Monday, August 25, 2008

Robyn Hitchcock - Luminous Groove Box Set

Robyn Hitchcock has really opened the floodgates on his vaults the past couple of years. Hot on the heels of a collection of unreleased 90s demos, Yep Roc has released another box set, Luminous Groove that covers his work with the Egyptians. The three pre-major label Egyptians albums (Fegmania, Gotta Let This Hen Out and Element Of Light) are included, along with a collection of unreleased recordings, demos and live tracks.

Back when Yep Roc released the first Robyn Hitchcock box set, I Wanna Go Backwards, I tried to sort out what material would be new to those who already owned the Rhino reissues, and I want to do the same for Luminous Groove.

First of all, the 2 CDs of unreleased material, entitled A Bad Case Of History, are comprised almost entirely of unreleased material. However, many of the songs themselves will be familiar to even casual Hitchcock fans as a lot of them are demos or live recordings of previously released songs. Some choice cuts that have never been officially released in any form include "Surfer Ghost," "Evil Guy," and "Poisonous Angel." Hitchcock fans are also likely to enjoy the demo and live recordings of material that may have been a wee bit overproduced on his A&M albums such as "Arms Of Love" and "Wreck of the Arthur Lee."

As for the albums themselves, I believe the following bonus tracks should be new even to those who own all of the Rhino reissues:

The Drowning Church
The Man With The Lightbulb Head (instrumental)

Gotta Let This Hen Out

If You Were A Priest
I’m Only You
Egyptian Cream #2

Element Of Light

Sprinkling Dots
Upside-Down Church Blues
Bass (demo)
Lady Waters & The Hooded One (demo)

You might consider holding on to your Rhino reissues if you are fond of any of the following tracks because they do not appear on either Yep Roc box set:

Egyptian Cream (Demo)
Insect Mother (Smithsound Demo)
Egyptian Cream (Live)

Element Of Light

Can Opener
President (demo)
If You Were a Priest (demo)
Airscape (demo)
Leopard (demo)

Luminous Groove is available on 5 CDs, 8 LPs or as a download.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Back From Vacation

Some kids parents' drag them to Disneyworld. Others are forced to sit in a car for hours just to get a brief glimpse of something you can easily see in picture books like the Grand Canyon or Niagra Falls. My kids are much luckier than that--Daddy took them to the Princeton Record Exchange. With over 150,000 titles in stock it's an awe inspiring experience, one I'm sure they will not soon forget.

I'm back from vacation now, and will be posting regularly again soon.

Friday, August 08, 2008

David Brooks Tore Me A New One Today

I nearly spewed my iced, grande, triple latte as I read David Brooks' latest New York Times column at Starbucks this morning. It was hard not to recognize myself in Brooks' withering takedown of today's smug, elitist, psuedo-intellectual, poseur, wannabe, (liberal) tastesmakers (or as a poster here recently referred to us "the smugnoscenti"). Per Brooks:

...prestige has shifted from the producer of art to the aggregator and the appraiser. Inventors, artists and writers come and go, but buzz is forever. Maximum status goes to the Gladwellian heroes who occupy the convergence points of the Internet infosystem — Web sites like Pitchfork for music, Gizmodo for gadgets, Bookforum for ideas, etc.

These tastemakers surf the obscure niches of the culture market bringing back fashion-forward nuggets of coolness for their throngs of grateful disciples.

While this site doesn't attract "throngs" and isn't as well-known as Pitchfork, I like to believe that's because I deliberately focus on the most obscure "nuggets of coolness," therefore establishing myself as more elite than those mass-market peddlers of pre-fabricated hipness. Far from being a blemish on my prestige, I consider this site's extremely low readership a mark of honor. And you, my grateful disciples, should congratulate yourself for having the discerning taste that allowed you to stumble upon my words and the "nuggets of coolness" with which I bless you in order to bolster my own sense of hipness.

But I digress, Brooks continues:

Second, in order to cement your status in the cultural elite, you want to be already sick of everything no one else has even heard of.

By this measure my status among the cultural elite is virtually assured. Not only am I already sick of everything no one else has heard of, I've rediscovered the hidden coolness in the things my cultural lessers have gotten sick of (stay tuned for my series of posts on how Britney's genius was misunderstood by the coarse vulgarians who once embraced her).

When you first come across some obscure cultural artifact — an unknown indie band, organic skate sneakers or wireless headphones from Finland — you will want to erupt with ecstatic enthusiasm. This will highlight the importance of your cultural discovery, the fineness of your discerning taste, and your early adopter insiderness for having found it before anyone else.

[Sigh] Wireless skate sneakers from Finland are so ten minutes ago, but I suppose that's the price you pay when your writing is tied to the horse and buggy that is print journalism.

Then, a few weeks later, after the object is slightly better known, you will dismiss all the hype with a gesture of putrid disgust. This will demonstrate your lofty superiority to the sluggish masses. It will show how far ahead of the crowd you are and how distantly you have already ventured into the future.

If you can do this, becoming not only an early adopter, but an early discarder, you will realize greater status rewards than you ever imagined. Remember, cultural epochs come and go, but one-upsmanship is forever.

It's not often I agree with Brooks, but I think he's got me pretty well nailed here. There's little I can say in my own defense. I feel nothing but putrid disgust for myself. David Brooks has forced me to come face-to-face with the fact that I'm a smug asshole. Touché, Mr. Brooks, touché.

I had always considered this site a harmless diversion from work and my other responsibilities, but Brooks has helped me see my actions in a new light. I found refuge in sharing my forgotten "nuggets of coolness" in much the same way Brooks' real (Republican) Americans find refuge from the everyday in NASCAR (or whatever it is Brooks believes real Americans enjoy doing these days). But I now see the error of my ways.

I will say one small, possibly inconsequential, thing in my defense: As annoying as I may be, nothing I've ever written on this blog has directly or indirectly contributed to an innocent person losing his or her life. My words didn't help lead us into an ill-conceived and disastrous war. Unlike the infinitely humble David Brooks, I may be a smug asshole, but I can sleep soundly at night knowing that I've never written a word that has resulted in a daughter losing her father, a husband his wife, or a mother her son. How Brooks sleeps is his own business, but beyond my comprehension.

Perhaps this is a good time to announce that I'm going on vacation. Check back for more "nuggets of coolness" like these from June Christy and George Jones delivered (as always) with a heapin' helpin' of smug condescension the week of August 25th.

June Christy - Kicks [right click to download]
George Jones - Play It Cool [right click to download]

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Beck - Modern Guilt on LP (and on LP-sourced MP3)

Here's an interesting development. Beyond being offered on LP with a bonus MP3 download (which is becoming a standard practice), Beck's latest LP, Modern Guilt, comes with a coupon for an MP3 download that was sourced from a vinyl record. So rather than getting the standard (presumably CD-sourced) download with the LP, you get one that was sourced from a vinyl record.

Per the download card:

As a way for you to enjoy this album in both the traditional and digital form we have provided you a high-quality mp3 (converted at the maximum ratio of 320 kbps). This higher sound quality has been taken directly from the vinyl playback--offering a broader sound spectrum to enhance your audio experience.

Never mind the fact that is not possible to convert directly from vinyl playback (there has to be an analog to digital converter in the chain somewhere), and that the gear used to both playback and record the vinyl will have a major impact on the eventual sound quality of the files. I was unable to uncover any additional information on how these files were created, despite a rather half-hearted attempt to contact Beck's management.

No matter, sampling rates and other audio esoterica aside, sound quality is not the real issue here. Offering the download in this manner strikes me as more of an attempt to create a simulated vinyl LP experience in a portable digital format. The sound of needle drops and lifts have been conspicuously left in at the beginning and end of "sides," and so has a fair amount of vinyl surface noise. I have no idea what kind of gear was used to playback the album during recording, but I hear a lot more surface noise than I'm used to from pristine 180 gram vinyl LPs. The project seems more like a conceptual art project than a genuine attempt to deliver the best possible sound quality to the consumer.

The various sonic artifacts of LP playback have been left in (perhaps even slightly emphasized), and serve to constantly remind the listener of the digital file's original provenance. Perhaps it's an attempt to help the disaffected contemporary music consumer connect to a more authentic way of experiencing music in a digitized world. On the other hand, it might be an ironic commentary, mocking the very notion of "authenticity" itself. More likely, it's both these things at the same time. Or possibly neither. With an artist like Beck, we'll never know what the intent was, and that's probably for the best. Leaving some room for ambiguity allows the listener to think these issues through for him or herself.

Fortunately, the surface noise is not so noticeable that the music can't also simply be enjoyed as music, so if you don't want to think about issues like whether genuine pleasure is possible in a world dominated by simulacra, you really don't have to (but then why are you bothering with Beck in the first place?).

I did my normal comparisons between a downloaded vinyl-sourced MP3 of the first track "Orphans" and the same track sourced from CD and also MP3 encoded at 320kps. Looking at the tracks, it is evident that the CD-sourced version is louder than the LP-sourced one. But closer inspection reveals that the actual dynamic range of the two tracks to be very similar. If anything, the CD probably has a bit greater dynamic range.

Beck - "Orphans" LP (2008)

Beck - "Orphans" CD (2008)

As for the sound quality, both versions sound very good, but different in important ways. The most notable difference is the obvious presence of vinyl "surface noise" on the LP-sourced track. The other major difference is that the bass goes much deeper on the CD-sourced track. The bass on the CD track sounds like the deep synthetic bass typical of much current pop and hip-hop music. The fact that the bass doesn't go quite so low on the LP-sourced version makes it sound more like it could have been produced by a traditional bass guitar (although, it obviously wasn't). As a result, the LP-version sounds closer to the psychedelic-pop of Revolver and Rubber Soul, whereas the CD-version sounds more like Odelay. The difference is relatively subtle, but the LP version simply sounds distinctly less, well, modern than the CD version. I wouldn't call one better or worse than the other, they're simply different.

Whether on CD, LP, MP3 or vinyl-sourced MP3, Modern Guilt is an outstanding collection of songs. I highly recommend it.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Angst - Cry For Happy

Angst was a band that broke up at the wrong time. First of all, Joe Pope and Jon E. Risk had just hit their stride as songwriters with their last two albums, Mystery Spot (1987) and Cry For Happy (1988). Second, the sound they had stumbled on by this point, a mix country twang and alt-rock jangle informed by their hardcore roots, would become all the rage a couple years later after the release of Uncle Tupelo's No Depression (1990).

Uncle Tupelo often gets credit for being the first "alt-country" act, but bands like Angst and The Long Ryders had concocted a similar fusion during the mid-to-late eighties. So why did Uncle Tupelo kick off a movement while the music of Angst, The Long Ryders and others languished in obscurity? I'm not sure. Of course, in pop music timing is everything. There's also no doubt that good marketing can help, and I don't think Angst ever got any of that.

Whatever the reasons, Angst didn't sell a lot of records at the time, and all their albums are out-of-print today. It's a shame because their records are really quite good, especially the last two. I never saw Angst live, which makes me suspect they didn't tour the East Coast very often, because I was definitely a fan.