Sunday, November 24, 2013


Lately I've been listening to a lot of Belle and Sebastian and Morrissey. It's been an exercise in self-consciousness of sorts. I remember in college I posed with a copy of Bob Dylan's "Blood in the Tracks" for a photo, my roommate told me I was self-deluded. He was right in a way. The stories Dylan spins on the album couldn't be further from my own privileged, sheltered life. No, what really hits closer to home are B&S and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Morrissey.

Listening to Morrissey led me to seeking out a Timi Yuro album. There's a fantastic duet of Morrissey and Siouxsie Sioux singing "Interlude", which was originally sung by Yuro in the 60s. I found a copy of the Timi Yuro album yesterday ($1.95 what a bargain!). It's got to be one of the spookiest foreboding love songs ever recorded. No wonder Morrissey and Siouxsie chose to cover it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why I Hold on to Records

A few years ago I picked up Vic Chesnutt's North Star Deserter after listening to an interview with Chesnutt on Fresh Air. I listened to it once and shelved it. I just didn't get it. Last night I pulled it off the shelf and listened to it again a second time. My reaction was completely different this time around. I found the album deeply moving, powerful, and darkly humorous.

The history of music is littered with tragic stories of misfits, lost souls, and ill-fated characters. Even in this context, Chestnutt's life is particularly tragic. After a car accident left him paralyzed as a teenager, he tried to make the best of it as creative artist. He turned to poetry and music, but in the end he gave into the sad fate of life by taking his life. His struggles are plainly expressed in his songs. Sometimes you get it. Sometimes you don't.

Take this song for example. At times it strikes me as simply bad. At other times, it's deeply moving. I count a number of Chesnutt's songs as among those mercurial songs that seem to reflect the state of your soul.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bob Dylan's Another Self Portrait

I've neglected this blog because recently I was under the mistaken belief that there were more important things in life than records.

During this period I wasn't inspired to pick up many records, perhaps two or three a month. I went on a small binge in the past week, which found eight new records in my collection. One is actually a boxed set, Another Self Portrait by Bob Dylan, Volume 10 of his Bootleg Series (a misleading title since these are official releases from Columbia). This is a compilation of 35 unreleased songs from 1969-1970, most of which were recorded for the Self Portrait album. As Dylan fans know, that album is the subject of probably the most famous opening line of a record review, penned by Greil Marcus, "What is this shit?" Well, it's a compilation of covers of traditional and obscure songs. And most of it is pretty shitty. So, the idea of a 3-lp box set of outtakes from that period didn't sound promising. I bought it anyway. Boy, I'm glad I did, because it's brilliant. What's confounding is that the best songs Dylan recorded never made it on to the album. What's clear is that Dylan's trash heap contains more treasures than the best work of 99.99 percent of musicians out there. Here we have Dylan basically curating and interpreting songs that he finds worth singing and recording. The lyrics are simpler and more straight-forward than his own elliptical songs, if not as poetic or sophisticated. Because of or despite this quality, the songs come across more personal. Contributing to the intimate quality of these outtakes are the spare arrangements, shorn of the overdubs of the songs that made it on the original album. Another Self Portrait goes to show that people who think Bob Dylan's talents lie in his songwriting are really short-changing his overall genius.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

(Non-Swedish) Pop Music Break

So simple, so brilliant. It might as well as be Swedish.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Transportation for the Soul

Recently I picked up a few soul jazz albums at a flea market in Berkeley. Listening to these albums has transported me to some imagined life, living and growing up in Oakland in the 60s and 70s and listening to these albums deep into the night. I know books and movies can transport you to a different time and place. I’m discovering with these albums, that music can do the same. Surface noise on a record usually bothers me, but with these records it only adds to the illusion of a different life. I’m not listening to this music on a fancy hi-fi in my suburban house; I’m listening to it on a humble turntable that’s tearing up the grooves with each play in some smoke-filled apartment in Oakland. I’ve grown particularly fond of Willis Jackson’s Please Mr. Jackson, which is the last piece of music I’ve listened to before going to bed each night since I got it. There’s one song on the album that sounds like a party that’s broken out in the middle of a church service. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced personally, but I connect with it somehow. It brings me comfort, like it was a part of my imagined past.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Coming Soon to a Record Store Near You: Bernstein's Mahler 2

I've marked March 31 on my calendar, because that's the date Leonard Bernstein's recording of Mahler's 2nd Symphony ("Resurrection") with the New York Philharmonic will be reissued on vinyl. This is my favorite performance of one of my favorite works of art. I have the CD, but missed out on the vinyl when it was originally released in 1990. The original vinyl pressing reportedly sounds better than the CD pressing, which doesn't make much sense since it is a digital recording. I would love to have found out, but original pressings sell for hundreds of dollars. Now my curiosity will be satisfied for a lot less with this vinyl reissue.

The reissue, according to one source, is being produced by a Korean company. Multiple sources confirm it will be cut at Emil Berliner Studio, which was the in-house mastering facility of Deutsche Grammophon, the label that issued the original recording of the performance. The reissue will be pressed at Pallas in Germany, one of the world's best record pressing plants. Needless to say I have high hopes. This is the most exciting reissue in years for me.

Bernstein, the over-the-top conductor, was the perfect match for Mahler, the over-the-top composer. Here he is conducting the finale of the 2nd with the London Philharmonic in crappy YouTube fidelity:

Sunday, March 10, 2013

New New Acquisitions

Instead of keeping up with Alabama Shakes and A$AP Rocky and all the hot new bands, I tend to discover new (for me) music from the past.  There's so much of it.  Here are a few albums I've picked up recently by musicians who, until now, weren't represented in my record (or cd) collection and I hadn't heard much of:

The Soft Boys, Underwater Moonlight (Armageddon, original UK pressing, $10).  No, it's not an album recorded by the first test group for Viagra. This album, released in 1980, pretty much set the template for all the slightly off-kilter jangle pop of the 80s (e.g. REM, Smiths) I was listening to back in the day.

Popol Vuh, In the Garden of the Pharaohs/Aguirre (Celestial Harmonies, German reissued DMM pressing, $15).  What do you get when you combine a spacey moog synthesizer and primitive drumming?  Werner Herzog bait.  After Popol Vuh released their first few albums in the early 70s, including In the Garden of the Pharaohs, Herzog tapped this band to score a number of his films, including Aguirre the Wrath of God.  This double LP reissue combines two of their earlier albums.  It sounds stunning.  I first heard of Popol Vuh a few years ago at Amoeba, where I over-heard a record store clerk tell a fellow clerk that it's becoming really hard to find Popol Vuh on vinyl.  That's the kind of comment that sticks with a record collector.  And it turned out to be true.  While I've come across a handful of albums by other krautrock bands, this is the first one I'd seen by Popol Vuh.  Of course, I snapped it up.

Ben Folds, Songs for Silverman (Epic, 2-LP, $10).  Is Ben Folds the male Tori Amos?  Maybe.

The Dells, Love Is Blue (Cadet, original pressing, $5).  One of my record-buying excursions turned out to be a splurge on soul records.  The Dells are not exactly obscure, but this is the first album I've heard by them.  You just can't go wrong buying a soul album from the late 60s/early 70s.

Charles Earland, Black Talk! (Prestige, original pressing, $15).  I've been looking for this album ever since I read Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue, in which it's mentioned.  I suspect one of the main characters in the book, Cochise Jones, is partially based on this seminal soul jazz organ player.  Earland shows even a Beatles tune can be made to sound funky.

Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Columbia, 2-LP, $13).  How did I miss this album the first time around?  Absolutely brilliant.  Note to self:  I have to listen to less music by mopey, uptight white guys and listen to more music by soulful black women.

Scott Walker, Scott Walker 3 (Smash, white label promo original pressing, $30).  Scott Walker is a prime example of the mopey, white guy I should be listening to less.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Bonus Song

Some vinyl albums include bonus songs not found on the CD, either on a 7" single included with the LP or on the LP itself. Ben Folds' Songs for Silverman LP, which I recently picked up, includes this cover of a Dr. Dre song not included on the CD version of the album. Feel free to karaoke.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Ode to Record Stores: Needle to the Groove

Record stores take on the personality of the store owner. Case in point: Needle to the Groove in the historic Niles District of Fremont has a unique hip-hop character. The owner, Dan the Record Man, used to be a DJ before he opened the store, which explains the "mural" on the wall, the dual turntables at the counter, and all the boom boxes adorning the store. Sure, you can buy records online from a number of web stores, but none has the personalized character of a real, live record store. Needle to the Groove is also a hang-out for locals. Try hanging out at an online record store.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Onion Makes Me Cry

I used to think The Onion was funny until I read this parody.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Ode to Record Stores: Rooky Ricardo's Records

As a collector of soul vinyl in the Bay Area, you have to know the three R's: Rooky Ricardo's Records on Haight Street.  This is the place for soul records, especially 45s. One could easily spend an entire day digging through boxes of soul 45s here. And it would be a nice place to spend a day. The store has been recently spiffed up in cool 50s decor. The storefront space is perfect for just hanging out. You know, like people used to before our society became all about time management, daily planners, and the purpose-driven life. I think Rooky's got it right and it's got soul.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Record Collecting as Art

This year I've already bought two different copies of The Beatles' "White Album", an original German pressing made from UK plates with the top-loading cover (pictured) and an 80s German direct metal mastered (DMM) pressing on white vinyl. This brings my collection of White Albums to seven copies, which leaves me about 386 copies short of Rutherford Chang's collection. He only collects one record, the White Album. It's a fascinating art project, which you can read about here.

Chang approaches each copy of the record as a cultural artifact, the White Album being the perfect vehicle, a literal blank canvas, for history to be recorded. Not only will each record cover show different signs of wear and/or defacement, each record will sound different from varying groove wear and scratches. While I have several copies of the White Album, because I'm searching for the best-sounding version among many mastering and pressing variation, Chang is clearly collecting for different reasons. It's both physical and conceptual art. I think Yoko Ono, as a former member of the Fluxus art group, may approve.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Ode to Record Stores: Grooves

A horrible thought occurred to me on the train to San Francisco. What if there were no record stores? What if we could only buy records online? Instead of a store you could walk into and browse through dusty LPs in overstuffed bins, there would be inaccessible amazonian warehouses housing records that would be shipped to you by clicking your mouse while staring at a screen. Or worse, what if records disappeared completely.

This thought struck panic in my heart. I changed my plan to photograph in the Tenderloin and Civic Center. Instead I felt it was imperative to photograph record shops in the city. The first one I hit was Grooves on Market Street. It is everything a record store should be: idiosyncratic, full of character, and a delight for the eye, as well as for the ear. I wouldn't want to live in a world where internet commerce wipes out places like Grooves.

"In a flash of clarity, he decided that light and color and form are what keep humankind from existential despair and loneliness, and that he wanted to devote himself to capturing that insight in some visual way."  - Susan Orlean writing about the artist Brendan O'Connell
I'll be posting more photos of record shops in the future. The panic attack also got me to revive this blog.