Gallery: Novel Covers

Special edition of Talking Heads' Speaking in Tongues designed by Robert Rauschenburg: The album comes in a yellow transluscent case. The vinyl is actually clear. The design you see are on two circular transparencies that go on either side of the record. Artsy fartsy.

First US pressing of Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request has a lenticular plastic 3-D image of the band (which is hard to capture in a photo)--artsy fartsy in the mind of a 13-year old boy.

First UK pressing of Bob Marley's Catch a Fire has a cover designed like a Zippo lighter. It flips open like a Zippo, too! Fuck art. Let's light up, man.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Primary System vs. Vintage System

I've been really enamored with the vintage system set up in the bedroom. It's just so pleasing to listen to that I had thoughts that it was all I needed. Who needs a hi-fi system that has a price tag of a mid-sized car? Well, last night I listened to a couple of records on my primary system, Bobby Hutcherson and Harold Land's San Francisco (original Blue Note pressing) and Neu! 2 (original UK United Artists pressing). Then I moved to the bedroom to listen to the vintage system before turning in for the night. This wasn't an intentional comparison, but it was the first time I listened to the two systems back-to-back. The vintage system sounded muffled, less clear, and the sound-stage was smaller and less defined compared to the primary system. The bass was also boomier and less defined. When I first listened to the vintage system I was surprised how close it came to the sound quality of my primary system. Last night I realized that impression was obviously an illusion. So, critical listening will be done on the primary system. The vintage system is perfect for casual listening in the bedroom. One advantage it does have is it does take the digital edge off many modern recordings and makes them more listenable. The comparison with the primary system hasn't diminished my appreciation of the vintage system. It still sounds wonderful. My appreciation of the primary system has only increased.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Slightly Off Topic: Polaroids

A running theme of this blog has been the superiority of vinyl music reproduction to current digital music formats. I'm convinced that it's not an exercise in nostalgia, where one clings to an outdated inferior technology for sentimental reasons. Well, there's the nostalgia, too. But there's no doubt that vinyl records just sound better. The market has abandoned records and turntables for other reasons--lack of convenience, better profits in digital music (ironically that didn't work out as it opened the pirating floodgates), and just a general tendency of the market to push and the public to adopt the new, new thing.

Another technology that I was sad to see abandoned was Polaroid film. Sure, there are countless advantages of digital photography over film photography, including Polaroids, but one thing the Polaroid had over digital imaging and other films was its magic. Who didn't have a sense of wonder the first time seeing an image appear right before their eyes on that plasticky sheet of Polaroid film.

I recently picked up a Polaroid OneStep CloseUp camera at a thrift store. It looks to be in good shape. Of course, I'll need some Polaroid 600 film. Fortunately a company called The Impossible Project, consisting of former Polaroid workers, bought the last Polaroid factory and resumed making Polaroid film. I've ordered a pack to test out the camera and, more importantly, to find out if there's still magic in the technology.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Going Vintage: Salvaging the 70s

My audio project of assembling a vintage system had been stalled for a while now. A few years ago I started with a pair of 70s era KLH Model 17 speakers with a linen-like cloth grill and real wood veneer cabinet. I then picked up a 70s era Thorens TD-160 turntable. I had everything hooked up to an integrated amp bought new in the late 90s, which looked out of place. Recently I got extra motivated to complete the vintage system. I finally found a 70s era Marantz 2275 receiver with a walnut veneer cabinet to go with the turntable and speakers. And, whoa, she's a beauty!

Only if CD Players were made in the 60s and 70s. My California Audio Labs cd player looks plain-janey on top of the Marantz receiver. Grado SR-80 head-phones (shown on top) always had a retro look.

Swiss-made precision, the Thorens TD-160, spinning Detroit-made rock, Bob Seger's Night Moves.

KLH 17s designed by legendary speaker designer Henry Kloss before he sold the company to some foreign conglomerate that succeeded in equating the KLH brand to cheap plastic crapola.

The vintage system is set up in the bedroom. It sounds and looks fantastic. The total cost of this system is about how much I spent on the speaker wires for my main system!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Chance Discovery: Clyde McCoy

Last week, I picked up an old Mercury 10-inch jazz record by Clyde McCoy. For 50 cents I was willing to find out what was in the grooves. If McCoy's name sounds familiar, it's because he was a member of the McCoy clan that feuded with the Hatfields. Or, if you're into the history of electric guitars, you may know that the first wah-wah pedal was named after him, because it simulated the wah-wah effect that he mastered on the trumpet using a mute. McCoy also co-founded the venerable jazz magazine Downbeat.

According to Wikipedia, McCoy's best known song "Sugar Blues", which sounds like straight bluesy jazz to me, topped the "country (hillbilly)" music charts. Here's another example of how the borders of country music was wide open in the past (see previous post on the hardening of the boundaries between country and R&B music). Later, the song was recorded by country artists such as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and used in the movie Some Like It Hot.

It's all a wonderful bit of music history learned from a random record purchase.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Snobs vs. Connoisseurs

In case you didn't know:

Is there such a thing as perfect taste? No. Taste just comes down to preferences. It makes no sense to claim one has perfect preferences. That’s my definition of a snob—a person who believes his taste is superior to others and by inference he is better than others. Snobs are insufferable. Contrast that to someone who can discern and appreciate quality based on knowledge. I call this person a connoisseur.

Let’s consider audio speakers to illustrate the distinction. There are people who think Bose speakers are high quality, high fidelity speakers. Bose speakers obviously are not. Even the most expensive Bose speakers have bloated, undefined bass, can’t convincingly reproduce a coherent soundstage, and can’t convey dynamic subtleties in the recording. I’m not being a snob, because I’ve heard speakers that reproduce music much better than Bose speakers. The people who think Bose speakers are great, I believe, fall for the superior marketing of the company and haven’t been exposed to true high fidelity speakers.

Sonus Faber is an Italian speaker manufacturer that makes speakers that range in price from a couple thousand dollars to tens of thousand dollars. Their speakers do everything right that Bose speakers don’t. However, I don’t like Sonus Faber speakers. They have a sonic character that I find is a little too lush and dark for my taste. SF speakers don’t distort the music, but they definitely have a certain sound (just as some musicians say an Amati violin sound different from a Stradivarius. Both violins produce correct notes, but have slightly different sonic character.) I ended up buying German-made Audio Physic speakers after auditioning them next to Sonus Faber speakers. At this level, it would be ridiculous to claim AP speakers are superior to SF speakers. It’s only a personal preference. People who are willing to make the claim of the superiority of one brand over the other cross the line from being a connoisseur to being a snob.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Music History, Pt. 1

The novelist Jonathon Franzen hates e-books, at least according to an article in the Daily Telegraph. The article doesn’t really present a cogent argument against e-books. I’m sure Franzen has more elaborate thoughts on why e-books should be scorned. I can see some value to e-books as a way to carry multiple books in a small package. I’m thinking specifically of the small school children I see all the time lugging backpacks that appear to weigh half as much as they do. Give them e-books to alleviate the cruelty of having to carry heavy textbooks all day.

For the most part, I empathize with Franzen’s view of e-books. They’re the literary equivalent of iPods. Of course, iPods have their use for portable music. But if they’re the only medium through which you listen to music, then you’re impoverishing yourself of the full pleasure of listening to music. I won’t repeat my diatribe on the quality of music reproduction again. Instead, allow me to expound on Franzen’s observation on the “permanence” of the printed book. I’m not sure exactly what Franzen meant by the comment, but here’s my take on how it relates to vinyl records.

Each record is rich in history. As long as the record exists, so does its history. I’m not referring only to the music contained in the record, but more the physical entity of a record as a historical artifact. For example, the cover design usually portrays the aesthetic of the time, as well as the technology. Older records have a paste-over back cover. Newer records have covers that are folded over that doesn’t require pasting over a separate sheet on the back. Even the inner sleeve contains historical information, whether it’s a polyvinyl bag that Columbia used in the 50s or a paper sleeve advertising “loss leader” records one could order by mail from Warner Brothers in the 70s. One can date records by the design and content of the label or information contained in the dead wax. Each record you hold relates to a specific point in time. Then there is the personal history of the record, the fingerprints on the vinyl, the yellowing of the cover, the newspaper article clipped and saved inside the cover, the name of the previous owner written on the cover, the check marks next to favorite songs, etc. Compare all this information to a digital music file. The latter exists in a historic vacuum, with no reference to a point of time or any record of its history since its creation. I suppose you could track when a song was downloaded, how many times a song has been played, or assign it a rating in iTunes. In other words, a digital music file has history in terms of cold, hard data.

You could take Nicholson Baker’s lament of the demise of the library card catalog and multiply it by many factors for the demise of vinyl records. When music is converted to a digital format and the actual vinyl record is disposed of, a little bit of history is wiped out. Vinyl records are “permanent” artifacts in a historical continuum. As such they allow us to connect to the past and make sense of it, just as archaeologists learn about a past culture through objects they uncover.

The qualities that define digital music is detachment (from history and the physical world), disconnection (the ease of isolating songs from the rest of an album), and its defiance of being personal. To this last point, I have a few albums signed by the artists themselves. It’s a personal touch that adds personal value to the record. How does an artist autograph an mp3?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dollar Records

One of the consequences of the vinyl revival is the dearth of decent finds in the dollar bins. Albums that once could be found for a dollar are now selling for $3 and up. So I was really surprised by the following albums dug up for a dollar:

Minutemen, Double Nickels on the Dime (SST, 2-LP). Yeah, I already own this, but I couldn't pass up a second copy for a dollar. Here's something that non-vinyl listeners miss out on: the messages scrawled into the dead wax of most SST albums. On the four sides of Double Nickel, the Minutemen pronounce: "ARENA ROCK IS THE NEW WAVE"; "PUNK ROCK IS THE NEW NOSTALGIA"; "DANCE ROCK IS THE NEW PASTURE"; and "CHUMP ROCK IS THE NEW COOL".

Waylon Jennings, Ramblin' Man (RCA, orange label). Great music for drinking beer by.

Run DMC, Run DMC (Profile label). Alright! Old school rap. Rocky needs a track suit to wear for listening to this album.

The Happenings, Bye-Bye, So Long, Farewell... See You in September (B.T. Puppy Records, mono). From the liner notes on the back cover: "An exceptional group HAPPENING now looks for larger goals. 1st - meeting the many happeningpeople, especially the happeninggirls, to whom the guys say a very special, a warm HELLO". I'd hate to think what their smaller goals were--perhaps: "Make a delicious sandwich." Then they realized, man, this ain't a happeningsandwich.

The Doors, The Doors (Elektra, brown label, mono). The mono pressing of this album is relatively rare. This is only the second copy I've seen. The mono mix is different from the stereo mix that everyone is familiar with, including extra lines in "The End".

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Swedish Pop Music Break: Teddybears

Even the bears in Sweden are getting into the music scene:

Monday, January 16, 2012

What Happened to Country Music?

Today I was listening to Waylon Jennings' album Hangin' On, a great album that includes the Harlan Howard-penned tune "The Chokin' Kind". It's the same song that Joe Simon recorded in 1969 that ended up #1 on the R&B chart. Jennings' album came out in 1968. It's incredible in this day and age to think that an R&B artist would cover a country song, but in the 50s and 60s there seemed to be an open border between the two genres. Artists like Ray Charles inhabited both worlds comfortably. This isn't surprising since both genres have roots in the blues. If you listen to the lyrics of classic country songs and classic R&B songs, they aren't that different. It's the presentation that differs.

Howard defined country music as "three chords and the truth". I suppose that could also define R&B and rock music. It seems that the differences between the musical two genres began to harden in the 70s, fed by identity politics resulting in a feedback loop between social forces and music-making. The border between country and R&B began to close. One could conjecture that as legal and mandated geographic boundaries began to dissolve between whites (the primary country audience) and blacks (the primary R&B audience), other borders were created in the cultural realm to reinforce ethnic identities. Could whites really understand songs about growing up in the projects that came to be prevalent in 70s R&B to the rap music of today? Could blacks really understand--what?--the appeal of cowboy boots and hats and gung-ho patriotism? What defines country music these days? It seems to be about nothing but cultural markers. Where is Charley Pride when you need him?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Recent Acquisitions: New Records for the New Year 2012

I accidentally came across a new source of vinyl in a neighboring city while making a trip to the crafts store. It's a Half Priced Book Store, where I found the following:

Patsy Cline, Showcase (Decca, original stereo pressing, $4). I figured it was an original pressing by the label, black with silver letters. At the start of the 60s, Decca changed its label design to a black one with a multi-colored striped down the center. The label also showed a lot of spindle marks, which is usually a sign of a lot of play and careless handling by the owner. The culprit also wrote his/her name "Mills" on the cover (twice!) Against tendency I bought it anyway. It plays fine with a little bit of surface noise. The sound quality is very good, with Patsy Cline practically jumping out of the speakers,. It's a wonderful record.

The Hank Williams Story (MGM, 4-lp box set, $9). This is a compilation that was released in the mid-60s. I realized before I bought this set that I didn't own any Hank Williams album. I think I'm set now.

Crosby, Stills & Nash, Crosby, Stills & Nash (Atlantic, $4). This is another George Piros-mastered album pressed at Monarch Records (see Led Zeppelin I post below). It's also the best version of this album I've heard.

Soft Cell, "Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go" (Sire, 12-inch single, $4). I didn't realize that "Tainted Love" is also a cover, of a Gloria Jones single from 1964. Soft Cell basically slowed down the pace and added a few electronic "bing-bings". But, man, are those "bing-bings" catchy. I recently heard a version of this medley on the radio in which the brilliant transition from "Tainted Love" and "Where Did Our Love Go" was edited out. I've got to have the full 8 minutes of the 12-inch single.

Cannonball Adderley Quintet In Chicago (Mercury, original stereo pressing, $8). This album features the Miles Davis Sextet at the time (1959), without Miles. I wasn't aware that it was originally released under Adderley's name on Mercury. It was reissued in the mid-60s as Cannonball and Coltrane on, I believe, the Limelight label, with which I was familiar. The cover of this copy looks practically brand new and the vinyl is in excellent shape. Sold!

Jimmy Smith, Rocking the Boat (Blue Note, New York address label, $5). The fact that this Blue Note original pressing in excellent condition was priced less than a beat-up copy of a Foghat album made me think of a slogan for the store: "Half Priced Books, Half Assed Prices". In a book on Blue Note album covers I've been reading, Reid Miles, the graphic designer, states with a little bit of mischief that Francis Wolff, the photographer, would get apoplectic whenever Reid cropped the artist's head on the album cover.

In addition, my visit to the Amoeba/Rasputin block yielded the following:

Enrico Rava, The Pilgrim and the Stars (ECM, $8). Rava is a jazz trumpeter from Italy. He's got a really unusual style where he plays in a soft, mellow tone (suitable to the ECM sound), but the notes he plays can be crazy free. I would've never heard of him if it weren't for my local jazz radio station.

Bobby Hutcherson, Now (Blue Note, Division of Liberty Records label, $20). This is another unusual jazz album. It features vocals on all the songs in addition to Hutcherson's quintet at the time. Using the aforementioned Blue Note book as a reference, this is, I believe, the 147th Blue Note album added to my record collection (only counting vinyl of course).

Red Garland, All Morning Long (Status, 60s pressing, $10). This album is notable for the sidemen: Coltrane, Donald Byrd, and Art Taylor. It's basically three long jam sessions. The album was originally released on the Prestige label in the late 50s. Status reissued it in the mid-60s with a different cover. A quick check of the dead wax info revealed that Status used the same stampers as the original Prestige release.

John Lennon, Imagine (Apple, original UK pressing, $4). The original UK pressing of this album is supposed to be the best sounding. The matrix numbers in the dead wax had -1U suffixes on both sides, which means it was one of the earliest pressed. I think this copy was priced cheaply because it looked like the previous owner spilled coffee on the vinyl, or at least I hope it was coffee, nothing that my record cleaning machine couldn't fix.

Erich Leinsdorf, L.A. Philharmonic, Wagner: Die Walkure, et al. (Sheffield Lab, direct to disk pressing, $8). Last year one of my musical adventures was to listen and watch the entire Ring cycle. It was an arduous experience at times, despite many brilliant passages. Here's an album that collects some of the orchestral highlights. I guess this album never ends, because the fat lady doesn't sing on it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Old Farts Fight Back!

I, for the most part, dislike new popular music. This makes me susceptible to accusations of being an old fart who just doesn't get new music. A recent Wall Street Journal article describes this phenomenon. The author calls it generational bias. Vocal members of each generation lament how new music is not as good as the music they listened to in their teens. Generational bias is valid only if you believe the quality of music stays the same or improves constantly. The author of the article doesn't consider that artistic quality may actually fluctuate by era.

Now consider the list of the top 10 albums from 2011 and each preceding decade for the past five decades, as shown on the website Best Ever Albums, which ranks the albums by calculating their rank in other greatest albums charts:

2011: (1) Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes; (2) King of Limbs, Radiohead; (3) Bon Iver, Bon Iver; (4) Let England Shake, PJ Harvey; (5) James Blake, James Blake; (6) Yuck, Yuck; (7) Angles, The Strokes; (8) Kaputt, Destroyer; (9) Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Girls; (10) Wasting Light, Foo Fighters (*Note: I removed the Beach Boys' Smile Sessions from the list for obvious reasons.)

2001: (1) Is This It?, The Strokes; (2) Amnesiac, Radiohead; (3) Origin of Symmetry, Muse; (4) White Blood Cells, The White Stripes; (5) Lateralus, Tool; (6) Discovery, Daft Punk; (7) Toxicity, System of a Down; (8) The Blueprint, Jay-Z; (9) Vespertine, Bjork; (10) Oh, Inverted World, Shins

1991: (1) Nevermind, Nirvana; (2) Ten, Pearl Jam; (3) Loveless, My Bloody Valentine; (4) Achtung Baby, U2; (5) Blood, Sex, Sugar, Majik, Red Hot Chili Peppers; (6) Metallica, Metallica; (7) Primal Scream, Screamadelic; (8) Slint, Spiderland; (9) Blue Lines, Massive Attack; (10) The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest

1981: (1) Moving Pictures, Rush; (2) Dare!, Human League; (3) Faith, The Cure; (4) Damaged, Black Flag; (5) Discipline, King Crimson; (6) My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, David Byrne and Brian Eno; (7) Heaven Up Here, Echo and the Bunnymen; (8) Time, Electric Light Orchestra; (9) Killers, Iron Maiden; (10) Juju, Siouxsie and the Banshees

1971: (1) Led Zeppelin IV; (2) Who’s Next, The Who; (3) What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye; (4) Hunky Dory, David Bowie; (5) Sticky Fingers, Rolling Stones; (6) Blue, Joni Mitchell; (7) Imagine, John Lennon; (8) L.A. Woman, The Doors; (9) At Fillmore East, The Allman Brothers; (10) Meddle, Pink Floyd

1961: (1) King of the Delta Blues, Robert Johnson; (2) My Favorite Things, John Coltrane; (3) Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, Ray Charles; (4) At Last!, Etta James; (5) Waltz for Debby, Bill Evans; (6) Ole, John Coltrane; (7) Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Bill Evans; (8) Two Steps from the Blues, Bobby Bland; (9) Showcase, Patsy Cline; (10) The Great Summit, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington

Here's a mental exercise: Choose one top 10 list from the above years to take to a desert island. Did you choose the year that comes closest to defining your generation? I would choose the 1961 list or maybe the 1971 list. None of the other years comes close to the quality of the 1961 and 1971 lists. (I suppose some could make the argument that the 1991 list comes close in quality. I wouldn't begrudge them.) I didn't exist in 1961. In 1971, I was more concerned with tetherball than with pop music. The year that comes closest to defining my generation is 1981. I was in my late teens, the prime time when adult musical taste is form. I would consider the 1981 list one of the weakest of the past five decades, along with 2011. Maybe the boomers are right about their music being better and generational bias has nothing to do with it.

If there's a generational bias, it's on the part of kids today thinking current pop music is better or as good as the music that preceded it. Let's not kid ourselves. Led Zeppelin would've kicked the Fleet Foxes asses down the stairway to mediocrity, where they belong. That's not generational bias. That's the ability to recognize quality.

Friday, January 6, 2012

How rocky ended up with 4 copies of Led Zeppelin I

Somehow I ended up with four copies of Led Zeppelin I. Obviously the first copy was bought to listen to. I picked up a second copy because it had the rare purple and tan label, a collectible that sells for over $100, that cost me around $5. I’m not sure why I bought a third copy. They’re all early U.S. pressings and they all sound dead and dull. That’s why I picked up a fourth copy of LZI last week.

A general rule of thumb in buying records is to buy an original pressing. They usually sound the best and also hold their value. That certainly isn’t true for LZI. After researching the topic on the internet, it seemed the best sounding version of the album was one mastered by George Piros and pressed at Monarch Records in Los Angeles in the mid-70s. There are multiple masterings of LZI manufactured at various pressing plants throughout the world. How can you tell you’ve got a Piros-mastered copy pressed at Monarch? Everything you need to know is in the deadwax. A Piros-mastered record will have his initials (GP) scratched in the deadwax. A Monarch pressing will have a machine-stamped symbol MR with a circle around it followed by a hand-scripted triangle followed by a five-digit number (the delta number). I found such a copy last week.

What’s the point of this madness? I’m finally happy with the way this album sounds. The Piros/Monarch copy is a revelation. It’s like someone took a heavy blanket off my speakers so that I can listen to this album in its full glory. The music is dynamic and alive. Hallelujah! Hosanna! Hosanna!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

What's New?

While reading John Szwed's biography of Miles Davis, So What, it struck me what a quintessentially modern man Davis was. I mean "modern man" in a narrow sense as someone constantly seeking the new borne out of boredom. As most jazz fans know, Miles developed or worked in several jazz idioms, from bebop to cool jazz to hard bop to modal jazz to fusion to smooth jazz (consider his straight reading of Cindy Lauper's "Time After Time" or his early ballad recordings which are like ur-smooth jazz). When asked why he started playing modal jazz, Davis responded that he was bored with bebop. He rarely listened to his old recordings. The past was past and he was constantly seeking the next new thing.

This modern attitude is prevalent in our lives. We are faced with constant change. Staying put is really leaving the mainstream. Returning to old ways is downright strange. Well, perhaps, less so now with the growing interest in sustainable farming, sustainable design, caveman diets, and so on. Some people are waking up to the fact that not all change is good. Most audiophiles know that playing a record produced in the 60s on a 60s turntable is a far richer sonic and emotional experience than listening to a digital recording made in 2010s on a computer. Try telling the average person that records are better than mp3s and you're met with an expression like you said you prefer drinking milk straight from a cow's teat. (Yeah, it may be better, but how inconceivably weird are you.)

In my estimation, Miles reached his artistic peak with his second quintet consisting of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, especially Tony Williams. Listening to this quintet is like having a dream about jazz. It's recognizably jazz, but has an elusive, mysterious quality to it, both familiar and unfamiliar. It's not free jazz. One senses a logic at work that's related to the past, again like how dreams reassemble one's past experience into something different and, I believe, something meaningful. After a few years of working in this style, Davis ventured off to playing fusion, which to me was a big step artistic step backwards. But to Davis it was new and different. That mattered more. That's the modern attitude.

Obviously not all change is bad. Without his modern attitude, Davis would've never developed cool jazz and modal jazz, which contributed to the richness of jazz history. The challenge in the modern age is discerning the changes that are truly progressive and changes that are ultimately ways to stave off boredom, but really don't improve our lives.