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.