Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Jayhawks (aka The Bunkhouse Album) Finally Reissued

Lost Highway recently reissued the Jayhawks long-lost, self-titled debut on CD, LP and as a digital download. This marks the first time the album has been available in any form since its initial release on Bunkhouse Records in 1986 as a 2,000 copy limited-edition LP.

I hadn't heard anything about the reissue, but spotted the LP for a mere $10.99 in the new arrivals bin at my local record shop and picked it up. Honestly, I wasn't overly excited by the find and the record sat in my "to be vacuumed" pile for a week or so after purchase (yes, I even vacuum clean my new LPs). Why wasn't I excited to finally hear this lost-classic that is highly regarded among Jayhawks fans? I guess mostly because I wasn't aware that it was a lost-classic that is highly regarded among Jayhawks fans.

I first became aware of the Jayhawks in 1989 when I was serving as music director of my college radio station and Twin/Tone sent a preview copy of The Blue Earth. It's fair to say I liked the album. I immediately put it into heavy rotation and regularly played a few of the tracks on my own radio program ("Two Angels," "Five Cups Of Coffee," and "The Baltimore Sun" definitely caught my ear at the time). I liked the album enough to buy a copy for myself, but not enough to buy it again when Restless reissued it with bonus tracks several years later. And I didn't like it near as much as the albums the band released later on Rick Rubin's American imprint both with and without Mark Olson.

Despite some excellent songwriting, I found the consistently slow tempos dragged the album down, and some of the songwriting struck me as indistinct and too beholden to the band's obvious Gram Parsons influence. For me, The Blue Earth remains an embryonic version of the kind of music The Jayhawks would do with far more confidence and individuality in later years, and I assumed The Bunkhouse Album--recorded a full three years before the Twin/Tone release--would sound like an even more embryonic version of that. Also, let's face it, when a limited-edition first album by a band that eventually gains a sizable following like the Jayhawks stays out-of-print for nearly a quarter century, it's usually because the band has good reason to leave it collecting cobwebs in the attic. For all these reasons I had relatively low expectations for The Jayhawks. I assumed the album would be a curiosity worth a listen or two and little more.

All of which is to say that I was not prepared for the energy that comes pulsating out of the grooves of The Jayhawks' feisty debut record. Mark Olson's songwriting is already surprisingly sharp; highly tuneful county-tinged rockers like "Falling Star," "Let The Last Night Be The Longest," "People In This Place On Every Side," and "Let The Critics Wonder" quickly found their way into my head and stayed there. There are a few places where Olson succumbs to easy country cliches ("The Liquor Store Came First") and some tracks sound like filler ("Cherry Pie"), but these tracks never slow things down enough to blunt the album's overall impact. Olson and Louris had already found a comfortable way to harmonize, although at this point Olson is clearly the group's leader (a fact reinforced by the cover photo that depicts Olson standing in front of the rest of the band lounging on a porch behind him) with Louris confined to the role of guitar picker and back-up singer. The production is predictably rough, but it never gets in the way of the music either.

What struck me the most however, is the fact that Gary Louris' guitar playing positively rips, and drummer Norm Rogers (later of The Cows) keeps things moving along at the kind of peppy pace that is altogether absent from the more contemplative The Blue Earth. To my ears, The Jayhawks has more in common with an album like The Long Ryders' raucous Native Sons than it does with the overly-mannered Blue Earth, and I regard that as a very good thing. If I had been one of the lucky 2,000 to hear this album when it was released in 1986, I probably would have become a big fan of the Jayhawks sooner than ended up being the case.

I admit that this is still a somewhat embryonic effort, and The Jayhawks would find a better balance between fast and slow tempos on Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass. Also, both Olson and particularly Louris' songwriting would mature in the passage of time, and Rick Rubin at American would spend a lot more money recording their albums than their then manager Charlie Pine could muster at Bunkhouse Records (a label he founded specifically to release this album). Nevertheless, The Jayhawks (aka The Bunkhouse Album) is a very promising debut album from a great band that can also proudly stand on its own merits twenty-four years after its initial release.

Update: No Depression is running a contest to win a signed copy of the LP and CD. You must be a registered No Depression user and leave a comment listing your five favorite Jayhawks songs in order to enter.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gamera: The Giant Monster on Shout Factory


My last couple of posts have been kinda complaint oriented, so I wanted to single something out for praise before this blog turns into the internet equivalent of the old man in the park who yells at the pigeons.

Yesterday I picked up the recently released Shout Factory DVD, Gamera: The Giant Monster, and was really impressed with the thought and care that went into the packaging. The DVD comes with a nice 10 page booklet that includes a written reminiscence from the late director of the series, Noriaki Yuasa, as well as helpful character biographies and lots of promo pictures.

The DVD is packaged in a standard DVD shell that is made of clear plastic, and a cool diagram of Gamera detailing his anatomy and special powers is visible inside the window. If you ever wondered how a turtle could fly, you can now clearly see that it is because of his arm and leg jet sacks. Duh!


It's clear that a lot of thought and frankly, love, went into the package design, so kudos to Shout Factory, and packaging supervisor Jeff Palo and art director Karrie Stouffer in particular. It is nice to know that there are still people who care enough to do a really great job.

In the United States, poorly-dubbed, panned and scanned Gamera films have long been a staple of unlicensed cheapo multi-DVD sets (and SLP video-cassettes before them). This Shout Factory release marks the first time Gamera: The Giant Monster has been released in its original Japanese version and its original widescreen aspect ratio in the United States. The DVD was authored from a newly created HD master from vault elements. The quality of the video is quite good and certainly looks better than I've ever seen it in the past.

What can I say about a movie that is about the destructive rampage of a flying, mutant turtle and the little boy who helps save the world because of his love of turtles? Roger Ebert made the following, very intelligent observation about a different Gamera film:

There's a learning process that moviegoers go through. They begin in childhood without sophistication or much taste, and for example, like Gamera more than Air Force One because flying turtles are obviously more entertaining than United States presidents. Then they grow older and develop "taste," and prefer Air Force One, which is better made and has big stars and a more plausible plot. (Isn't it more believable, after all, that a president could single-handedly wipe out a planeload of terrorists than that a giant turtle could spit gobs of flame?) Then, if they continue to grow older and wiser, they complete the circle and return to Gamera again, realizing that while both movies are preposterous, the turtle movie has the charm of utter goofiness--and, in an age of flawless special effects, it is somehow more fun to watch flawed ones.

I think Ebert basically gets it right. Gamera: The Giant Monster is the kind of film that nearly any adult can tell you is "bad." But that is a value judgment we have to be taught how to make. Children instinctively know that movies about flying turtles that eat fire and destroy things are good movies, because--let's face it--flying turtles that eat fire and destroy things are cool. (My 8 year old son awarded Gamera 4.75 stars out of a possible 5, and noted that it is definitely better in the original Japanese.) Adults on the other hand have been taught that movies should be about adults that talk about things, and not about mutant turtles, which are silly, and besides everybody knows that no animal (no matter how large) can eat fire. Personally, I think we have a lot to learn from our children.

Shout Factory plans to release the rest of the Showa era Gamera films for the first time in the United States in their original Japanese versions and in anamorphic widescreen. The next entry in the series, Gamera vs Barugon, is due out on July 6th. I'm guessing the next one will earn a full five star rating, because the only thing cooler than a movie about a giant, flying, fire-eating turtle is a movie about a giant, flying, fire-eating turtle who does battle with a giant lizard with a freeze ray.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Exile In Pixelville

Do you see anything wrong with the image below?


I see plenty wrong with it, and any visual artist I know would absolutely hit the ceiling if their work were reproduced in this way. The image is, of course, the iconic cover to the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main St album that features a Robert Frank photograph of a photo collage that he discovered on the wall of a tattoo parlor. This is a scan of the new deluxe edition artwork. Resolution issues aside (which are partly the fault of my scanner), the first thing I noticed about the new cover is that the color balance is off. The whole cover has a reddish tint, while the original LP had no tinting whatsoever. To my eyes the tinting looks "wrong," although I admit it could be considered a legitimate artistic choice. But as you will see below, there are some other things about the way the image was manipulated that are very hard to understand.

More annoying to me is the fact that to fit the original square-shaped cover to the rectangular dimensions of a digipack, someone has done a Photoshop hack job on the image. Take a look at the blue highlighted selections below. Do they look familiar?


They should, as they've simply been cropped out of the original image and repeated. See the areas highlighted in red below to see the parts of the image that have been duplicated.


Once I noticed this repetition of images, I found it incredibly distracting. My eye is continually drawn to the elements in the image that are repeated. I understand that they needed to do something to fit a square image to the rectangular dimensions of a digipack, it's just that I feel they found the worst possible way to do it.

Here is a photo I took of my Exile On Main St LP cover using nothing more than a Canon Digital Rebel SLR camera with stock lens:


I cleaned up the image slightly in Photoshop then cut the text to a separate layer. Next, I used the "desaturate" adjustment to make sure the cover was truly black and white. This probably took me around ten minutes.

Once I started looking at the original cover, I noticed something interesting: I had originally assumed the repetition of images for the deluxe reissue was needed to prevent cropping the image, but in fact someone cropped a significant amount of material out of the original image to create the deluxe artwork. See the highlighted areas below to see what was cut out:


This makes the choice to repeat material even more mystifying to me. Somebody actually chopped off some of the horizontal information, which makes no sense if you are trying to transform a square image into a horizontally aligned rectangular one.

If they had merely cropped the image in the way you see it below, it would have fit the dimensions of the digipack perfectly with no need for repeating images. Yes, some of the original cover would have been lost, but no more than was cropped out anyway.


If they wanted to keep the entire original album cover intact, they could have added some sort of sidebar, as I often see on such deluxe reissues. I created a possible example below, although I am sure someone more creative than me could do something much more interesting. But at least this way none of the iconic album cover is lost.


I didn't spend very long manipulating any of these images, and I admit they are far from perfect. If I had better equipment, a better source, and more time I could have done a lot better. Nevertheless, I think the options I've presented here would have been preferable to the very strange and unappealing artwork that was created for this deluxe reissue. Of course if they had chosen to go with standard jewel case packaging, none of this manipulation would have been necessary in the first place. I personally don't believe digipacks are mandatory for deluxe reissues, although they do seem to be the norm.

Okay, I realize there are bigger problems in the world than botched CD reissue artwork. I'm honestly more puzzled by this than anything: the more closely I looked at the artwork, the more questions I had, and the less sense any of it made to me. I'd be interested to hear possible explanations for what I consider some very strange choices. But considering how iconic this album cover is (John Lydon has admitted that it was a huge influence on the visual aesthetic of punk rock), I think it is a real shame to see it treated with so little respect.

If I haven't said anything about the music on Exile On Main St yet, it's because I assume you know it's great: a near perfect fusion of rock, blues, country and gospel. It is the fullest realization ever of what Gram Parsons envisioned as "Cosmic American Music" despite the fact that it was (mostly) made by five Brits living in France.

The deluxe reissue is worth picking up for the bonus disc, but not, in my opinion, for the remastering. Target is selling an exclusive "rarities edition" that is just the bonus CD for $10. It's refreshing to have an option not to repurchase the original album but still be able to get the bonus tracks for a reasonable price.

I know Exile is supposed to be a "bad" sounding recording, but if you find a good copy on LP and play it back on a decent system, it is actually a very lively and real sounding recording. The warts and all sound shocked a lot of people back in 1972 because the Stones chose not to adhere to the post-Abbey Road norm of slickly produced multi-track rock music. The album sounds all the more vital today because of that fact.

Unfortunately, the new remaster does adhere to today's norm of dynamically compressing older recordings, which to my ears ends up emphasizing the murkier aspects of the recording. For the best sounding Exile on CD I recommend finding a used copy of the 1994 Virgin reissue that was remastered by Robert Ludwig. Better yet, find an Artisan pressed original UK or US LP, as none of the CD reissues have bettered it sonically.

Update:

I looked at the non-deluxe edition CD in a record store today, and the cover art on that also features some strange repetition of images, even though the image is rectangular. Some of the images that were cropped from the bottom of the original cover reappear, but there is another band of repeated images at the bottom. Weird.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Problem With Today's Record Store

I wanted to relay a recent bad experience I had with my local record store owner. Maybe some of you have had something similar happen in the past. I guess I'm just venting really, but hopefully this can serve as a cautionary tale for others about the things that can go horribly wrong between a customer and merchant.

I've been shopping at this particular store for the past 6 years or so. I haven't bought a lot of stuff there, but I still like to think of myself as a good customer. Mostly, I've picked up albums from the likes of Belle and Sebastian, Iron & Wine, Robyn Hitchcock and Luna. I've also picked up the occasional movie or TV show, and sometimes a random single by The Mills Brothers, Quincy Jones or Beck. The owner knows a bit about my tastes because I've actually told him quite a lot about my music preferences over the years. Like any good record store owner with a long-term customer, he's made some recommendations for me. I always found his suggestions rather prosaic and predictable, but basically on target. It was at least nice to know he was was trying to get to know me and my preferences.

I thought everything was fine until one day I had my credit card stolen. The joker who stole my card waltzed into this record shop and charged up almost a thousand dollars worth of stuff over the course of a single day. He told the owner he was buying the stuff for me. I would have thought the owner would know better because most of the stuff this joker bought was not to my taste at all. Without casting aspersions on anyone else's taste, I'm just not a Miley Cyrus and Glee kind of guy, and anyone who knows anything about my taste in music should know that. Weirder still, the joker also bought a bunch of 8-track tapes, even though the owner knows I don't own an 8-track player. But he never asked a single question, and just went ahead and charged the stuff. I guess he was happy to have the business. I know times are tough in the music retail biz, but I was under the impression that he was actually managing to do pretty well.

So anyway, my credit card company spots that there's something unusual going on, and I get a call from their fraud detection unit the very same day. I told them I had not authorized any of those purchases, and they disputed the charges for me.

Here's where things start to get really weird. After I disputed the charges, I guess the owner got pissed off at me or something (although the situation was obviously not my fault, and frankly he should have known something fishy was going on). In retribution, the record store owner breaks into my house and steals back a bunch of the music and all of the movies and TV shows I had bought from him in the past. Even more bizarre is that fact that he chooses to just steal the records, CDs and DVDs themselves, but leaves all the covers and album art in place so I don't even realize anything is missing until I decide I want to play one of the albums. So now a lot of the stuff I've bought over the years is gone, and as far as I can tell I have no way to get it back.

I've tried contacting the record store owner to resolve the issue, but he doesn't take my phone calls and won't answer my emails. When I show up at his store, the door is locked for me, even though everybody else can still come and go as they please. It's like I've been dropped into some weird record collector geek version of The Twilight Zone.

About now you're probably thinking I'm either pulling your leg or I've lost touch with reality because nothing so bizarre could possibly happen in the real world, right? Well, yes and no. You see, if you replace the words "record store owner" with "Apple iTunes" this is almost exactly what happened to me. Back when people primarily bought physical products from brick and mortar stores the kind of incident I describe would have been unthinkable. But as we move towards a virtual goods/e-tailer model, equivalent incidents are becoming more and more common.

Here is what really happened. Someone got access to my iTunes account, changed my account name and password, and proceeded to charge almost a thousand dollars worth of merchandise in a single day. They bought stuff I would never buy like Veggie Tales videos (a Christian themed children's cartoon) and Celine Dion albums. They also bought a number of iPhone apps, even though I don't own an iPhone (a fact that Apple knows better than anybody). My credit card company contacted me about the suspicious charges, and disputed them for me. When I contacted Apple about what happened they were totally unhelpful. Now they seem to have closed my iTunes account entirely, and I can no longer access any of the protected AAC music files, television shows or movies that I "purchased" from iTunes in the past. They are as good as gone. iTunes customer service does not respond to my emails inquiring about how to get my account reactivated. I cannot get through to anyone via phone, I just get a message directing me to their customer service website, and I can't really use that because as far as Apple is concerned, I don't have an account with them anymore.

As far as I have been able to gather, this is a widespread problem, so much so that Japanese Government has made an official inquiry with Apple about its billing practices. According to a story from MyFox New York, this a scam that is being used to funnel cash into a PayPal account or to a credit card (yeah, I don't know how that would work either, but then I'm not a genius cyber-criminal). However the scam works, it is apparently quite common, and suggests that there is a huge hole in Apple's security. In preparing this post I came across hundreds and hundreds of similar complaints from iTunes users who have had their accounts compromised. In fact, I found so many complaints from people who had the exact same thing happen to them that I had to stop looking, or I would have spent the rest of my life reading nearly identical tales of futility and frustration. Suffice to say my experience is not unique, and the problem is widespread.

Based on my experience, and what I have learned in its aftermath, I would strongly urge anyone with an iTunes account to remove their credit card information from their Apple iTunes account immediately. If you want to continue to do business with iTunes I recommend using pre-paid iTunes cards to fund your purchases, at least until Apple gets its security issues resolved. At the moment Apple does not admit there is a problem. In fact, the one person I managed to get on the phone at Apple informed me that iTunes was so ultra-super-secure that if my account was hacked it would be the first time it ever happened to anyone. The conversation reminded me of listening to one of those old Politburo spokesmen in 1982 saying "Premier Brezhnev is a healthy and vital Russian man and could never be ill," or Iranian President Ahmadinejad saying "there are no homosexuals in Iran," or, well you get the idea.

Fortunately, I only ever bought a relatively small amount of DRM protected iTunes tracks, and I upgraded many of the ones I did buy to DRM free iTunes plus tracks, which I can still access. I don't really care about the TV shows, and the movies were all downloads that came with DVD or Blu-Ray purchases, and I was unlikely to watch them on my iPod anyway. Nevertheless, I always felt like those things were "mine" when in fact they belonged to Apple all along and I was only allowed to play them at the pleasure of the corporation. I'm certainly glad that I'm not someone who downloaded a lot of music and movies from iTunes, or bought an Apple TV and elected to give Apple total control over my home entertainment experience. For me this incident has been little more than a minor inconvenience (albeit one that has been going on for three months now with no resolution in site), but I can imagine it being much worse for a different kind of media consumer.

Update: As of 06/16/10 my iTunes account appears to be fully functional again.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Ultraman

It all started innocently enough. I spotted a budget Ultraman DVD set at our local Target, and thought my eight-year old son Will might enjoy it. He's crazy about dinosaurs, and I figured most of the kaiju (Japanese monsters, or "strange beasts") that Ultraman tangled with were kind of like dinosaurs, only cooler. But, I wondered, would a post-millennial American kid familiar with today's CGI generated fantasy worlds be able to enjoy a 40+ year old Japanese TV show that featured a couple guys in rubber suits trying to wrestle with each other? Probably not, but the DVD was cheap and, if nothing else, I figured I would get a kick out of seeing my old pal Ultraman again.

For those readers unfamiliar with Ultraman, the basic premise is "giant alien melds with earthman to protect planet from a different monster each week." The show was created by Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects director responsible for Godzilla and most of Toho Studios' other kaiju. Even as a child I noticed that many of the monsters featured in Ultraman bore more than a passing resemblance to those featured in Godzilla films (this was no coincidence, beyond sharing a common creator, some of costumes were recycled and adapted from the films).

Thanks to our local, budget-conscious, independent UHF station (WDCA 20), I grew up hooked on Ultraman and lots of other Japanese kiddie shows (Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, Kimba The White Lion, Marine Boy, Speed Racer, etc.) during the 1970s. The steady diet of violent, non-educational Japanese children's programs that WDCA pumped into the ether almost cost the station its FCC license, but I loved it. Although my parents were not responsible for the official complaints, I don't remember them particularly sharing my enthusiasm for all things kaiju. I can remember a lot of snarky comments from my Dad ("Congratulations son, your IQ just dropped 10 points in half an hour"). It may be for this reason (or perhaps because we were the only family in my neighborhood that didn't own a color TV) that most of my memories of watching Ultraman are from times I was hanging out at other kids' houses.

So can today's American kids dig Ultraman? If my children are any indication, the answer is a resounding "YES!" Will is now on a mission to get his hands on every possible Ultraman show he can (there have been over 20 series in Japan since 1966). He also wants to watch every Godzilla and Gamera movie every made. My three-year-old daughter Amelia is nearly as obsessed, with a special love for "Pigmon," the small, friendly monster who tragically dies in two separate Ultraman episodes (and if you have to ask how such a thing is possible, consider the possibility that kaiju is not for you). Amelia is apparently not alone in her Pigmon obsession, as there is an entire (awesome) blog dedicated to him and his more destructive alter-ego, Garamon.


Although we are bit more careful about how much of this stuff we let a three-year-old watch, most of the violence in these shows seems relatively benign. I believe this is a happy byproduct of having to use suit actors to portray the monsters and heroes. There is only so violent and graphic a show can be when the actors are constrained by 200 pound rubber suits. By contrast, King Kong from 1933, a film that utilized stop motion and robotics for its special effects, is far more graphic and disturbing in its depictions of violence.

One of the things my kids' current kaiju obsession drives home to me is the extent to which today's youth are growing up in an information saturated culture. Yesterday at the bus stop Will shared his opinion that "The Ultraman series that were made during Eiji Tsuburaya's lifetime (Ultraman and Ultraseven) are better than the ones that came later." He has also been known to opine on such topics as who composed the best scores for Godzilla movies (Akira Ifukube is by far his favorite). He can tell you which monsters are from films released by Toho Studios and which ones are from films released by Daiei. I could go on. Will loves to know all the details about anything he becomes interested in, and he was born at the right time.

By contrast, when I was a kid I was vaguely aware that there was more than one Ultraman. This was in large part because I had an Aunt who lived in Hawaii, and she would send us some of the cool Japanese toys that were available there, but virtually impossible to find on the mainland. I knew about Ultraman and Ultraseven, and another really weird looking Ultraman called "Kikaida" (who I only recently discovered was not an Ultraman at all, but an android from an unrelated Japanese show that was extremely popular in Hawaii during the 70s, but never shown in the other 49 states). But that was pretty much all I knew, and I have no idea how I could have found out more at the time. Granted, I knew about something called a "library," but I seriously doubt the guardians of information known as "librarians" would have agreed with me that kaiju was an important topic for me to learn about.

Unfortunately, beyond the original Ultraman, most Ultra series are still very hard to find in the United States. I believe this is in part due to a lawsuit that has been resolved in favor of Tsuburaya Productions. Episodes of Ultraman Tiga, a mid-90s Ultrahero, can still be found on DVD in the U.S., although they are out-of-print. The complete original series is available from budget DVD company Mill Creek. Beyond that, there is a scattering of region free DVDs from Hong Kong that can be found on eBay. I recently acquired a set of Ultraseven DVDs this way. Unfortunately, these discs only feature Cantonese subtitles. The lack English subtitles or dubbing does not seem to bother the kids in the least, as Ultraseven is their favorite Ultraman of all. I hope some enterprising U.S. video company will acquire the U.S. rights to some of Tsuburaya Productions' more intriguing shows, including Ultraseven and Ultra Q.