Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Boy Who Invented Himself

I walked into my eight-year-old son Will's room tonight to tell him it was time to go trick-or-treating and I found him singing along while Robyn Hitchcock's "The Man Who Invented Himself" played on his stereo. I've never been the kind of parent to push my idea of "cool" music on my kids--whatever they want to listen to is fine by me. Still, I have to admit it's kind of nice to see Will take an interest in one of my favorite artists.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Feelies to Release First New Album Since 1991

I never pass on press releases in their entirety, but I'll make an exception for this one:
The Feelies, the legendary and influential rock band, have completed recording basic tracks for a new album at Water Music in Hoboken. Sean Kelly engineered and Bill Million and Glenn Mercer are producing. The album will be released on Bar/None in Spring 2011. This will be the first new Feelies' album release since 1991's "Time For A Witness."

The classic Feelies lineup of Glenn Mercer, Bill Million, Dave Weckerman, Brenda Sauter, and Stanley Demeski reunited at Battery Park in NYC on July 4th, 2008 opening for Sonic Youth, performing their first show since 1991.

Formed in Haledon NJ in 1976, The Feelies released 4 albums- including their critically acclaimed and influential debut "Crazy Rhythms," which was voted 49 in the top 100 albums of the 1980s by Rolling Stone magazine and chosen by Spin Magazine as 49 of the best alternative records of all time.

The twin-guitar attack of songwriters and founders Glenn Mercer and Bill Million is the infectious sound of the group. Paired with driving drums and percussion, it has left an indelible mark on the landscape of rock and roll.

According to legend, the band played infrequently (usually on national holidays); however The Feelies performed several American and European tours in support of their records The Good Earth, Only Life, and Time For A Witness, which created a large cult following. The band also appeared on the The Late Show With David Letterman and in concerts with Lou Reed, The Patti Smith Group, REM, and Bob Dylan. Their music has been featured in the films Married to the Mob, Something Wild, Prelude to a Kiss, The Truth About Charlie, and The Squid & the Whale.

After the band’s breakup, Mercer and Weckerman formed Wake Ooloo, who released 3 CDs. Demeski played with Luna, and Sauter formed Wild Carnation. Mercer’s first solo CD Wheels In Motion (2007), which included performances by five former Feelies, and Wild Carnation’s recent Superbus (2006) topped several critics' "years best" polls.

This highly anticipated reunion brought The Feelies' distinctive sound back to live performance for long-time fans and a generation of fans who have only savored the long out-of-print records and CDs. In March 2009, The Feelies performed by invitation at the “Tribute to R.E.M.” concert at Carnegie Hall.

To celebrate the 30 anniversary of the release of "Crazy Rhythms," The Feelies performed their debut album at the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival in Monticello NY in 2009. Crazy Rhythms and The Good Earth were re-released by Bar/None Records that same month.

Usually I don't care a bit about these kinds of reunions, even with bands I like. But for some reason this really excites me. Maybe it because we're talking about The Feelies?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Dylan Says Stick With Mono

Wow, there are so many levels of irony in this youtube promo video for Bob Dylan's Mono Box Set, it's hard to know where to start peeling back the layers.

First, there is the obvious level on which it's supposed to be ironic, with its winking references to 60s era classroom scare films and other industrial filmmaking of the period. Little needs be said about this. It's well done and it's cute, but of course it's been done before.

Then there is a second level of (possibly unintentional) irony. The film warns "young" music consumers about "unscrupulous profiteers out the push the latest dubious gimmick in the name of progress" (here referring to stereo sound). But of course pushing dubious gimmicks is the only thing the music industry does today. Whether it's deluxe reissues of classic albums that cost hundreds of dollars, or "newly discovered" archival releases that have been circulating among collectors for decades, the music industry's current modus-operandi seems to be to repackage and re-sell consumers the same music over and over again. And of course they're doing this precisely because "young" people no longer buy music at all (and old people tend not to buy music by new artists).

Personally, I do think Dylan's early albums sound best in mono, and the video (in it's tongue-in-cheek way) actually points to part of the reason why. During the period these albums were released, mono was the primary format for pop and rock music, and much more attention was given to the mono mixes, while the stereo mixes were typically an afterthought. As a rule of thumb, I prefer to hear the mono versions of pop and rock albums released before 1967, which was around the time mixing for stereo started to be taken seriously in the pop music field. (With classical and jazz the equation is different). But I've already recently purchased mono reissues of these albums from Sundazed, who reissued Dylan's entire mono catalog on LP over the last several years, so this set is of somewhat "dubious" value to me.

But what am I supposed to make of the the fact that an advertisement for BP's "making things right in the Gulf" youtube channel pops up while I'm watching the video? I realize we've long since past the point where anyone expects any level of ideological purity from Bob Dylan. We're talking about an artist who marketed a promo compilation through Victoria's Secret and has released Starbucks' exclusives. (Neither of which is no big deal to me). And I realize Google decides what ads pop up, not Sony/Columbia, and certainly not Bob Dylan. But still, BP? It's rather an unpleasant jolt to see a propaganda advert for the company responsible for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history during a video promoting the albums that contain "Blowin' In The Wind" and "The Times They Are A Changing" (not to mention "Visions of Johanna"). Although honestly, the more I think about it, the more I suspect there probably isn't any irony in this considering the extent to which any subversive energy from the 60's counterculture was completely co-opted by corporate interests long ago. But how does one continue to find truth, beauty and inspiration in songs that have become cogs in the same big, oily misery machine as BP? Is it even possible?

And then there is irony itself, co-opted and neutered of its once substantial subversive force.

At least we still have mono.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Photoshop Follies - The Who Sell Out

The Who Sell Out is one of my favorite albums, and definitely my favorite by The Who. Unfortunately, all of the CD reissues I've seen change the artwork in a variety of ways. So my latest Photoshop project was to create an exact replica of the original U.S. Decca stereo LP cover. It looks a little wonky in some ways, and I can understand why the artwork was changed for the reissues. But I really wanted something like looks like my LP, only not quite so beat up and yellowed with age.

You can still see a couple spots on Roger's hair where my LP cover has some wear, but there is only so much I could clean up the image without it starting to look fake. Roger came down with a case of pneumonia as a result of sitting in a tub of cold baked beans for hours for the cover shoot, so I figure it wasn't such a big deal to sacrifice a couple hours of my time to get the artwork to look right.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Getting Obsessive About Album Art

Sometimes things don't work quite the way they are supposed to. The "Get Album Artwork" feature in iTunes typically delivers good results, especially for newer releases. But for someone with a lot of older albums in their library, it is not always as useful. Sometimes the image quality of older album artwork from iTunes is quite bad. I've seen times where someone failed to crop out the staples on the side of the CD cover, crooked artwork, and other obvious problems. Worse, sometimes iTunes just gives you the wrong album cover.

Take Frank Sinatra's In The Wee Small Hours for example. When I used the "Get Album Artwork" feature in iTunes, here is the image iTunes delivered:

Obviously that's not the right album cover. So I tried a Google image search, and this is the highest resolution result I found:

With no offense to whoever scanned this album cover, it looks pretty awful. I'd almost rather have the wrong artwork. The colors look washed-out, the image is grainy, and it's been poorly cropped.

So what's an obsessive compulsive to do? Naturally, I pulled my LP off the shelf, photographed it with my digital SLR, and cleaned the image up in Photoshop. This looks more like what I think Frankie's album cover should look like, complete with the white borders with paste on cover that Capitol used in the 50s and 60s:

Unfortunately, I have not been able to limit myself to only fixing up the really egregious cases. Here is the album artwork iTunes delivered for Soul Asylum's Hang Time:

For most normal people this image would look more than good enough. Unfortunately, when I look at it, all I can see is flaws. The colors aren't quite balanced right, it's too dark resulting in loss of detail, and there are some compression artifacts along with a few minor, but visible flaws.

Google image search didn't really help me out this time either. This was the best result I found. It's balanced brighter than the iTunes generated image, but that just makes some of the flaws more visible. Also at 400X397 pixels, it's on the small side, and the aspect ratio is slightly off:

So I scanned my own CD cover at 600 dpi, then edited it in Photoshop. I used Photoshop's "Gaussian Blur" function to at least partly eliminate the grainy, pixelated look, balanced the colors and contrast to my liking, then used Photoshop's "Clone Stamp Tool" to edit out that stupid "Includes Special Bone-Us Track" line at the bottom. Finally, I downsampled the image to 72 dpi and 900X900 so it wouldn't be too ridiculously huge for iTunes to handle. The result is, I think, a real improvement over the other two images, although nowhere near as dramatically as was the case with In The Wee Small Hours:

Apparently, I am far from the only person who gets overly-obsessive about getting their album artwork in iTunes "just so" because I found a site called Album Art Exchange, where people upload carefully scanned and edited CD cover art, along with the occasional image generated from an LP cover. I'm amazed at the high quality of the images that some people have posted there, and it's become my go-to site for album artwork.

One thing I like about sites like Album Art Exchange is that they help remind me that I am far from the cutting edge in O.C.D., and in fact probably fall into the "normal/hobbyist" category. I notice one person at the Exchange has posted over 20,000 images, almost all of them of insanely high quality. Unfortunately, not nearly all the albums I want high quality images for are available there, so I've started posting some of my stuff at 600X 600, 72 dpi under the screen name "zbop" in hopes of saving those of you with similar music collections the time and trouble of scanning and editing your entire music collection.

There is probably some small irony to the fact that the digitization of everything, which was supposed to make all our lives the last word in convenience, has resulted--at least for some of us--in a series of time consuming and elaborate rituals that are about as far removed from "convenient" as I can imagine.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Happy Birthday Remain In Light

The Talking Head's fourth album, Remain in Light, was released on October 8, 1980, making it exactly 30 years old today. I was 11, and I have to confess I was not quite a hip enough eleven-year-old to have picked up the album on the day of release. I became a fan of the band in 1983 after hearing "Burning Down the House" and quickly started exploring their band's back catalog (probably by taking advantage of my Columbia House membership).

Remain In Light, along with the Eno-Byrne collaboration My Life In the Bush of Ghosts and the first Tom Tom Club album, all had a major impact on my evolving taste in music at that time. The sense of adventure, and the combination of playfulness and high-art seriousness of these projects all went a long way toward convincing me that music could be more than whatever happened to be on the radio in the background, but something to be listened to seriously and followed passionately. In that respect, the Talking Heads were probably the first band that I actually became a fan of as opposed to merely making music I happened to like.

Totally by coincidence, I listened to the first Tom Tom Club album on my way to work this morning after having needledropped my LP last night (I had already ripped Remain in Light and My Life In the Bush of Ghosts to my iPod). I have to say, 30 years on, while this music does sound a bit like a time capsule from the early eighties, I believe it holds up as music, art and entertainment remarkably well. In many ways it still sounds more forward-looking, open and even futuristic, than any of the new music I am hearing these days (mainstream or otherwise).