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.