Monday, December 31, 2007

Do The Dead!

1985's Return Of The Living Dead impressed me, mostly for two reasons: it was a smartass zombie flick released when smartass horror films were rare and eerie things, and it had a great soundtrack.

During the 80s, both major and minor corporations were still reluctant to touch anything that remotely resembled 'punk rock,' even with the largest safety pin. Still, Return Of The Living Dead, a film presumably marketed to the same teenaged audience listening to stale Foreigner and Bob Seger records (keep in mind, this was before Bon Jovi hit it big with Slippery When Wet) pulsated with some mighty weird tunes. While semi-animated corpses slithered around the silver screen, The Damned, The Flesheaters, 45 Grave, T.S.O.L. and Roky Erickson (!) reverberated through the Showcase Cinema. Being about 16 or 17 years old at the time, I found the experience exhilarating. One very rarely encountered 'cool music' at the Mall in 1985. For example, I recall being stunned when Iggy Pop’s "Lust For Life" briefly arrived during Desperately Seeking Susan. Nowadays, the damned thing reclines in Royal Caribbean ads, but back then…

One of the best numbers on the Return Of The Living Dead Soundtrack, alongside Roky's "Burn The Flames" and 45 Grave's "Partytime," is The Cramps' looming "Surfin' Dead." It shambles along, the true Missing Link between the earlier voodoo vibes of Songs The Lord Taught Us, Psychedelic Jungle and Gravest Hits and the (very) slightly poppier garagifications of "Ultra Twist" and Flame Job. Switching the brains of the Rickety Rockabilly Corpse Of The Past and the Comic Book Rhythm Demon Of Later Years, "Surfin' Dead" is one of The Cramps' most perverse and hilarious creations.

Since Enigma Records released the Return Of The Living Dead Soundtrack, it makes sense that that many of the bands involved were affiliated with the label.* Roky Erickson, for example, released Don't Slander Me and Gremlins Have Pictures on Enigma's wild Pink Dust imprint. TSOL had their Revenge and then Hit & Run. The Cramps, Jet Black Berries (formerly New Math – dig They Walk Among You) SSQ and 45 Grave also exhumed material. Unfortunately, the word in the chat rooms is that Return Of The Living Dead, due to subsequent licensing problems, is no longer shown with its original soundtrack intact. A Shame, that.

Finally, I lent my copy of the Return Of The Living Dead soundtrack to a friend, a younger dude who liked Iron Maiden and Fates Warning. The LP was returned to me, a few weeks later, with an actual footprint stomped into the vinyl.

He was less impressed.

*In the interest of full-disclosure, I should mention that I worked for luxuriamusic.com, a few years back, which was then a division of Enigma Digital.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Top 10 Albums of 2007

Because I'm an important music blogger one of the top 999,999 most read music bloggers on the internets, The Hype Machine wants to know what I think the top 10 albums of 2007 were. There's just one problem. I have no idea what the top 10 albums of 2007 were. The truth is I don't keep up with new music nearly as much as I used to, and most of the posts on this blog are (by design) about old music. Few people are less qualified than myself to decide what the best albums of 2007 were.

Still I'd like to participate in shaping the zeitgeist. So I'm asking for help from my readers. I'm listing some albums that might be included on a best of 2007 list and asking you to rank them for me, and add any suggestions of your own. I'll then synthesize the results into a tidy top 10 list. (I'm only considering new music, not reissues or archival releases).

Some albums I bought and liked:


Wilco - Sky Blue Sky
(I wrote a bit about this album before. While this got a mixed critical reception, it is possibly my favorite Wilco album, and might have been my favorite album of 2007).
Iron & Wine - The Shepherd’s Dog (Another excellent album, also possibly my favorite of 2007).
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - 100 Days, 100 Nights (Wow! Sharon Jones is the real deal. Sharon can really sing, and the Dap-Kings hit a hard groove. Maybe this was my favorite of 2007? Thanks to Adam for alerting me to Sharon.)
Teddy Thompson - Upfront & Down Low (I haven't seen Teddy's collection of country covers show up on any year-end best-of lists. That's a shame because it's fantastic. I've been meaning to do a full post on this album for months--I may yet get around to it.)
Arctic Monkeys - Favourite Worst Nightmare (Thanks again to Adam for alerting me to this. I kinda figured The Arctic Monkeys were another post-punk wanna be act. Maybe they are, but the music is undeniably fun).
Linda Thompson - Versatile Heart (Another strong release from the Thompson family.)
Amy Winehouse - Back to Black (While I think we are all burned out on reading about Amy Winehouse's exploits, her voice cannot be denied).
Richard Thompson - Sweet Warrior (A good, but not great, release from Richard Thompson).
Dean & Britta - Back Numbers (I didn't listen to this as much as I expected to. It's good though).
Fiest - The Reminder (I bought this for my wife, but I like it a lot too).
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - Magic (Ho-hum, another great Springsteen album).
Kristen Hersh - Learn To Sing Like A Star (Another good album that I haven't listened to a whole lot).

Albums I've been meaning to pick up:

Nick Lowe - At My Age
(I hear this is fantastic).
PJ Harvey - White Chalk (Good buzz on this, but I haven't heard it despite being a fan).
Neil Young - Chrome Dreams II (I'll get this eventually I'm sure).
Dinosaur Jr. - Beyond (Another pointless reunion, or brilliant return to form? Not sure I care, but I guess I'm at least curious).
The New Pornographers - Challengers (I always like their stuff, but haven't gotten around to picking this up).

Stuff that's over-rated (in my opinion):

Radiohead - In Rainbows (This is on virtually everyone's year-end list, but I just don't like Radiohead. Actually, I'm not sure that's even the right way to put it. I find nothing objectionable about their music when listening to it--in fact, sometimes it impresses me while I listen. But nothing, nothing this band has ever done has made a lasting impression on me, or moved me emotionally. If you put a gun to my head, I could not hum a single Radiohead tune to save my life. I don't know if that's a criticism or not, but I just am not a fan. And yes, I paid for the download).
Arcade Fire - Neon Bible (Been there, done that).
Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Ditto).
The Shins - Wincing The Night Away (For a pop band, they sure don't write very catchy music).

So help me out folks. What should make the cut and what shouldn't? What did I miss? What order should this stuff be in?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Down In The Park

Down in the park
Where the Machmen meet
The machines are playing 'kill-by-numbers'
Down in the park with a friend called 'Five'
In Fall 2004, I attended a coffee shop fundraiser for a progressive political organization. The Big Election was coming up and, being in a more sensitive frame of mind than usual, I attended. The weather was pretty depressing, as I recall, and there was a sense of real pessimism in the air. Still, local bands, some containing friends, were playing and a full afternoon, if not an actual good time, was guaranteed for all.

The line-up consisted of eccentric New Weird Folkidelica alongside potent electronic avant-gargling and a classical string duo. Alec K Redfearn, an accordionist, close friend, and on-off bandmade of Yours Truly, also played a set. He informed me, beforehand, that his would include a Gary Numan cover.

Alec's rickety squeezebox pulse, strengthened by the presence of some talented cello and violin players, pumped some life into an otherwise downbeat day. As he performed the aforementioned Gary Numan composition, its unforced melodic beauty became quite moving. The song, originally a frosty electro tune, lent itself to Alec's idiosyncratic R. Crumbly instrumentation. I was also startled by the references to "rape machines."

The song was, of course, "Down In The Park."

With some cursory research using Ye Olde Internete, I can ascertain that "Down In The Park," has been covered by a large and varied group of musicians. Besides Mr. Redfearn, artists such as Foo Fighters, Marilyn Manson, somebody named DJ Hell, Christian Death and Girls Under Glass have attempted this oddball number. Now, granted, most of this "research" amounts to me pounding around on Wikipedia and a few other sites, so I haven't heard most of these. However, I do own a CD reissue of Foo Fighters' The Color And The Shape, so I have listened to their take. The rest, I will have to take on faith. What is striking about this list--however accurate or inaccurate it may be--is how people have been affected by this fairly obscure song by Gary Numan, a man thought by much of the general populace to be a cyborgian NuWaver of days gone by.

Why? Why has "Down In The Park" hummed in the collective unconscious of so many freaky people for such a long time? It's certainly not Mr. Numan's most popular tune. That would inarguably be "Cars," his big hit. In fact, it's not even his second most popular tune. We'd have to give that award to the mighty "Are Friends Electric?" Yet, somehow, "Down In The Park," off Replicas by Gary Numan & The Tubeway Army, coming at you all the way from 1979, may shape up as the most enduring song of The Pleasure Principal's career. Again, we must ask ourselves, "Why?"

Well, first of all, the song is quite beautiful. Despite Mr. Numan's solid-state at sub-zero sonic approach, "Down In The Park," possesses a gorgeous and melancholy musicality, like some of the best efforts of The Zombies, The Left Banke or even John Cale. The melody is rolling and sophisticated, yet memorable. Very "Eleanor Rigby" at points, albeit glacial in its pace (and, some would say, attitude.) Surgically remove Mr. Numan's willfully antiseptic approach and you are left with a haunting and powerful set of lines. As such, Foo Fighters attach it to their muscular chug and Alec K Redfearn swaddles the thing in his lysergic chamber music and "Down In The Park" emerges as the true victor. One hears the strength of the songwriter as well as the specific personality of the interpreter. As reluctant as some folks may be to admit it, we should all doff our space helmets in tribute to Mr. Numan's intelligence and wit as a craftsman.

Secondly, and, perhaps, just as importantly, Mr. Numan has put this remarkable melody in the service of some of the most unguardedly bonkers lyrics of his, or anybody else's, career. Near as I can tell, an upsetting William S. Burroughs/JG Ballard lyrical theme oozes through the entire Replicas record, a function of some internal logic and product of The Talented Mr. Numan's imagination. "Down In The Park" is explicit in the details of something so subjective that, even still, it remains vague and troubling. Taken literally from the first-person perspective of an Unreliable Narrator (I was in a car crash/Or was it the war?/Well, I've never been quite the same) the song describes how humans, corralled in The Park by sadistic, robotic Machmen, meet their deaths by the steely gears of "rape machines" and other infernal devices. Our Narrator, perhaps lobotomized by his mechanical captors, watches the ghastly events from a night club near The Park under the supervision of an android "friend" named Five ("Are Friends Electric," indeed.) The whole thing has a really nasty and nauseating Punishment Park/Demon Seed/A Clockwork Orange kind of vibe.

The effect is stunning. Seriously. Take an old 70's AM Radio hit--say, "Just An Old Fashioned Love Song" by Three Dog Night and replace the existing lyrics with rhyming couplets about the "Is It Safe?" scene from Marathon Man and you kind of get an idea of the "Down In The Park" vibe. In the spirit of Love's Forever Changes (the subject of my last entry for this operation, by the way) you sense that Enya or Sade could interpret this just as effectively as Genesis P. Orridge or LCD Soundsystem.

My first encounter with "Down In The Park," like so many of my generation and temperament, came from watching Urgh!- A Music War. Resembling Christopher Pike, Mr. Numan "belts out" the number while coasting across a glowing stage in what appears to a combination orgone box/go-kart. I suggest interested parties watch the clip on YouTube. It is impossible not to be distracted by the overwrought Futurisms of the show, but the song and its composer are unique. Give it a look, or, even better, a listen.



Down In The Park [download from emusic]
Down In The Park [download from iTunes]

Friday, December 07, 2007

Snakefinger - There's No Justice In Life

This single was released on July 1, 1987, ironically the same day that Phillip "Snakefinger" Lithman dropped dead of a heart attack. Lithman was barely past his 38th birthday. No justice in life indeed.

Snakefinger is, of course, most closely associated with the music of the Residents. Lithman was involved in some of the Residents' earliest musical experiments, then went on to found legendary British pub rockers Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers. When that band broke up, he moved to LA to establish a career in mainstream pop music, then returned to San Francisco to help create the music that forms the core of the Resident's musical legacy. Lithman also released a handful of excellent, but largely overlooked, solo albums that tone down the avant weirdness of the Residents just enough to sound something like pop music.

As Ted Mills notes at All Music Guide, Snakefinger's solo work wasn't weird enough to capture the full attention of the Resident's cult audience, nor was it "normal enough for chart success or critical recognition." This is particularly true of his later solo albums, which were made mostly apart from the Residents, though still released through their label, Ralph Records.

These two tracks were also featured on Snakefinger's final studio album, Night of Desirable Objects, cut with his backing band the Vestal Virgins. On "There's No Justice In Life" it never sounds like he's complaining or bitter, just offering a very matter-of-fact observation on life's inherent unfairness. The b-side, a cover of the jazz standard "Move" (made famous by Miles Davis during the Birth Of The Cool sessions), is a revelation. Snakefinger was more than competent as bop-jazz guitarist. His famous manual dexterity is balanced by good taste and a strong instinct for group interaction.

There are precious few artists who can move so effortlessly between avant-garde strangeness, pub-rock, pop and jazz. Unfortunately, commercial success rarely comes to those committed to this kind of musical diversity (some might call it schizophrenia), no matter how talented they are. But then who ever said there was any justice in life?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Gemini - Take Her Back

I occasionally post things that I can tell you next to nothing about and hope someone will stumble upon my post and be able to offer more information. Such is the case with this single by Gemini. Despite some creative googling, I can't even offer a release date for this single.

Here is what I can tell you: The A-side, "Take Her Back," was written by famed bubblegum tunesmiths Bo Gentry and Joey Levine. The flip side, "Ann" was written by Paul Naumann and Kenny Laguna. The record was produced by Gentry and Naumann and released on Forward Records (F-129). (You could play all kinds of "six degrees of separation" games on this release.) Whether any of these people were involved in the group Gemini, or if Gemini was a real group and not just a temporary studio conglomeration, I can't say.

The pedigree of those involved can be heard in the music, which is pleasant if nothing earth-shattering. The best way to describe it is bubblegum meets the Beach Boys' Sunflower album, although to my ears the slightly disco-ish strings on "Take Her Back" date the song to significantly later than Sunflower. If I had to guess, I'd say this was released around 1974. Any further info about this all-but-forgotten single would be greatly appreciated.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

X-Mas 2007

Some people like to get their holiday shopping done early. I decided to get my holiday blogging done early. So this year I'm posting a bunch of holiday songs all at once--call it a compilation if you like, or think of it as me stopping by to D.J. your Christmas party without having to deal with me drinking up all your eggnog, insulting your guests and throwing up on your sectional. Individual tracks are available for download by right clicking on the links, or you can just download a zip file of the whole thing.

1. Burt Bacharach - "The Bell That Couldn't Jingle"
Like much Christmas music, this song is stupid and sentimental. It's also pretty catchy.

2. Redd Kross - "Super Sunny Christmas"
Redd Kross are one of my favorite bands. It borders on criminal that so many of their albums are out-of-print.

3. Peter Wood Singers And Orchestra - "A Ride On Santa's Sleigh"
I found this on a Christmas music blog called Fa La La La La.com. The whole album is still available there, and is well worth checking out in its entirety.

4. Sy Mann - "Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer"
For some a little bit of Switched on Santa goes a long way, others will want to hear the whole thing. Fortunately for those in the later group, the whole album is also available at Fa La La La La.com.

5. Belle & Sebastian - "Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto"
This cover of the classic James Brown Christmas song was performed at a Peel Session on the BBC in 2002. Who knew Belle & Sebastian could give up the funk?

6. The Three Suns - "Sleigh Ride"
The Three Suns were Mamie Eisenhower's favorite band. This is the sound of Christmas in the White House circa 1959.

7. The Davis Sisters - "Christmas Boogie"

8. The Screaming Santas - "I Love X-Mas"
I posted this last year, but it's worth hearing again.

9. Squirrel Nut Zippers - "Winter Weather"
The brief swing revival of the mid 90s was pretty annoying, but the Squirrel Nut Zippers were a good band. Certainly there is no arguing with Katharine Whalen's voice, as this track amply demonstrates.

10. Commander Cody - "Daddy's Drinking Up Our Christmas"
This is another one I posted last year. I get hits in April from people looking for this song. I can understand why.

11. Esquivel - "Here Comes Santa Claus"
I posted a couple other songs from this sadly out-of-print CD last year. There are currently some reasonably priced used copies on Amazon. Grab one now!

12. Game Theory - "Linus And Lucy"
This cover of the Vince Guaraldi classic was issued as a bonus track on the CD reissue of The Big Shot Chronicles.

13. Claudine Longet - "Snow"

14. Shonen Knife - "Space Christmas"

15. June Christy - "The Merriest"
June Christy is one of my favorite jazz singers. Her holiday album, This Time Of Year, is almost entirely unique in that it contains no standards, but instead a group of songs written specifically for the album. The album--with arrangements by the great Pete Rugolo--is well worth checking out, as is nearly everything Christy ever did.

16. Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66 - "The Christmas Song"

17. Marty Robbins - "One Of You (In Every Size)"

18. Luna - "Eggnog"
This song appeared on a CD EP called Indian Summer, which doesn't seem to show up in any of Luna's discographies, but I know exists because I own it.

19. Milton DeLugg & The Little Eskimos - "Hooray for Santy Claus!"
The classic film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is in the public domain and can be downloaded for free. Now you can watch it 365 days a year.

20. NRBQ - "Christmas Wish"
This is just a great song anytime of the year. [It's also been reissued on a Deluxe Edition of Christmas Wish, so I took it down. Downloads of individual tracks from the album are also available at Amazon.]

21. George Jones - "My Mom And Santa Claus"
If you've been reading this blog for a while you know I am a big fan of George Jones. If you haven't, you do now.
**Bonus track (not in the zip file)** George Jones - "I Want A New Baby For Christmas"

22. Treacherous Three - "Xmas Rap [X-Rated Version]"
This makes we want to breakdance, old-school Christmas style.

I'll be back with new posts in 2008. Possibly sooner. Happy Holidays.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Scooby-Doo

My son Will has been obsessed with Scooby-Doo lately. Obsessed is putting it mildly actually. He was first exposed to Scooby-Doo during a trip to Cape Cod this summer while the Cartoon Network was running a Scooby-Doo marathon. It's been all about Scooby since then, and old friends like Curious George and Thomas the Tank Engine have been mostly forgotten.

Since we don't have cable I tend to splurge a bit on DVDs for the kids. I bought Will Scooby-Doo Where Are You! The Complete 1st and 2nd Seasons, which features all of the original Scooby-Doo episodes. That was a big hit, and Will soon needed a new Scooby fix. I was a little skeptical as to whether he would like The New Scooby-Doo Movies, with its early 70s era guest stars as much. To my surprise these have become some of his favorite episodes. I have to chuckle when I hear Will call out "Hurry Daddy! Don Knotts is on!" or "Look Dad! It's Mama Cass!"

Though I loved Scooby-Doo myself as a child, I had remembered it as being kind of a crummy show with poor quality animation and cookie-cutter story-lines (every episode ending with "...and I would have gotten away with it too if it weren't for you meddling kids.") In truth, it's not nearly as bad as I had remembered. The animation is cut-rate, but not without its charm, and the stories are actually more varied than I had thought. While an adult could easily pick out a number of continuity errors in any given episode, they aren't really that important.

Though often derided for lacking educational value, I've come to the conclusion that Scooby-Doo is actually a healthy show for kids. If nothing else, it teaches them not to jump to conclusions, but rather to look for evidence that can help you assemble a deeper explanation for the things you see (and the things you think you see). It can also help foster a healthy sense of skepticism. Frankly, a lot of adults could use an occasional reminder that most people peddling super-natural explanations turn out to be two-bit charlatans looking to make a quick buck.

It was also a pleasant surprise to me that there is occasionally some pretty good music in these episodes. For the show's second season Hanna-Barbera hired songwriter Danny Janssen (who had previously written the theme for The Partridge Family, as well as some songs for Bobby Sherman) to write some songs for Scooby-Doo, and a new animated series called Josie and the Pussycats.

Josie and the Pussycats deserves its own entry someday, but season two of Scooby-Doo Where Are You! featured some very groovy Janssen-penned bubblegum nuggets performed by Austin Roberts during chase sequences. Like most of the chase songs, "Daydreamin'" has absolutely nothing to do with whatever demon, phantom, zombie or ghost is chasing Scooby and the gang, but it's irresistibly catchy.

The insanely catchy "Pretty Mary Sunlite" was originally featured as a chase song performed by Austin Roberts, but also reappeared in an episode of The New Scooby-Doo Movies featuring guest star Jerry Reed. Reed--the original guitar man--performs the song a number of times during the episode, including this nice acoustic rendition. Unfortunately, this episode is not available on DVD, but there is a clip of it (including a different performance of the song by Reed) up on YouTube.




Monday, November 19, 2007

Tater Totz - Sgt. Shonen's Exploding Plastic Eastman Band Request Mono Stereo

Sgt. Shonen's Exploding Plastic Eastman Band Request Mono Stereo by Redd Kross' side project Tater Totz (featuring members of Shonen Knife, Sonic Youth, White Flag and The Three O'Clock) might be the most self-indulgent inside-joke, indie-rock super-group album ever released were it not for the existence of The Velvet Monkey's faux-exploitation film soundtrack Rake.

It's tough to tell if this album is a Yoko Ono/Beatles tribute or parody. I doubt the MacDonald brothers and their friends know for sure, and I'm certain they wouldn't give a coherent answer if asked about it. Perhaps the Tater Totz are neither tribute nor parody, but rather belong to some unique post-modern genre occupied only by themselves and Ciccone Youth that only persons with PhDs in Comparative Literature are properly qualified to describe.

The title of the album alone suggests more pop-culture references than one would think possible: Sgt. Shonen's [Beatles, Shonen Knife] Exploding Plastic [Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol, Pop Art] Eastman [Linda McCartney] Band Request [The Rolling Stone's Their Satanic Majesty's Request] Mono Stereo [60s pop culture and commercial packaging of music generally]. Then there's the album cover which mimics Help!, but replaces the Beatles with four Yokos. What does it all mean? Does it mean anything? Or does it completely mock the idea that pop music should mean anything at all?

The amusing mash-up of Ono's "Who Has Seen The Wind" and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" suggests the Tater Totz are a band of merry pranksters having fun with the legacy of one of the most hated (and misunderstood) musicians of the 20th Century. But the other Yoko covers are fairly faithful and show the group to be well-versed in, and respectful of, Ono's avant-garde ideas. To make things even more confusing, they toss in a cover of The 1910 Fruitgum Company's bubblegum classic "1,2,3 Red Light." Perhaps this is some statement on unlikely symmetry between the avant-garde and the crassest elements of the pop music industry (consider for instance how Lou Reed got his start as a staff writer for Pickwick, or how the Talking Heads covered this song in their early live shows). Or maybe they just like the song, and there is nothing more to it than that.

Inarguably, the best music on the album is the two Os Mutantes songs featured as bonus tracks on the CD. These are not Os Mutantes covers, mind you, they are (uncredited) Os Mutantes performances that have been poorly transcribed from vinyl. I have no idea what to make of that, but I'm pretty sure it represents the first time any Os Mutantes music was released in the U.S., so Mono Stereo could be considered a landmark album for that reason alone.

In the end, the Tater Totz seem like a sincere attempt at a tribute from a group of artists to whom sincerity is an utterly foreign concept. I imagine Redd Kross' career interests would have been better served by focusing on their own releases, rather than on impenetrable releases like this and their hardcore tribute/parody band Anarchy 6. But then I'm not sure Redd Kross were capable of that kind of focus, and they wouldn't be quite who they are if they were. And the truth is Sgt. Shonen's Exploding Plastic Eastman Band Request Mono Stereo is sporadically entertaining even if it is ridiculously self-indulgent.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Project III USB Turntable

It's about time someone made a product like this. Though there have long been similar products on the market from manufacturers like Ion, Numark and TEAC, the Pro-Ject Debut III USB Turntable (with pre-mounted Ortofon cartridge, a built in phono preamp, analog to digital converter and USB output) is the first all-in-one LP-to-computer transfer product that approaches audiophile quality.

Without going into too much detail on this, trust me when I tell you that it is not possible to construct a decent sounding turntable out of highly resonant, lightweight materials like plastic. Unlike competing products on the market, the Debut USB is constructed of high-quality materials like MDF and stainless steel. While the Pro-Ject table costs between 2 to 4 times as much as some of the cheap plastic wonders on the market, I'm willing to bet it sounds 20 to 40 times better.

Pro-Ject has long been known for manufacturing some of the best entry-level audiophile turntables on the market. The Pro-Ject Debut (upon which this model is based) is one of the easiest to recommend turntables in its price range, and a great choice for someone looking to dip their toes into the world of high-quality vinyl playback. The addition of a good quality built in phono preamp, plus A-to-D converter and USB output, makes the Debut III USB Turntable a compelling choice for anyone looking for a relatively inexpensive and hassle free way to transfer their LP collection to digital files.

If you are considering purchase of another (cheaper) USB turntable, stop and buy this instead. Certainly there are far more expensive routes you could take if you crave the ultimate in fidelity, but the Pro-Ject Debut III USB is the cheapest all-in-one product on the market that will deliver good sound quality. If I hadn't already set myself up with a more expensive solution, this would be on top of my Christmas wish list.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

A Post I Meant To Do...

I intended to write a post on a couple of tracks left off the Yep Roc reissue of Robyn Hitchcock's Black Snake Dîamond Röle, but I see another music blogger beat me to it.

Actually, I should thank 2fs at The Architectural Dance Society blog for posting the original version of "The Man Who Invented Himself" and its b-side "Dancing On God's Thumb" because I post on Robyn Hitchcock far too often anyway. As for "Mellow Together," some tracks deserve to be lost--proceed with caution.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween

I'll get back to semi-regular posting soon. In the meantime, here is a batch of Halloween themed material. For those of you who missed it last year, I included The Velvet Monkeys' cover of "Spooky." Also included is Mudhoney's cover of Sonic Youth's "Halloween" and two "ghost" songs from Robyn Hitchcock, his cover of the Psychedelic Furs' "The Ghost In You" and his own "The Ghost Ship."

I've really been enjoying the Robyn Hitchcock box set, I Wanna Go Backwards, recently released by Yep Roc. I'll have more to say about it later.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Sky "Sunlight" Saxon

While Roky Erickson is enjoying some rightly deserved revitalization in the wake of the 2005 career spanning documentary You're Gonna Miss Me, playing to capacity crowds at London's Royal Festival Hall and reportedly working with ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on a new record, another 60s psychedelic pioneer has yet to enjoy such renewed fame.

Sky Saxon's contributions to garage rock and psychedelia are arguably just as important and influential as his Texas counterpart, and his band The Seeds produced some great albums from the psychedelic era. Singles such as "Can’t Seem to Make You Mine", "Mr. Farmer" and the classic "Pushin’ Too Hard" combined garage punk with a slightly off kilter and at times almost childlike sound that distinguished them from the typical 1966 fare. Keyboardist Daryl Hooper played a huge role in creating their unique sound as well, which favored the use of organ over an electric bass, which would be part of the formula that would propel another L.A. act--The Doors--up the charts during the same time period.

Much of this period of The Seeds career has been well documented. However, not much attention has been given to Saxon's post-Seeds career, including his time in the Ya Ho Wha 13 music collective during the 70s, most likely due to the absence of a cohesive story line. The Ya Ho Wha 13 have garnered considerable interest as of late and are now regarded by some as the greatest American psychedelic band that just so happened to go virtually unacknowledged during their time. I suppose stranger things have happened.

For those interested in the Father Yod story, you could check out this informative site here or this excellent interview here or go whole hog, no, sorry whole vegetable and dive right into the massive 13 disc document of the entire Ya Ho Wha recorded output from the Japanese label Captain Tripp. It's not entirely clear which of these recordings Sky Saxon appears on but he did lead the Ya Ho Wha 13 on the album Golden Sunrise after leader Father Yod passed away following a hang gliding accident. There is also a book and a DVD documentary on the 140+ member family, which looks interesting, to say the least.

This is the period that found Sky adding "Sunlight" to his name, but it's just one more chapter in the career of Richard Marsh, which began in the early 60s. He continued recording throughout the 80s and 90s, and recently released a new record offering fans distribution rights for a select number of CDs, so long as they create the artwork, and promise NOT to use jewel cases. I’m down with that.

The paisley underground of the 80s saw Sky emerge on the L.A. scene once again and recording with some of the mainstay groups of the time such as The Dream Syndicate, The Church, The Three O'Clock, The Rain Parade and The Plimsouls. He recorded a live album with members of Redd Kross and The Primates for the Voxx label called Private Party. One of my all time favorite psychedelic tracks by any artist has to be "The Flower Lady and Her Assistant" from the 1967 LP Future (which I remember made Rick Rubin’s top 10 list years ago) and here is covered by the band with plenty of overdriven guitars and Sky's impassioned vocals. It takes just three lines before he starts improvising and singing about the grim reaper and something or other that’s in 126 countries. "I smell the perfuuuahhhhoooohhh...." Yeah.

Masters of Psychedelia released on New Rose in 1985 seems to be from sessions dating from an earlier period, but there's just not much information available on this record. "Silver Leaves" is the standout track for me, even though I freely admit that I'm not sure exactly what he's singing about. But that doesn't stop it from being a great slice psychedelia. Listen and see if silver leaves are falling down where you live.

And hey, how about a Sky Sunlight Saxon documentary already?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

It's Time For Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers

I previously dedicated a whole week to the music of Jonathan Richman, but I neglected to feature anything from his most difficult album to find, It's Time For Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. The album was released in 1986 on Rough Trade in the UK and Upside Records in the US. It was available only for a short time before falling out-of-print, and it's never been reissued. It's something of lost JoJo classic.

The album is similar in many respects to my favorite Jonathan Richman record, 1985's Rockin' and Romance, although it is not in my opinion as consistently great. Producer Andy Paley once again creates an engaging, direct and unfussy sound (though not as self-consciously primitive as on Rockin' and Romance). Likewise, there is a similar nostalgic, doo-wop flavor to much of the music. One major difference is that backing singer Ellie Marshall is featured much less than on Jonathan's previous two albums. While her contributions are missed, they are compensated for by the presence of fellow Boston native Barrence Whitfield, who is prominently featured in the backing chorus. Replacing Marshall's folk-influenced voice with Whitfield's gives the album more of a rough rock and roll flavor. Additionally, Asa Brebner provides some of the toughest guitar work heard on a Jonathan Richman album since his original Modern Lovers days.

Despite all the things this album has going for it, a few of the songs don't quite live up to the standards set by the previous album: "Shirin & Farad" sounds like a less engaging re-write of "Abdul and Cleopatra," and "Ancient And Long Ago" aims for, but doesn't quite reach, the emotional majesty of "Now Is Better Than Before." Nevertheless, the stronger material ("It's You," "Let's Take A Trip," "Neon Sign" and others) would be highlights on any Jonathan Richman album.

"Double Chocolate Malted" is perhaps my all-time favorite Jonathan Richman song. Some people might consider constructing a song around three-chords and instructions on how to properly make a frozen desert treat a poor excuse for songwriting. Some people are idiots--this is one of the greatest songs ever written. I have tried to make a double chocolate malted to Jonathan's specifications, right down to the extra scoop of malt in a paper cup on the side. However, I have had absolutely no luck in locating Horlex brand malt. Any help in locating a supply would be greatly appreciated, as I suspect that is the key to whole enterprise.

"Corner Store" is Jonathan at his most Don Quixote-like, tilting against the windmill of corporatization and longing for the return of the old-fashioned corner store. When Richman first recorded this song in 1986, I had yet to hear the name "Wal-Mart," and the passing of time makes the song sound sadder to me than it once did. How many more corner stores have forever shut their doors since this song was recorded over twenty years ago?

Some might consider "Corner Store" (and in fact the entire album) little more than a pointless exercise in simple-minded, reactionary, nostalgia. But the song subtly taps into a deep sense of longing for community and honest connection between individuals that cannot be written off so easily. With a guitar riff that explicitly recalls Creedence's "Down On The Corner" and its doo-wop style chorus, the song suggests that in replacing Mom and Pop corner stores with malls and mega-marts we lost more than just comfortable places to shop, we also lost the important public spaces provided by small, independently-owned stores--the kind of spaces where Willy and the Poorboys could ply their trade, and where the joyful doo-wop that Richman pays homage to was born. It's a high price to pay--Richman suggests--for cheaper prices.

The author of a thoughtful review of It's Time For on Head Heritage passes along a second-hand story that suggests Jonathan Richman himself does not hold this album in very high regard. That's not entirely surprising considering Richman rarely--if ever--has a kind word to say about any of his own albums. But regardless of Richman's assessment of the music from this period in his career, as a fan I would love to see his three Rough Trade albums (Jonathan Sings!, Rockin' and Romance, and It's Time For) reissued in a deluxe box set with bonus tracks and liner notes written by Richman explaining why he really thinks this music is horrible, and he can't listen to it anymore, but if some people like it then, hey that's okay with him.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

George Jones & Melba Montgomery

George Jones' best known duet partner was his one time wife (and Country music legend in her own right) Tammy Wynette. But he recorded many fine duets with other female artists, most notably Melba Montgomery.

When she first arrived as a solo artist, Montgomery's deep, husky voice earned her comparisons to George Jones. Jones thought their vocals would mesh well, and his instincts proved right as they notched six hit singles together between 1963 and 1967.

Though she never became a huge star in her own right, Montgomery did manage a number one Country single and surprise pop-hit with "No Charge" in 1974. A mother's response to a child's request for money, "No Charge" is the world's biggest guilt trip set to music. (Tammy Wynette later covered the song with her and George's daughter Tina playing the part of the greedy tot.)

As for these sides, "Let's Invite Them Over" was the duo's second hit single in 1963, and "Party Pickin'" was their final chart entry in 1967. There is a barely unspoken subtext to these two songs that suggests the conservative world of Country music was not entirely untouched by the sexual revolution that unfolded around it. Whatever it is George and Melba were inviting their neighbors over to do in 1963, they sure sound real guilty about it. By contrast, the cut from 1967 has a rowdier tone, and the couple is willing to quickly forgive each others' indiscretions without guilt or apology (or is it the thought of the indiscretions that turns George into a "tiger" at the songs' end?). If you ask me, this is very dirty music.

Capitol released a good compilation of the duo's United Artists sides back in the mid 90s that has fallen out-of print. Hollywood Records released a cut-rate compilation of some of the later sides they cut for Musicor. Sporting crummy art work, no liner notes, poor sound quality and spotty tune selection, George Jones & Melba Montgomery is the kind of CD you typically find for sale in truck stops. Unfortunately, the only other way to find most of the music on it is to track down the original LPs (which is not a bad idea).

Friday, September 14, 2007

Toadstool - The Sun Highway

Toadstool was a Minneapolis based trio of John Joyce (bass, vocals), Scott Sherman (drums), and Brad White (guitars, vocals). The band's first album, The Sun Highway, was produced by Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner, which is probably what drew my attention to them in the first place. The band's overall sound is similar to Soul Asylum in certain respects, but with a much stronger leaning towards the blues, and far more abstract lyrics. At the time it was released, I was impressed enough with the album to book the band to play at my college. They ended up playing on a double bill with Skin Yard in the Fall of 1990. Unfortunately, the show was far less successful in terms of attendance than I hoped it would be. But despite playing for a crowd of about 50 people, Toadstool rocked the Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium right down to the freakin' ground.

I think the show was sparsely attended in part due to bad timing on my part, I foolishly scheduled it too close to midterms. Apparently many of my classmates thought their time was better spent studying than rocking out. Actually, most of them were probably at frat parties. (At the time, I remember seeing a sign that advertised a frat party with the promise that "Toadstool will not be there!" One year later these same dim wits would be blasting Nirvana at their lame ass parties, claiming they always liked this kind of music.)

Obviously Toadstool never went on to scale the multi-platinum commercial heights that Nirvana reached. Actually, that is about as big an understatement as a person can make: according to their label The Sun Highway "sold 434 vinyl albums, 322 cassettes and 643 CDs in the first two years of release." Ouch. They never released another album, and The Sun Highway has been out-of-print for years.

So maybe those idiot frat boys were right all along. Maybe I was the idiot for booking Toadstool in the first place. Going back and listening to this album again after not having heard it for a long time, I don't think that is the case. No, Toadstool was not as great as Nirvana or their Minneapolis compatriots Soul Asylum. (I didn't think they were at the time, but they were a lot cheaper to book, believe me.) But this is solid stuff, delivered with a lot of passion and a surprising amount of skill. The Sun Highway is a very promising debut album, and it's easy to imagine the band having gone on to bigger and better things, even if that's not the way it worked out. The Sun Highway is positively bursting with ideas, and while not all of them work, it's still an engaging listen 17 years later.

"Last Thing Right" and "Dreams Rust" were the two songs from the album I played the most at the time, and they still sound like the best tracks to my much older ears. I remember thinking at the time that the band sounded far better live than they did on record. Too bad they didn't stick around long enough for a follow up. I think they were onto something.

Like Jonathan Richman's Rockin' and Romance, The Sun Highway is available as a custom burned CD from Twin/Tone. If you are still considering ordering Rockin' and Romance (and you should be if you haven't done so already), and want to add another CD to your order to make the shipping charge less painful, you could do a lot worse than The Sun Highway.

The Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium has never been the same.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Harpo Marx - Harpo At Work

Eugene Chadbourne wrote a fantastic review of Harpo Marx's 1958 easy listening masterpiece, Harpo At Work for All Music Guide that very much deserves to be read in its entirety. I don't often read a review at All Music Guide and say "I couldn't have possibly said it any better myself," but that is the case here. I say this neither to denigrate the other reviewers at All Music Guide, nor to praise myself. It's just that generally the goals of this blog are different enough from those of All Music that I rarely find much overlap between their take on a particular album and what I want to say.

Chadbourne touches on all the major characteristics that give this album and the Harpo character such enduring appeal: the surprising and delightful ability of a mute character to express himself so elegantly through music, the tension inherent in the idea of Harpo as both cherubic angel and outrageous rebel, and the seemingly natural affinity between Harpo's unorthodox musical technique and jazz.

I've noticed that Chadbourne--a noted avant-garde musician in his own right--occasionally writes album reviews for All Music Guide. From the few I've read, his reviews are typically both entertaining and insightful. It makes me wish All Music was searchable by author. Chadbourne's writing is so different from the blandly authoritative tone adopted by most of the site's writers that it almost seems as if he somehow hacked into the allmusic server and uploaded idiosyncratic reviews of personal favorites that are obscure enough that the site's editors will never notice they're there. [If that in fact is what happened, I hope I haven't busted him].

Harpo recorded several jazz oriented, easy listening albums during the 50s. In addition to this album, he also recorded a 10" EP for RCA in 1952, and another album for Mercury, Harpo In Hi-Fi, in 1957. Both the Mercury albums were packaged as a single CD by Collector's Choice Music that has sadly fallen out-of-print, and now fetches collector's prices along with the original LPs.

If you consider "easy listening" a derogatory term, you are not likely to appreciate these albums, as the music fits comfortably into that genre. For the rest of us there is much in Harpo's music to appreciate. First and foremost is Harpo's harp playing itself. Though self-taught, Marx was a virtuoso on his instrument, albeit an idiosyncratic one.

When he was first given a harp by his mother (or possibly his uncle), there was no one around who knew how to properly tune the instrument. So Harpo tuned it himself. As it turned out he inadvertently discovered an alternate tuning that allowed for considerably more slack in the strings than standard tuning.

Harpo later hired some of the finest classical harpists in the world to teach him proper technique, but to no avail. The style he developed using his own alternate tuning would have snapped the strings on a "properly" tuned harp. No matter, most of his teachers quickly became more interested in observing Harpo's unique playing style than in teaching him how to play "properly." It is no exaggeration to say that no one played the harp quite like Harpo Marx. (Or as Jonathan Richman put it, "Well when Harpo played his harp it was a dream, it was/Well if someone else can do it, how come nobody does?")

Of course the fact that Harpo innocently stumbled onto his own method for tuning and playing the harp fits nicely with the persona he developed for stage and screen. Harpo the character, the mute clown in a fright wig, seemed to have stumbled in from some alternate universe, so it is no surprise he would play the harp differently from everyone else.

Harpo's unique approach to playing the harp is very much on display in this clip from The Marx Brother's 1932 film, Horse Feathers:


Many of Harpo's fans today seem to remember him primarily as a kind of benign, angelic presence. But it should not be forgotten that in the early films the Brothers made for Paramount (and before the era of censorship ushered in by enforcement of the Hays Code), Harpo's character was also frequently a lecherous pervert who was apparently sexually attracted to animals. His character was neutered in the later films by MGM and the demands of the code, but in those anarchic early films Harpo is one of the most deliciously strange characters ever to appear in film (which is no doubt why he counted Salvador Dali among his many admirers). In films like Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, Harpo's character was typically lecherous and perverted while at the same time angelic, innocent and otherworldly. A similar tension is present in his music which manages to be unorthodox and experimental while simultaneously sounding soothing and conventional.

The first song I selected from the album is "Laura." The virtuoso display of harp pedal use that Chadbourne mentions in his review is also a showcase for the arranging talents of Harpo's son Bill Marx. "Harpo Woogie" demonstrates Harpo's well-known humorous side. Finally there is Harpo alone at his harp, appropriately enough, on Duke Ellington's "Solitude." The music on Harpo At Work is completely enchanting, and Chadbourne's comparisons to Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix are in no way over-the-top. Harpo Marx was a truly gifted and original musician, and his slim recorded legacy outside of the Marx Brothers films is surely a great loss.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Legend Of Thumper Jones

Back in 1956 a house painter from Beaumont Texas named Thumper Jones walked into Starday Records' makeshift studio and recorded two of the wildest, most unhinged rockabilly sides ever recorded. He was never heard from again.

No one knows for certain what happened to Thumper, but speculation abounds. Some say he went back to painting houses, others say he was drafted. One story has him finding Jesus and giving up rock and roll to spread the gospel. Still others claim he was shot in a barfight over a woman known as "Flirty Mirty." One thing is for certain: he never recorded again.

Perhaps the most fanciful claim of all is that "Thumper" was merely a pseudonym for Country singer George Jones. Usually I wouldn't repeat such hearsay and nonsense, but it should be noted that someone named "Geo. Jones" is credited as writer for both "Rock It" and "How Come It." Also, despite Thumper's over-the-top performance, his voice does bear a certain similarity to that of the country legend.

Whoever is responsible for the performance, the rarity of these sides has no doubt contributed to their legendary status. A copy of this single in good condition could set you back anywhere between $250 to $500. But if you manage to track one down, do not under any circumstances ask George Jones to sign your copy--he's been know to smash them to pieces.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Robyn Hitchcock - I Wanna Go Backwards Box Set

The upcoming Robyn Hitchcock box set I Wanna Go Backwards is now available for pre-order and has streaming audio on Yep Roc's website. The release date is set for October 16, 2007 AD. The box covers the Hitchcock solo albums Black Snake Dîamond Röle (1981), I Often Dream Of Trains (1984) and Eye (1990) in their entirety. It also includes a two disc set called While Thatcher Mauled Britain Part 1 & 2 that includes some previously unreleased rarities, as well as some tracks that previously appeared on the Invisible Hitchcock and You & Oblivion rarities collections.

If you are an obsessive Hitchcock collector like I am (and if you're not, what's wrong with you?) you are likely wondering two things: What material here is genuinely new to me, and what is missing from the albums I already own? Good news! I've already done the research for you and created to this handy guide:

What's new?

Previously unreleased material on I Often Dream Of Trains:
Chant/Aether (different from You & Oblivion version)
Heart Full Of Leaves (alternate)
I Often Dream Of Trains (demo)
Not Even A Nurse
Slow Chant/That's Fantastic Mother Church
Traveller's Fare

Previously unreleased material on While Thatcher Mauled Britain Part 1 & 2:
Century
Shimmering Distant Love
Lovers Turn To Skulls
The Beauty Of Earl's Court
Flesh Number 1 (different from Globe of Frogs version)
Parachutes & Jellyfish
Melting Arthur
You're So Repulsive
Opiatrescence
Lovely Golden Villains
Dr Sticky (live) (different from Invisible Hitchcock version)
Toadboy
Lightplug
I Wanna Go Backwards
Update:
The Abandoned Brain (different from Invisible Hitchcock version)

While the three proper albums will be available separately, the rarities discs are only available as part of the box set, so if you want them you'll have to spring for the whole thing.

What's Missing?
The most obvious omission is the mess that emerged from the sessions for Hitchcock's second solo LP, 1982's Groovy Decay. Yep Roc has promised Groovy Decay as a download-only release. No word on whether it will contain all the material from both Groovy Decay and Groovy Decoy, as the Rhino reissue Gravy Deco did.

Personally, I think it is kind of a shame that Groovy Decoy/Decay is not getting a proper reissue. True, Hitchcock (and many of his fans) hold these albums in low regard. And I admit the albums are partly spoiled by over-production, inappropriate arrangements and some weaker songs. But on the whole I think they're under-rated. The dance floors of the world will likely survive without the disco versions of "Kingdom Of Love" and "Night Ride To Trinidad" that showed up as bonus tracks on Gravy Deco, but "The Cars She Used To Drive," "Fifty Two Stations," "America," "The Rain" and several other songs hold up quite well.

Certainly it's better the material be available for download than completely unavailable (and all of these albums have been out-of-print for the better part of a decade). But perhaps I am old-fashioned in my belief that an album isn't really in print unless it is distributed for purchase on some physical media in stores that actually exist in the material world.

Missing from the original version of Black Snake Dîamond Röle:
"The Man Who Invented Himself" [This probably requires some explanation: as was the case with the Rhino reissue, the version of "The Man Who Invented Himself" that originally appeared on the Black Snake Dîamond Röle LP has been replaced with the Zinc Pear version. That probably requires some explanation too, but I'm not going to give it to you.]

Missing from the Rhino version of Black Snake Dîamond Röle:
Dancing On God's Thumb

Missing from the Rhino version of I Often Dream of Trains:
Mellow Together [In my opinion, this is no great loss. I always hated this song.]
Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl (demo)
Cathedral (demo)
Mellow Together (demo)
The Bones In The Ground (demo)

Missing from the Rhino version of Eye:
Agony Of Pleasure (demo)

Missing from the Rhino version Invisible Hitchcock:
Falling Leaves
Eaten By Her Own Dinner
Star Of Hairs
Messages Of Dark
Blues In A
Dr. Sticky (studio version)
Update:
The Abandoned Brain (a different version is featured on the new set)

Missing from You & Oblivion:
Don't You
Mr. Rock 'n' Roll
The Dust
Polly On The Shore
Aether
Into It
Keeping Still
Ghost Ship
You & Me

I imagine it is possible that some of this material might surface on the next Hitchcock box set from YepRoc, but that seems unlikely given that the next box will focus on Robyn's work with the Egyptians. In the meantime, don't sell your Rhino Hitchcock CDs.

I've only listened to a bit of the streaming material, but much of the stuff I hadn't heard before sounds quite good. If you don't already own these albums, purchasing this set is a no brainer. If you do own them, hopefully my breakdown has made your decision whether to purchase or not an easier one. As for myself, the only decision I have to make is whether to spring for the vinyl or not.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

R.I.P. Wild Bill Hagy

Any Oriole fan of a certain age is bound to have fond memories of Wild Bill Hagy. My memory of Hagy is bound up with my early years of being an Oriole fan, particularly the 1979 season. Hagy was a Baltimore cabdriver and Oriole superfan who would lead cheers from the cheap seats of Memorial Stadium.

Hagy began a boycott of Oriole games in 1985 when the team stopped letting people bring their own beer to the stadium. He later started attending games again after the team moved to Camden Yards, but rarely led the crowd in his signature "O-R-I-O-L-E-S" cheer. He did it when Cal Ripken broke Lou Gerhig's consecutive games streak, and he did it one last time in Cooperstown when Ripken was inducted into the baseball hall of fame. Frankly, as beautiful as Camden Yards is, it has never matched Memorial Stadium for atmosphere, although that may have something to do with the declining quality of Oriole teams.

I would not be shocked to learn that Hagy was the inspiration for "Dancin' Homer" on The Simpsons. If there were a baseball fan's hall of fame, Hagy would be a shoo-in first ballot inductee.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

R.I.P. Max Roach

Max Roach died Wednesday night at age 83. Another giant no longer walks among us. Another link to our past is gone. All we are left with is the music. He was one of the best.

Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers - Rockin' and Romance


Rockin' and Romance from 1985 is my favorite Jonathan Richman album. That is not the same as saying I think it's his best (the critical consensus seems to be that the first Modern Lovers album is the best, and I won't argue with that). It's just that Rockin' and Romance is the album I've listened to the most over the years, and the one I have gotten the most enjoyment out of.

So why do I like this album so much? It's probably a combination of factors including the wonderful songs, the spirited performances, the production, as well as the point in my life when I first heard the album.

My first exposure to the album was in high school through my friend Pete, who picked up a used copy at the Annapolis Record and Tape Exchange. We both marveled at Jonathan's honesty and fearless Romanticism: here was a guy who could find beauty and mystery in a disposed of chewing gum wrapper, and wasn't the least bit embarrassed about his enthusiasm for a piece of trash. Rather, he seemed to take a perverse delight in celebrating the things the rest of the world would rather dispose of. It took me a couple years to find my own copy of the album, but when I ran across a still-sealed cut out I snatched it up as quickly as I could and held on to it tight, afraid someone else might spot my sacred treasure and buy it out from under me.

Andy Paley deserves a lot of credit for his production on this album. Jonathan's complaint about the production on Jonathan Sings! being sterile cannot be applied to this album. Quite the opposite. Some might call the recording lo-fi, but I don't think that's right either. Rather, Paley simply eschews modern audio recording technique in favor of a much more organic sound that goes a lot further toward capturing the essence of Jonathan's songs and the group's performances than multi-tracking ever possibly could have. The sound is live, real and tangible. Paley was no idiot savant in the studio--he could do slick and overproduced as well (or as badly) as anyone (consider Brian Wilson's first solo album for example). Fortunately, Richman and Paley had the wisdom not to record this album like that. Instead it sounds like the whole band set up in a small studio and recorded the largely acoustic material around a single stereo microphone. However they did it, it sounds fantastic, capturing all of Richman's charm and the enthusiasm of the performers. Paley also plays some mean toy piano on the album.

Despite the fact that this album has never officially been released on CD, it is available on CD. Sort of. Twin/Tone has made much of their catalog available in the form of custom made CDs that can be purchased through their website. You can order a custom CD of this album for $15 plus $5 shipping (and if you don't already own it you should). Unfortunately, you won't get any cover art, but don't let that stop you because I created some high quality CD art (zip file) that you can download and print out yourself.

Rockin' and Romance is a cult album by a cult artist. According to Twin/Tone's website the album sold 19,360 copies on LP and cassette combined (which is actually pretty good by 80s indie label standards). You can probably add about 20 custom made CDs to that total. Would I like to live in a world where you could buy Rockin' and Romance at the supermarket, and you had to special order a custom burned CD of Slippery When Wet? Yeah, I think I would. It would be a different and weirder world for sure, but you'd have a hard time convincing me it wouldn't also be a nicer one.

"The Beach" is a seasonally appropriate ode to, um, the beach. "Vincent Van Gogh" is Richman's second song about a great painter, this one much happier and more positive than "Pablo Picasso," (which is almost perverse considering the subject). Art historians might quibble with Richman's methodology, but his thesis ("he loved color and he let it show") is as rock solid as the beat. Perhaps my favorite song is the album's closer, "Now Is Better Than Before," a frank and touching song about how love can grow stronger over the years. It is both sentimental and completely honest at the same time (a difficult feat). It is almost more beautiful than this world deserves. But since we can't live in a world where Jonathan Richman is a multi-platinum artist and Bon Jovi has small cult following, at least we can be thankful we live in a world where an artist as talented and unique as Jonathan Richman can sustain a 30+ year career on the margins.

[Custom CD available from Twin/Tone]

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers - Jonathan Sings!

Four years after his final Beserkley album, 1979's Back In Your Life, Jonathan Richman reemerged with a new record label (actually two, Rough Trade in the UK and Sire in the U.S.), a new Modern Lovers, a somewhat revised musical style, and a new album that was really quite special.

Jonathan Sings! marks the beginning of a transitional period in Richman's career. Over the next four years Richman would release three albums on three different labels before settling in to a long tenure with Rounder Records and then another long tenure with Neil Young's Vapor Records.

Jonathan's new Modern Lovers included backup singers the "Rockin' Robins" (Ellie Marshall and Beth Harrington), as well Ken Forfia on keyboards, former Rubinoo "Curly" Keranen on bass, and Michael Guardabascio on drums. Utilizing two female backup singers in particular gave the album a different flavor than his previous releases. It's a good choice because it gives Richman someone to play off of with his sometimes conversational singing style.

For the most part the silliness of the Beserkley years is absent here. There are no Rockin' Leprechauns, Abominable Snowmen, Martian Martians, Parties In The Woods, or Dodge-Veg-O-Matics on this album. In their place is a set of very simple and heartfelt songs that focus on life's simplest and most profound pleasures. The album is all about the things that make Jonathan Richman happy: love in a stable relationship ("Somebody To Hold Me," You're The One For Me"), summertime ("That Summer Feeling"), music ("This Kind Of Music," "Those Conga Drums"), childhood nostalgia ("Not Yet Three," "The Tag Game"), special places ("Give Paris One More Chance," "When I'm Walking"), and doing your own thing without worrying about what others think ("The Neighbors," "Stop This Car"). Think of this album as musical prozac.

It's hard to call this a more "mature" Jonathan Richman. A sense of child-like wonder and innocence is still at the core of these songs, despite the fact that the self-conscious silliness of some of his previous work is missing. "Not Yet Three" is perhaps Richman's finest articulation of what makes the child's perception of the world superior to the inevitable cynicism that accompanies adulthood. This song could have been my son's theme song when he was around three: it very much reminds me of his absolute determination to take full advantage of every bit of joy the world has to offer, a quality that has already begun to fade somewhat at five. "That Summer Feeling" is a Richman classic that he would later re-record, and would remain in his core live repertoire for years.

In the liner notes to the 1993 CD reissue of this album, Richman is typically modest about the quality of the album:
Personally, I can't listen to this record...I loved the band that made it, and I loved the songs, but I sang the songs bad and the recording technique didn't capture the way we really sounded. It was sterile in comparison to the real thing.

Jonathan actually has a point about the recording technique, it does sound a tad sterile, but not so much that it diminishes my enjoyment of the wonderful performances. What a shame that this fantastic album has been out-of-print for so long.