Friday, January 30, 2009

Feels Like 1974

And it feels like 1974
Waiting for the waves to come and crash on the shore
But you're far in land
You're in funky denim wonderland
You and David Crosby and a bloke with no hand
You've got hair in places
Most people haven't got brains

-Robyn Hitchcock "1974"

All Music Guide currently has a list of its critics' favorite albums from 1974. Off the top of my head, I probably would have said 1974 was a terrible year for rock music, perhaps for music in general. When I think of 1974, I think of The Doobie Brothers, Supertramp and Jethro Tull, and not to pick on them, but I just don't much care for their music. In my mind 1974 was a time when the innovations of the 60s had given way to the excesses of progressive rock or mellow tedium of singer songwriters. When I think of 1974, I tend to think of the kind of music punk rock was a reaction against.

But looking over the All Music critics' lists, I was surprised how many albums I really love were released in 1974: Brian Eno - Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Big Star - Radio City, Richard & Linda Thompson - I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Neil Young - On the Beach, Roxy Music - Country Life, Gene Clark - No Other, Shuggie Otis - Inspiration Information, John Cale - Fear, Elis Regina & Antonio Carlos Jobim - Elis & Tom, Betty Davis - They Say I’m Different, Merle Haggard - If We Make It Through December, George Jones - The Grand Tour, Funkadelic - Standing on the Verge of Getting It On, Parliament - Up for the Down Stroke, Stevie Wonder - Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Miles Davis - Get Up with It, Dark Magus and Big Fun, Herbie Hancock - Thrust and Head Hunters, The Residents - Meet the Residents, Electric Light Orchestra - Eldorado, Sweet - Desolation Boulevard.

And as far as I could tell none of All Music's critics even listed Gram Parsons' Grievous Angel (seriously?), Terry Callier's I Just Can't Help Myself, Van Morrison's Veedon Fleece (??), Sly Stone's Small Talk, Bob Dylan's Planet Waves, Al Green Explores Your Mind by Al Green, Ry Cooder's Paradise And Lunch, David Bowie's Diamond Dogs (okay, that one makes sense) or Love's under-rated Reel To Real (no surprise). And I don't doubt there are a bunch more albums from 1974 that haven't even crossed my mind. So upon further reflection, I have to admit 1974 was a great year for music, even if the best of it was bubbling under the surface of the pop charts.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Working On A Dream

A couple questions.

First, why is it that every time I buy an LP from a major label that promises a bonus MP3 download, the download doesn't work? I've purchased dozens of LPs from indie labels like Sub-Pop, Merge and Matador, and never had a single problem downloading the MP3's. But with nearly every LP/MP3 package I've purchased from Universal or Sony, there has been some problem with the download (Warner and EMI are apparently still too afraid of big bad MP3's to even pretend to offer them with their vinyl). The zip file I downloaded for Springsteen's latest, Working On A Dream, was totally corrupted and couldn't be decompressed, despite the fact that I tried with several different applications.

It's no big deal I guess; I'll just rip the LP when I get a chance. And considering this is Sony we're talking about, I may be lucky the file didn't work because it might have turned my computer into some sort of evil spy-bot for the RIAA that would, in the fullness of time, rise up against its master and destroy him. But considering I'm one of the few people left on earth willing to shell out $25 for a new album, I think I should get what I've been promised.

Second, what the hell is up with Bruce Springsteen's album covers these days? Born To Run, Born In The U.S.A., Nebraska, Darkness At The Edge Of Town... those albums offered iconic images that carried nearly as much force as the music inside. The cover for Working On A Dream, on the other hand, looks like it was done by an eight-year old who just discovered all the wicked cool things you can do with filters in Photoshop. And his past few albums haven't looked much better.

Unfortunately, the same over-reliance on technology creates a problem for the music too. Brendan O'Brien's production sounds sterile and stitched together in ProTools just as surely as the cover looks like a Photoshop monstrosity. (I hope Springsteen works with a producer he's a little less comfortable with next time.) But, as was the case with 2007's Magic, their are some really good songs here if you can listen past the production. It's not impossible, and perhaps even worth the effort.

It's a nice, quiet, 2 LP pressing anyway.

UPDATE: The support team at Hip Digital Media (the company Sony outsourced the download to) were very helpful and responded to my emails right away (an all too rare occurrence these days). It turns out the problem is that most unarchive utilities on the Mac are incompatible with the zip file, but they found one that worked, called The Unarchiver. So if you've had a similar problem and have a Mac, download this utility, and it should solve your problem.

The other good news is that the MP3s are encoded at 320kps, and at first glance do not appear to suffer from the overly-aggressive dynamic range compression that plagued Magic. Perhaps we really are nearing the end of the loudness wars. Also, it was nice of the Boss to name the eight-minute lead-off track after me. I'll have to thank him for that (and gently take him to task over the cover art) next time I see him.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Electric Love Muffin - Rassafranna

Back when I was in college there were certain albums, like Soul Asylum's Hang Time, that all my friends owned. Then there were other albums that only one of us would own, but that got passed around among the group so much that it seemed like we all owned it. Rassafranna by the Electric Love Muffin fell into this later category.

My friend Adam once again loaned me the communal copy of Rassafranna, and through the miracle of digital technology, I can now share a couple tracks with the rest of the world.

So, how does the album hold up? Pretty well I'd say. The Electric Love Muffin had the misfortune of breaking up just before "alternative rock" broke into the mainstream. To my ears, the album is at least as good as what the Flaming Lips were doing at the time, and certainly better than anything by some of the second-tier alternative acts that became multi-platinum sellers in the 90s (Goo Goo Dolls, I'm looking at you).

The album is a little uneven, but a lot of fun. Listening to Rassafranna today, it's easy to imagine a very different future for this young band from Philly.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

End of the Loudness Wars?

Could the end of the loudness wars be in sight? Perhaps. Check out this interesting post on Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy by Ian Shepherd at the Mastering Media Blog. Shepherd speculates that Metallica's much maligned Death Magnetic may have been the straw that broke the camel's back.

Shepherd's interesting comparison between the Death Magnetic LP and CD is also worth reading. It's similar to some of the comparisons I've attempted to do here, only done by someone who actually knows what he's talking about.

Reading Shepherd (who is a mastering engineer) drives home just how hideously out of my depth I am in attempting to comment on these things at all. Still, despite my lack of technical expertise, I think it's helpful. I try to be as honest as possible about the things I don't understand, and when I'm engaging in pure speculation. I'm sure I get a lot of things wrong, but the more people who complain about over-compressed releases (and praise the good ones) the better. Besides, technical expertise aside, I know what I hear.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

So Tough (Beach Boys Promo Document, 1972)

I found this flyer inside a white label promo copy of the 1972 Pet Sounds/Carl and the Passions - "So Tough" double LP package. It's interesting to see how Warner/Reprise felt they needed to market the Beach Boys circa 1972 ("the old 'surfboard image' is at long last disappearing"). This was around the time the band considered shortening their name to simply "The Beach," in order to escape their now un-hip legacy.

Note also that the photo shows the previous incarnation of the group with (by then departed) Bruce Johntson in the forefront and new members Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chapin nowhere to be seen. Johnston was not entirely down with the band's new "with it" direction, and either quit or was fired at the start of sessions for the album.

Carl and the Passions - "So Tough" is decent album in a bland 70s rock kind of way, but it is done no favors by being paired with Pet Sounds (but then what album would?). Brian Wilson is almost totally MIA, his most notable contribution is "Marcella," a song about a very helpful "masseuse" whose melody dates all the way back to the (far kinkier) Today outtake "All Dressed Up For School."

Monday, January 12, 2009

Ron Ashton

This week in honor of the late, great Ron Asheton (1948-2009) Rock's Back Pages has made three Stooges pieces by Mike Jahn (1970), Lester Bangs (1973), and Keith Cameron (2007) available for free. Also, Kris Needs weighs in on Ron's ill-fated Detroit all-stars, Destroy All Monsters (1978).

Sorry I haven't posted much lately. Sometimes I feel like I have something to say, sometimes not.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

iTunes Goes DRM Free

I never found Apple's DRM (digital rights management) on iTunes downloads overly restrictive, and in retrospect it was essential in getting the major labels to commit to legal downloads. I've yet to bump up against the DRM copy protection ceiling. Nevertheless, DRM always bugged me, and I'm glad to see it go the way of the dodo.

But DRM aside, there is more good news in Apple's recent announcement of upcoming changes to their iTunes store.

First, in addition to being stripped of DRM, all songs on iTunes will now be AAC encoded at 256kps. Previously, some songs were available without DRM and at 256kps (designated as iTunes+), but until now the only major label that had agreed to sell their music in this format was EMI. By the end of March, everything on iTunes will be available exclusively in this higher bit rate format and much of their catalog has already been upgraded.

Many audiophiles would probably argue this point, but in my experience, digital files ripped using AAC encoding at 256kps sound very good (nearly indistinguishable from uncompressed CD-resolution files). Files that have been encoded using lossy compression algorithms like AAC or MP3 are not the same as uncompressed files (information has been lost) but they do have the potential to sound very good if the sampling rate is sufficiently high. In my experience with AAC encoding, 256kps is high enough to sound excellent in most cases, while 128kps (the previous iTunes standard) is generally not.

iTunes users will be able to upgrade their library of previously purchased music at the cost of 30 cents per song or 30% of the original purchase price. Many will (justifiably) complain about having to pay for this upgrade. It is particularly irksome that you cannot choose which songs you want to upgrade individually (it's all or nothing). If you've downloaded a lot of music from iTunes, this could end up being a costly upgrade and not worth the expense. Welcome to the real world where it rarely pays to be an early adopter.

The second change at first glance also appears to be a mixed bag for the consumer. Apple plans to introduce variable pricing, something the music industry has been requesting demanding for a long time. Downloads of individual songs will now cost either 69 cents, 99 cents or $1.29. On the whole I think this is both a smart move for Apple, and on balance will be good for consumers as well: the most sought after tracks will be priced a little higher, while most songs will end up costing less. Honestly, it never made much sense to price the latest single by Rihanna the same as "Apes-Ma," the 39 second track from Captain Beefheart's Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (even though I would personally prefer the later to the former).

These changes make purchasing music from iTunes a much more compelling option moving forward. The iTunes store remains the gold-standard in terms of ease of use, but it had been losing ground to the competition in terms of sound quality and pricing. These changes reverse that trend and will force other music download providers to improve their services or go the way of DRM.