Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Archies Return!

The Archies have returned with their first new album since 1971's This Is Love. Unfortunately, despite the involvement of Ron Dante, it sounds like this The Archies Christmas Album Featuring Betty & Veronica bears little resemblance to the band's previous incarnation as a bubblegum powerhouse. In fact, if Tim Sendra at AllMusic is to be believed the new album is quite a dud. I'm willing to take his word for it.

Also, It's too soon to think about Christmas.

UPDATE: An anonymous reader takes issue with Sendra's judgment. This video may help you make up your own mind.

Monday, September 29, 2008

(Not So) Pleased To Meet Me (Again)

Something else is bugging me about the remastering job on the recent Rhino deluxe reissue of Pleased To Meet Me. Listening to the whole thing, rather than frantically comparing tracks drove home an important point: more than just dynamic range within the songs has gotten lost in the remastering, perhaps just as importantly, dynamic contrasts between songs have also been lost.

Comparing tracks to tracks--as I have been doing--is a useful exercise, but it only tells part of the story. So I compiled visual images that represent the first five tracks on Pleased To Meet Me (just for kicks, I'll call this "side one") taken from the original CD and the remastered reissue respectively.

Take a look at what I found:

Pleased To Meet Me (Side One: Original CD, 1987)

Pleased To Meet Me (Side One: Remastered CD, 2008)

It's pretty easy to see what's happened here. Beyond the obvious fact that each track has been made louder on the remaster, it's clear that the volume of some tracks has been boosted more than others. On the original CD, "Nightclub Jitters" is a fairly quiet song relative to the first three tracks ("I.O.U.," "Alex Chilton," and "I Don't Know"). But on the remastered CD it's been boosted to the point that it is nearly the same volume as the other tracks. Likewise, on the original "The Ledge" is louder than "Jitters," but still quieter than the first three tracks. Those shifts in dynamics between songs have been totally obliterated on the remaster. On the new version, each track appears to have been normalized to around -.3 db with respect to itself, making each song sound as loud as the other.

How loud the individual tracks sound with respect to one another is an important component in how the songs cohere as an album, rather than just as a collection of tracks. I don't believe "Nightclub Jitters" just happened to be quieter than the other songs on side one by accident; Pleased To Meet Me was carefully recorded and mastered the first time around. The song has to be quieter to set the right mood. Hearing Westerberg's whispered vocals on "Nightclub Jitters" sound just as loud as the ones he was screaming on "I Don't Know" is disconcerting, and intuitively sounds wrong.

There's an irony in the fact that an album that has been designated as worthy of the deluxe reissue treatment has been treated like this. On the one hand, the album is presented as a work of "art" worthy of serious evaluation and scrutiny, complete with extended liner notes and a premium price. On the other hand, it's been mastered as though it was never anything more than a collection of unrelated tracks, like some sad-sack Journey "best of" you might find for sale at a truck stop.

I accept that I may be clinging to a completely outdated conceptual framework in thinking about the album this way. Maybe the iPod and iTunes have killed the rock album and there's no point looking back. Perhaps whole the idea of an "album" (a term carried over from the days in which 78 rpm records were packaged together in binders) is simply hopelessly passe. We live in a world where playlists and portability have supplanted coherence and quality. Perhaps in such a world every track has to be the same volume in order to be heard over the background noise of everyday life. But if that's the case why even bother with these deluxe reissue packages at all? Aren't they intended for people who still have enough attention span left to sit down and listen to a whole album from start to finish?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Children By The Millions Can't Hear Alex Chilton

I haven't done one of these comparisons in a little while, but I do plan to keep doing them occasionally. Take a look at the remastering job Rhino did to The Replacements' 1987 album Pleased To Meet Me. The diagrams below represent the waveforms of original and remastered versions of the track "Alex Chilton."

The Replacements - "Alex Chilton" (Original CD, 1987)

The Replacements - "Alex Chilton" (Remastered CD, 2008)

I'll just go ahead and state the obvious: Rhino has squashed a lot of dynamic range out of "Alex Chilton" to make it sound "louder." This is hardly one of the more egregious examples of heavy handed peak-limiting and compression in the loudness wars, but it's still wrong. The remaster hasn't been compressed to the point that it sounds aggressively bad, but the drums occasionally lack the impact of the original. Subjectively, the differences between the reissue and the original are small, but to my ears the reissue certainly doesn't improve on the original in any way.

I hope you enjoy the bonus material and liner notes on this updated edition of Pleased To Meet Me, because when you shell out $17 for this remastered CD, you're paying for worse, not better, sound. My advice: don't sell your original.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Maureen Tucker - Playin' Possum

Unfortunately, my fellow music bloggers have not followed my selfless, high-minded lead, and have refused to suspend their blogging activities until the financial crisis is solved. My friends, these bloggers have betrayed the public trust. Their selfishness and hatred for all things good and decent has forced me to continue blogging. Just remember, if we plunge into an economic depression, it's their fault, not mine.

Is there is a musician less pretentious than Mo Tucker? I can't think of any. Mo was the heart and soul of the Velvet Underground. Even when their music leaned hard toward the experimental and the avant-garde, Mo's drumming was always simple and direct, preventing the music from becoming academic and tedious. It's not surprising then that her solo work would be so primitive and nakedly honest.

Released in 1982, a full twenty ten years after she last performed with the Velvet Underground, Playin' Possum was Mo's first solo album. After the sad, unnecessarily protracted, implosion of the Velvet Underground, Mo had kept a low profile musically. She got married, moved to Phoenix and raised a family. But she wasn't dead musically, she had only been playing possum, as this delightful album makes clear. Playin' Possum was a real one woman show, Mo recorded it at home and played all the instruments herself. Here's how she describes the album:

I'm very proud of this record!! I recorded it alone-in my living room-on a four track. I spent months on it since at that point I had 5 kids, four of them under 6 and one brand new. So I like to say that I recorded this between diaper changes. And its true! One of my favorite reviews described "I'll be your baby tonight" as -- Maureen performs radical surgery on I'll etc. without benefit of anesthesia!!! I loved that and as you can see, still remember it word for word. I love my sax solo on Louie, Louie. I don't know how to play sax so I learned the 3 or 4 notes that would go with the chords and just blasted off! All in all, I think it's a real fun album.

It is a real fun album, and in many ways truer to the spirit of the Velvet Underground than any of Lou Reed's solo work. Mo's cover of "Bo Diddley" is so raw and primitive it makes the original sound like progressive rock.

Original copies of this album are very difficult to find, and it has never been reissued on CD, but if you send her $8 Mo will send you a cassette copy of the album ($7 if you send her a cassette). She'll even autograph it for you if you ask. How cool is that?

Suspending Blog

I'm suspending this blog to deal with the current worldwide financial crisis.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Freewheelin' Mark Arm

Mudhoney didn't really get political until their 2006 album, Under A Billion Suns, but this 1990 Sub-Pop single by Mark Arm made it clear where he was coming from politically.

The A-side is an entirely earnest cover of Bob Dylan's righteous rant against the military industrial complex. If anything Arm sounds even more pissed than Dylan did in 1963. With corporations like Halliburton and Blackwater transparently setting U.S. foreign policy, there's even more reason to be pissed today.

The B-side is a twisted Bo Diddley tribute with lyrics about calcium deficiency (among other things). It's just further proof that Bo Diddley invented grunge (in addition to rock and roll, rap, R&B, heavy metal, garage rock, and pretty much every thing else). All hail Bo Diddley.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Beck - The Early Years

I have to admit that Beck did not make an overly positive first impression on me. While I recognized "Loser" as a catchy song and something of a zeitgeist moment, I wrote him off as one-hit wonder. When the know-it-all music buyer I worked with at Kim's Video made a comment along the lines of "this guy should mail 50% of his royalties to Lou Barlow," I didn't disagree with him.

In my mind, Lou Barlow was the real deal, the tortoise to Beck's hare. Ironically, it was Barlow who attained one-hit wonder status with his appropriation of Beck's slick fusion of indie-rock and hip-hop on The Folk Implosion's 1995 hit "Natural One." Beck meanwhile went on to become, well, Beck. I haven't purchased a Lou Barlow-related album in nearly 15 years, while I now count Beck among my favorite recording artists. Shows what I know.

But listening back on some of Beck's early material, I can understand why I was initially underwhelmed. Mellow Gold is a very good album, better than I thought at the time. But Beck's small label releases--the ones that were supposed to establish his indie cred--didn't do much for me at the time. Beck got much better at more conventional songcraft on later albums like Mutations and Sea Change than he was on early ones like One Foot In The Grave and Stereopathic Soulmanure. I can certainly hear hints on these albums of the talent that I would only fully recognize later, but I can also hear why they didn't sound particularly fresh or original to me at the time.

"Sleeping Bag" is one of the better tracks from the now out-of-print One Foot In The Grave, while "The World May Loose Its Motion" remains one of the rarer early Beck tracks, having only been released on the compilation Periscope: Another Yoyo Compilation. In 1994 I thought these tracks sounded like bandwagonesque lo-fi indie rock, but today I hear them as solid songs from an emerging talent. And unlike many lo-fi indie-rockers, Beck's songs actually benefited from the meticulous production eventually provided by producers like Nigel Godrich.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

R.I.P Jerry Reed

It's a sad day in the Bilderback household. Jerry Reed, the original "Guitar Man" has passed on at the age of 71.

Pylon - Chomp

Well loved in their home town of Athens, GA, but little known outside of it, Pylon broke up too early to capitalize on the brief media fascination with the town in that wake of R.E.M.'s success.

R.E.M. regularly cited Pylon as an influence, but it's often hard to hear it in the music. Pylon were far more interested in dance beats coupled to angular, post-punk guitar than R.E.M.'s Byrdsian jangle pop. To my ears, Pylon usually sounded closer to the aesthetic of British post-punk acts like Gang of 4, Delta 5, and Au Pairs than to the music Athens became briefly famous for.

The closest Pylon got to jangle-pop was "Crazy," a song best-known for R.E.M.'s cover of it. Pylon's version is superior, and remains my favorite track by the band.

Pylon's first album, Gyrate, was reissued by DFA Records last year. Hopefully they'll reissue Chomp in the near future as well. I always considered Chomp the better album, but Gyrate seems to be the one that has acquired the posthumous reputation as a source of inspiration on today's indie scene. This probably says a lot about how out-of-touch I am with recent developments in indie rock.

Of course the coolest thing about the LP is the way the serrated top edge of the record cover kinda, sorta, not really looks like it's been "chomped" on by a dinosaur.