Thursday, May 31, 2012

"Occupy Audio" My [Rear End]

The Wall Street Journal notes that Neil Young's latest release, Americana, will cost $10 on CD and $42 on LP.
Young summarized his feelings on the need for better sound quality with a rallying cry that might apply to his pricing strategy, too: "Occupy audio!"
I'm going to call bullshit on Neil Young and his "occupy audio" rallying cry. You have to work on Wall Street to afford LPs at those prices. One of the reasons I stuck with LPs while CDs took off was I could get them dirt cheap while the music industry hideously overpriced CDs (while constantly promising that prices would come down soon). But now the tables have turned and LPs are a luxury good for well-heeled "aesthetes." Sure I like the way LPs sound better than CDs, I also enjoy the experience of putting an LP on my turntable more than slapping a CD into the player. Maybe that makes me an aesthete or maybe that makes me an idiot, but I'll be [darned] if I'm gonna pay that kind of price for the privilege.

In my entire life I don't think I've paid $42 for a vinyl record more than a handful of times, and I own some pretty nice, collectable stuff. I didn't pay $42 for my first pressing Gram Parsons records, I didn't pay $42 for my first press UK copy of The Clash's London Calling, I didn't pay $42 for my Funkadelic records, and I sure as [heck] didn't pay $42 for my copy of Tony Orlando and Dawn's Greatest Hits. That beautifully pressed and packaged Trypes LP I wrote about yesterday cost me less than $18. (That's a fair price for a new vinyl record, and I'm happy to support the efforts of a label like Acute Records.) The only time I can remember paying more than $42 was when I bit the bullet and bought a near mint copy of PiL's Metal Box on eBay, and I agonized over my extravagance for weeks afterward. Records aren't worth $42 to me, and I don't care whether Neil Young presses them in Germany or on Jupiter, or what kind of fancy wrapper he puts on them.

Perhaps the most insulting part of all this is one of the reasons these new LPs tend to sound better than their CD counterparts is because they intentionally make the CDs sound like [human waste]. As I've documented here many, many times modern CD mastering typically involves sucking all the dynamic range out of the music as well as applying overly-aggressive EQ. After foisting "perfect sound forever" on us for years, the music industry now tells us LPs sound better, and are happy to charge me a $30+ premium so I can congratulate myself on my ability to discern the difference between a common, vulgar, digital CD and a finely pressed, analog LP. But the truth is, if they're both well mastered, I struggle to hear any difference at all between LPs and CDs. Sorry, I want absolutely no part of this [unicorn infested] charade. I'll just scavenge yard sales for CDs now that the cultural elites are dumping them.

Honestly, I think what really irks me about the whole thing is the fact that Young has appropriated the language of the occupy movement to promote a product that is priced strictly for the 1% crowd. It's in poor taste, and it's insensitive to the economic struggles that so many Americans and others around the world are facing at the moment. Occupy audio my [rear end].

Update 06/25/12: Portions of this post were edited due to moral objections from my children. All replacement words are now in brackets [ ]. I apologize for the use of potty mouth.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Day Of The Trypes: Crucial 80s Music Finally [Re]issued

The Trypes: cover photo for The Explorers Hold EP (l-r; Stanley Demeski, Marc Francia, Brenda Sauter, Toni Paruta, Glenn Mercer, John Baumgartner, Bill Million)

As I mentioned in a previous post, Acute Records has released Music For Neighbors,  a compilation of recordings by the legendary but obscure Feelies related band The Trypes. I wanted to say a bit about the release, because in every respect it is extraordinary. I've been waiting for this music to be released for decades, even though I didn't know most of it existed until a couple weeks ago. Fans of the Feelies and the Hoboken scene of the 80s in general will no doubt feel the same way.

Liner note author Ira Kaplan calls the album a "heretofore secret history of The Trypes," and that's about as good a description as I can think of. Outside of a very small circle of those with close ties to the Hoboken scene of the 1980s, very little was know about the Trypes until now. The band released one EP, The Explorers Hold, on Coyote Records in 1984 and a single track on a Coyote compilation. That, and the fact that the band was home to members of the Feelies and Speed The Plough, was about all that was known of the band to all but a select few. The EP itself was remarkably hard to find. I can count on one hand the number of copies I've seen in record stores over the years. I still remember my excitement upon discovering a copy after years of searching in Hoboken's legendary and much missed Pier Platters record store.

Those five previously released tracks comprise side one of the new LP release, and make for an extremely compelling listen. This gently hypnotic, lighter than air, psychedelic indie rock might barely register in your consciousness the first time you hear it, but once you have, it will be lodged there forever.

The Trypes - "From The Morning Glories" (track one from Music For Neighbors)

Side two of the record came as something of a shock to me. This was the work of an almost entirely different band, consisting of demos from a smaller, earlier version of the group fronted by a guy named Elbrus. The extensive liner notes with commentary from Kaplan, Glenn Mercer, Marc Francia, John Baumgartner, barely mention anything more than a single name for him; Elbrus. His full name, it appears, was Elbrus Kelemet. What happened to him? Some things, it seems, must remain a mystery for now. Baumgartner has only the following to say on the subject: "Somewhere in here, Elbrus left the band, or was dispatched, the details at this point aren't really important."

So, who was Elbrus? From the sound of the demos he may have been The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness. In distinct contrast to the later incarnation of the band, where various band members took turns on vocals that never attempted to do more than gain (slightly less than) equal footing with the music, Elbrus' vocals are up front and center and have a nervy, paranoid tone to them on songs like "Belmont Girl Is Mad At Me," and "Foreign Doctors." You'll have to forgive the facile comparison, but his vocals do bring to mind David Byrne's early work with Talking Heads. The music is harder to characterize. It's very minimalist in texture, and the arrangements are far more stripped down than the previously released music. One of the dominant instruments is a cheap, wind-driven plastic organ played by John Baumgartner that sounds strangely beautiful. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to coax compelling music out of such an instrument, but Baumgartner succeeds brilliantly, as does the whole "less-is-more" aesthetic. Comparisons to other post-punk minimalists like the Young Marble Giants come to mind, but don't fully convey the weird and wonderful vibe to the music.

Earlier version of the band fronted by Elbrus (l-r; John Baumgartner, Toni Paruta, Marc Francia, Elbrus, Glenn Mercer)

The record gets really interesting when it isn't even a record anymore. Sides three and four of what could have been a double LP set are virtual, and available only as downloads. This is a perfectly justifiable decision in light of the sound quality of what follows (mostly rehearsal and live to cassette recordings), but absence of a physical artifact to go with the music should not be confused with the absence of quality music. In many ways these rough demos constitute the most rewarding music on the set. Songs like "Dark Continents," "Hard Friend To Keep" and "Running On" may take a little longer to sink in due to the rough sound quality, but they lead to the inevitable conclusion that we may have lost as much as we gained when the Feelies re-formed in 1986 and the Trypes went on (permanent?) hiatus.

I can't praise this release from Acute Records highly enough. It is everything you could hope for in an archival release of this nature. Not only does it collect everything the the Trypes released during their too-brief lifetime (which in itself is a big deal given the relative rarity of this music up until now), but it adds more than twice as much material previously known only to a small circle of friends (or perhaps neighbors). The LP has been lovingly packaged with a hand-letterpress-printed cardstock sleeve and a composite band photo attached with photo corners, and includes an outstanding booklet that sheds much new light on the heretofore mysterious band. In the process it reveals that the Trypes were so much more than just the "Feelies side-project" they are sometimes referred to as, but in fact are one of the great lost bands of the 1980s.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings, 1933

Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings, 1933 is being released today by Global Jukebox in association with West Virginia University Press. The digital release is via Global Jukebox, while the CD is being handled by West Virginia University Press.

In 1933, with the financial support of the Library of Congress and Macmillan Publishers, John Lomax with his young son Alan visited a number of prisons scattered throughout the American South on a mission to record "authentic" negro folk music untainted by the influences of mass culture and technology (radio, phonographs, etc.) and whites. The recording locations included some of the most notorious institutions in the Jim Crow South; Sugar Land in Texas; Angola in Louisiana; Parchman Farm in Mississippi. Lomax chose these locations based largely upon their seclusion, he reasoned that these prisons would be one of the last places in which he would be able to record "uncorrupted" Negro folk material because of the extreme isolation to which the inmates were subjected. As Lomax notes in an interview helpfully appended to the release: " the prison camps we found the Negros completely isolated from the whites. They lived in separate dormitories, they ate together. They had no contact with the whites whatsoever except for their guards, and then purely in official relations." 

I won't for a second pretend that this was not an ideologically complicated, and in many ways troublesome project, but Lomax's attitude is consistent with much white New Deal Progressive thinking on race, as well as the New Deal impulse to document "authentic" American culture both black and white. Yes, John Lomax's attitudes about race are patriarchal, and his notions of authenticity from our post-modern perspective sound both incoherent and unsustainable. And at its worst, his obsession with racial and cultural purity sounds like a de-facto celebration of segregation. But his thinking was also far more progressive than most whites of his era. As liner note writer Mark Allan Jackson notes: "Lomax expressed how he saw black America’s songs as a great and undocumented source of literature, an attitude not largely shared by whites of the era."

And as a result of his field recordings, we have access to songs and performances of extraordinary power and beauty, performances that would otherwise be lost to time. Many of these songs are well known, even if the performances are not. Even though Lomax's obsession with authenticity and purity was problematic, there is no denying the fact that he documented something of lasting value and importance. The performances give a human voice to what we know about the era of Jim Crow in America's South, but they also stand up today as artistically satisfying performances despite the technological limitations of the recordings (which have actually been preserved and restored amazingly well). Lomax described the music as "poetic expressions of pungent wit, simple beauty, startling imagery, extraordinary vividness and power," and I think he got it right. The performances from artists like James "Iron Head" Baker, "Lightning" Washington, Alan Prothero, Mose "Clear Rock" Platt, John "Black Sampson" Gibson, Rochelle Harris, Ernest "Mexico" Williams, Adie Corbin & Ed Frierson and various anonymous inmates retain their power to this day.

It's perhaps somewhat ironic that Lomax set out in search of purity, because the real story of American music in the twentieth-century is one of contamination and cross-pollination. It's easy, perhaps too easy, to draw a straight line that runs from Mose "Clear Rock" Platt's performance of "That's All Right, Honey" on this album through Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup and into a young Elvis Presley in Sam Phillips' Sun Studios performing "That's Alright." Likewise, one can hear obvious echos of Ernest "Mexico" Williams' performance of "Ain't No More Cane On the Brazos," as well as numerous other songs on this compilation, in Bob Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes, and in turn pretty much all of what passes for American roots music to this day.

Of course, in making these comparisons I'm as guilty of patriarchal racial bias as John Lomax. I'm telling you these recordings are worth hearing because they influenced some white musicians who went on to become very famous and fabulously wealthy. But that's not really what I want to say, or at least it's not the entirety of what I want to tell you about this release. The music on this release is worth hearing because the performances are brilliant and moving, and because Lomax, whatever his intentions, documented something important, and preserved the voices of America's most marginalized and powerless during a brutal period in American history. How the words and voices of the powerless went on to change the course of American popular music, and American history in general, is one of the most compelling stories of twentieth-century, and the reverberations Lomax captured on cylinders and discs nearly 80 years ago are still being felt to this day.

Monday, May 14, 2012

LA Times: Hello Spotify, Goodbye Vinyl?

There's an interesting article in the LA Times in which Randall Roberts ponders the impact that streaming and download services are having on traditional notions of music "collecting." This is something I've been thinking a lot about lately, and if I ever get a few spare moments to organize my thoughts, I'll share them with you.

In the meantime, I recommend reading Roberts' piece, which is very good. How have services like Spotify, Rhapsody, iTunes, MOG, Google Music, etc. affected your music purchasing and collecting habits? How have they affected how you think about your music "collection"?

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Glenn Frey Releases Standards Album

Six-time Grammy Award winner and founding member of The Eagles, Glenn Frey will release After Hours, a collection of classic love songs from the 40's to the present, on May 8th from Universal Music Enterprises. After Hours, his sixth solo album and first since 1995 is a total departure taking him in a whole new direction. The two-and-a half year project was developed out of Frey's passion for the songs and sound of such artists as Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, and Dinah Washington. The exquisite collection of songs include 40's classics such as "Sentimental Reasons" and "My Buddy," and favorites from some of his contemporaries, such as Brian Wilson's "Caroline No" and Randy Newman's "Same Girl" as well as the added spice of the American standard, "Route 66." Frey collaborated with co-producers Richard F.W. Davis and Michael Thompson, both members of The Eagles touring band, to make the 14-track record possible.

 Where is Nine Pound Hammer when we need them?