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.