Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Milky Edwards & the Chamberlings - Soul Love

I want to believe. Really, I do. But these soul covers of tracks from David Bowie's The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, by a previously unknown outfit called Milky Edwards & the Chamberlings are just too perfect.

These three videos were uploaded to youtube about a year ago, and have gone more or less unnoticed until now (David Bowie's official facebook page posted an item about this today):

So I don't believe this is authentic, but that doesn't mean I don't love it. Anybody want to venture a guess as to who is behind this? I'm looking in the general direction of Gabriel Roth and the Daptone Records crew, as they are about the only folks I can think of capable of pulling off such authentic sounding and looking 70s soul music.

Whoever did it, I hope they get around to recording the rest of the album and actually release it.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Dan Hersch On Mastering Love's Long Lost Black Beauty

Love's Black Beauty lineup. Photo by Herbert Worthington III.

As I mentioned previously, I was extremely impressed with the recent High Moon Records issue of Love's Black Beauty, a previously unreleased Love album recorded for Buffalo Records in 1973. It's a strong set of songs from Arthur Lee, a great artist whose 70s output was frustratingly uneven, that remained officially unreleased until earlier this year.

Music aside, I was impressed by how good the record sounds, especially after learning the audio had been sourced from an acetate. I have heard releases transcribed from acetates before and typically it is not hard to tell the audio came from a less than ideal source. Curious to know more, I had a conversation with mastering engineer Dan Hersch of d2 mastering on the restoration process that went into the album's release.

Dan is one of the most respected mastering engineers in the music business. If, like me, you have a sizable CD collection, you will likely find Dan's name in the credits of hundreds of your favorite CDs. He is particularly known for the work he did in conjunction with Bill Inglot on many of the high-quality Rhino Records CD reissues in the 80s and 90s.

Me: What is an acetate?
Dan: I started out mastering in a vinyl disc cutting studio. We would cut an acetate, or a reference lacquer, which is the same cellulose nitrate material that, ultimately, the  master would be cut upon. The difference is that the reference lacquer would be a twelve inch disc (the master is larger) for an LP, so that the artist or producer could take it home, put it on their turntable, give it a listen, and then make the changes they wanted or  just give it the thumbs up. We'd then cut the master lacquer which would then go to the pressing plant where they would make the metal parts and then ultimately stamp out the records for the consumer.
So the reference acetate was the original reference medium for artists and producers. The acetate that came to Diane Lee, Arthur Lee's widow, was one that belonged to Arthur,  that he had come back from the mastering studio with back in the day and then had found its way onto a record shelf in someone's apartment, and had been played repeatedly.
The rule of thumb used to be after a period of time, because this lacquer material was soft, the sound would change a bit over time. Obviously being played repeatedly would not be good, and dirt and dust could get embedded in it.  I own some lightly played reference lacquers that were cut 30 years ago that still sound pretty darned good to me, but generally speaking, acetates aren't usually as hardy as an actual pressing.
Unfortunately the tapes [for Black Beauty] have gone missing, whether they're with someone or unrecoverable, or whatever. The only thing left from the Black Beauty assembled album was this acetate or reference lacquer.
Album cover for Black Beauty. Photo by Herbert Worthington III.
Me: From what I understand there were actually three acetates that were located. Did you handle them yourself or did someone else do the analog-to-digital conversion?

Dan: I don't know if you're familiar with Bill Inglot, he's a reissue producer who worked at Rhino for a long time. Bill has a very good record cleaner in his production studio, and he did the initial transfer of the acetate to digital files. Originally all I received was a reference audio CD-R of that transfer that sounded to me like someone  had tried to do a quick and dirty denoising. I think the original intent was just for Diane Lee to listen to the acetate and  try to find a label that would be interested in releasing it.

So I got that reference CD. It sounded kind of swirly, it just sounded a little weird, so I asked them to send me over the original files. I got the original files of the acetate, and, in comparing the raw transfer and the first CDR I heard, I could sort of hear the process of what they had done in an attempt to minimize the noise and to make it a better listening experience. But they had totally changed the stereo image, and had done a few things that I felt were inaccurate and unrealistic sonically.
Arthur Lee. Photo by Herbert Worthington III.
Me: When you take noise out, it's easy to take music with it, isn't it?

Dan: Absolutely, but I think in this case, there was some damage in the left channel of the acetate, and rather than attempt to deal with the damage, they just took the right channel and then put the mono signal through some stereo effect device to bring the stereo back. So in my mind it was not how I would do it, and it wasn't something I wanted to perpetuate. And again, I don't believe the person who originally worked on this had the intention of releasing it like that. I think it was just a quick and dirty job to get Diane a reference disc. So I thought it best to get back to the original transfer and figure out another way to present the material.

Me: Was the original file hi-res digital? ["Hi-res" denotes digital audio with greater bit depth and higher sampling frequency than the 16 bit/44.1 kHz CD standard.]

Dan: I can’t recall. Probably 24 bit, maybe 48khz or 96khz. The source was obviously pretty low-fi.
Me: What did those raw files sound like? How noisy were they?

Dan: There were some scrapes that were kind of bad. Ticks and pops are pretty easy to deal with, but when you have long duration scraping noises, those cause the most noticeable effect when you try to process them because you have to deal with a larger sample. Ticks and pops are usually fine. It's inner groove distortion, scraping, things that take a few frames of information that are hard to process. But I'm never sure what the de-noising and de-crackling software is going to do. Sometimes I'll send a sample through and I'll think it's going to be a problem, and it will come back totally clean. And then sometimes something I think will be simple doesn’t work out. Then it’s back to the drawing board with a different approach to the problem.

Me: What was your approach to dealing with that noise?

Dan: A little bit of background…in the remastering business you run into all types of labels and all types of budgets, and the budget dictates how much work you can do. Some labels aren't willing to spend the money or the time to do that. And then you have to budget your time and say "we'll do the best we can." But High Moon was very interested in trying to do the best they could. They didn't mind spending a little money on this. They never said to me "can you do this for x amount of dollars." So that allowed me to do a lot of hand de-clicking and really get in and spend some time with each song. That's really what it takes. It takes time.  As an engineer there's only so much you can do when you're on a tight budget. But High Moon allowed me to do whatever was necessary to do the best job possible. The song that starts the second side, "Beep Beep," has a lot of dead air and little quiet parts in the arrangement which can really expose the noise of the storage medium. It was quite a battle. I think when you listen to "Beep Beep" maybe you can still hear that it was an acetate source, but you're not totally smacked in the face with it.

The nosier more raucous tracks, it's easier for the noise to be masked. But it's always better to go in and manually deal with that stuff rather than just hitting a button that says "de-crackle." Not to overly toot their horn, but High Moon was really willing to spend the time and money to really do a high quality job. They've shown that with their vinyl pressing and by having Doug Sax cut it. They also went with the heavier vinyl. I know they did a lot of test pressings, they even switched pressing plants a couple times so that they could really put out a high quality product.

Me: You can see and hear the care that went into this on every level, the stock of paper they used for the cover, all the photographs from the period they included in the booklet, it's clear they didn't hold anything back.

Dan: Hopefully consumers will respond positively and encourage High Moon to continue doing things in this manner. Hopefully, more labels will follow suit.

Me: It helps to do research. You can't assume a newly remastered title is going to sound better than previous issues.

Dan: That’s true. Sometimes you are buying a copy of something previously released with a bonus track added or something. Perhaps knowing whether the remastering was done from the original tapes would be helpful to the consumer.  I've seen labels do releases on the same artist over and over again. When I first started doing CDs in the early 80s, we would receive an EQ'd copy of the (vinyl) master to use as our source for the CD. That  vinyl EQ really didn't hold up with the new possibilities of CD. But they (the labels) really didn't want to go back to the original master tape. The fear was somehow the original “mastering” was being undone: "this is what the artist had approved, this is what the producer had approved, this is what we're putting out." I think that's what really hurt early CDs, the consumer was getting vinyl cutting EQ'd copies, just digitized. We hadn’t had the opportunity to go back to the master tape and really take advantage of what they did in the recording studio.

A lot of times the first time an album got reissued on CD it was from a copy like that. And then the second time around, maybe they got the original master tapes and hopefully they got a guy like Bill Inglot or Andrew Sandoval, someone who really understands the recording process and really understands the original intent of the artist, who would get the original vinyl pressing vinyl to compare, make sure speeds are right, make sure levels are right, make sure the sound is in the spirit of the original vinyl. And then the reissues were done correctly.

As the same albums are released again and again with new marketing gimmicks, consumers really need to look sharp before buying. As is true with any product, “new and improved” isn’t always the case.

So when you have a label like High Moon that comes to me and says "sorry all we have is an acetate, can you make something good from it?" And you tell them, "it's gonna take me a week, and maybe I can," and they don't blink and say, "Fine, do it,” then the consumer is going to benefit. That allowed me to make something listenable.

Unfortunately, sometimes tapes go missing. Sometimes someone gets sticky fingers, or things get thrown away. There are some very famous bands where, once stuff got digitized in the 80s, they discarded all their original analog tapes. It's hard to imagine, but at the time a lot of people thought "now it's perfect" we don't need this old, crappy analog tape anymore.

I know George [High Moon owner] searched high and low for where those Black Beauty tapes might be, but unfortunately they couldn't be located.
Photo by Herbert Worthington III.

If you haven't picked it up already, Black Beauty is an essential purchase for any Love or Arthur Lee fan. Dan's observations about High Moon are spot on. It is obvious that a lot of love [no pun intended] and care went into this release. For those of you who don't have a turntable, there is a CD release coming from High Moon, although no release date has been announced as of yet.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Nick Drake Vinyl Reissues

Bryter Music and Universal are in the process of reissuing Nick Drake's core catalog on vinyl. I am happy to report they are doing an exceptional job.

A couple years ago I sent an email to Martin Calliman (aka 'Cally') asking that he consider reissuing Nick's catalog on high quality LPs. I was pleasantly surprised that he wrote me back. It was clear from my email exchange with him that he is not a vinyl "true believer." Nevertheless, it was a refreshing correspondence because it is rare to hear someone in the industry speak so frankly. Perhaps my email, along with those from many other vinyl enthusiast Nick Drake fans, convinced Cally that a vinyl reissue campaign might be worthwhile after all.

So far, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon have been issued as both deluxe sets with bells and whistles, as well as reasonably priced standard vinyl reissues. A deluxe box of Five Leaves Left is due out at the end of the month, to be followed by a standard issue vinyl LP. Universal also issued a Record Store Day version of the self-titled compilation that was Drake's debut release in the United States.

While the boxes look to be of very high quality, I opted for the standard reissues. From what I have gathered the mastering on the deluxe and standard titles are identical.

So, how do they sound? In short: fantastic.

I had a much sought after and highly praised U.K. first pressing of Pink Moon on loan (I could never afford one) for several days and compared it to the new reissue. I don't go in for a lot of precious audiophile language, but the reissue sounded at least as good as the original to me. I'm sure someone with a $50K turntable will show up to tell me I'm wrong, but for normal folks the differences in sound quality (other than the fact that the reissue was quieter) are not going to be important.

I also own a U.S. Antilles pressing of Bryter Layter, and I preferred the sound of the new reissue to it. Likewise, the self-titled album sounds wonderful to me although I have nothing to compare it to.

I've seen conflicting accounts as to whether these were all cut from the original master tapes or not. It appears Pink Moon, at the very least, was. I'm not sure how much it matters. Original engineer John Wood has remastered these titles with great care, and with obvious respect for the sound of the original vinyl releases. They sound and look brilliant, and if you are a Nick Drake fan with a turntable these are easy to recommend.

Bryter Music, Martin Calliman, John Wood and everyone involved in this reissue program are to be congratulated for getting it right.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

College Radio Show: WDCV 88.3 FM, Summer 1990

Here's another of my college radio shows from 1990. This one is kind of weird. First of all, I must be the only DJ ever to follow Public Enemy's "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" with The Young Fresh Fellows' "Taco Wagon." I have no idea what I was thinking there.

At the time the station had hip-hop shows and it had college rock shows, but there was zero overlap between them. I viewed it as a kind of musical apartheid. I felt that the best hip-hop ought to be getting airplay outside of the ghetto of "urban" shows. While my attempt at musical integration was a good idea in theory, following Public Enemy with the Young Fresh Fellows just shows how hard it was to successfully pull it off in practice. It also arguably smacks of tokenism. I was trying anyway.

Another odd thing about this tape is that in over 50 minutes I did not speak once. I guess I was ignoring the "When You Play It, Say It" stickers record labels were slapping on their promos back then.

All that said, there is some good music here, including a track from Kirk Kelly that I had recorded live in the studio earlier in the year. Other artists featured include: ALL, The Jack Rubies, Thee Hypnotics, Iggy Pop, The Pretenders, King Missile, Sonic Youth, Game Theory, Christmas, The Walkabouts and Beat Happening. Lots of good music, but it doesn't fit together very well.

I recorded over side two of this cassette, so I hate to think how embarrassing that side must have been.

Friday, June 07, 2013

College Radio Show: WDCV 88.3 FM, February 1989

Here's another old college radio show I uploaded to MixCloud. From February 1989, this is the earliest surviving tape that I have. Unfortunately, I lost lost a lot of tapes when my car got broken into outside the old 9:30 Club in D.C. many years ago.

This show features The Stump Wizards, Buzzcocks, Camper Van Beethoven, Half Japanese, The Chills, XTC, Elvis Costello, Iggy and the Stooges, The Divine Horsemen, Giant Sand, Chris McGregor, Tom Waits and others.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

College Radio Show: WDCV 88.3 FM, November 1990

I just discovered MixCloud and uploaded one of my old college radio shows.

Featured artists include: Redd Kross, Bongwater, TAD, Mark Arm, Teenage Fanclub, Das Damen, Screaming Trees, Sister Double Happiness, Paleface, King Missile, Roky Erickson, Superchunk, Sun Ra, Three, Squirrel Bait and others.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Love - Black Beauty Sampler

The more I listen to the newly recovered Love album Black Beauty, the more I like it. High Moon Records has a sampler of all ten songs up on Soundcloud.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Love - Black Beauty Finally Available

Black Beauty, a long lost album by Arthur Lee and Love has finally been released by High Moon Records. Recorded in 1973 for the fledgling Buffalo Records label and intended to either be Lee's second solo album, or a new Love album with a new lineup, Black Beauty went unreleased at the time due to Buffalo Records' failure to launch.

The album features a very talented line up of musicians, some of the best Lee would work with in his long, checkered career, including guitarist Melvan Whittington, Robert Rozelle (bass), and Joe Blocker (drums). The album may have been named "Black Beauty" because, for the first time in his career, Lee was working exclusively with other African-American musicians (then again for all I know it's an amphetamine reference). He would utilize a similar lineup to record Reel To Real for RSO Records in 1975, an album that I have long argued has been unfairly maligned.

Black Beauty represents something of a midway point between the studied Hendrixisms of his 1972 solo album Vindicator and the more soulful groove of Reel To Real. Arthur sounds focused and engaged and happy to be working with such talented musicians. Lee does not attain the heights here that he did on Forever Changes (but then you knew that already), but it's nevertheless a worthy addition to any Arthur Lee fan's collection.

This release has been snake bitten since it failed to appear in 1973. The original master tapes could not be located and the audio had to be reconstructed (brilliantly I might add) from the best surviving acetate by Dan Hersch. Additionally, High Moon's release has been delayed a number of times. The album received a lot of positive press two years ago when promo copies were distributed to various media outlets. It was announced at the time that the album would be released on June 7, 2011, but it is only now available on LP (with the CD version yet to be released). Hopefully, the delay does not cause Black Beauty to fall through the cracks once again.

Despite the delays, High Moon did a great job with this release. The cover art looks fantastic, the LP is well-pressed and comes with an informative 28 page book that features many photographs from the period by Herbert Worthington. High Moon also included a download card for a 320kps MP3 version of the album. The first 5,000 copies are numbered. The music is some of the best Lee recorded post-Forever Changes. The only real misstep is the faux-Caribbean number "Beep Beep," which just doesn't work. The rest is soulful hard-rock that points in a direction that could have been commercially successful for Lee in the 70s if he could only have kept his act together. 

I know this is not really a review, the bottom line is that if you are fan of Arthur Lee/Love this is a worthwhile release, and if you are not a fan you should pick up a copy of Forever Changes and become one.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Beat Happening - Advertisement for Dreamy

Advertisement for Beat Happening's Dreamy album from 
Option: Music Alternatives magazine no. 37, Mar/Apr 1991.
Apologies for the content free posts. I happened across an old copy of Options magazine and was struck by how many awesome ads were in it. I just felt like somebody should scan and share, and why not me?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Dinosaur Jr. - Green Mind Advertisement

Advertisement for Dinosaur Jr.'s Green Mind album from 
Option: Music Alternatives magazine no. 37, Mar/Apr 1991.
Another nice ad, this one ran on the back cover.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Screaming Trees - Uncle Anesthesia Advertisement

Advertisement for Screaming Trees' Uncle Anesthesia album from
Option: Music Alternatives magazine no. 37, Mar/Apr 1991.
I'm not posting this for any particular reason other than that it's cool.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

A Tribute to George Jones

As I mentioned in my previous post, George Jones is one of my favorite artists regardless of genre, and I wanted to put together something in tribute to him. What follows is some choice video and audio clips from YouTube of some of my favorite songs by the man who is rightly being hailed as the greatest country music singer ever.

"Seasons Of My Heart" (1955) Town Hall Party

Some of my favorite material by Jones is the early hardcore honky-tonk sides he cut for the Starday and Mercury labels between 1955 and 1960. Some will tell you he had yet to find his own voice, and it is true that his earliest sides lean a little too heavily on the Hank Williams/Lefty Frizzell influence. But to my ears he became his own singer fairly quickly. "Seasons Of My Heart" was originally cut in 1955, but I think this Town Hall Party clip is a little later, possibly from 1959.

"Thumper" Jones - "Rock It" (1956) [No video]

Jones had a fairly fraught relationship to rock and roll music throughout his career, starting in 1956 when he recorded a few rock and roll numbers under the pseudonym "Thumper" Jones. While this is some fairly crazed sounding rockabilly, Jones never really cared much for rock music, and his discomfort with the genre is evident in these recordings. I don't think many would argue George made a mistake in deciding to exclusively devote himself to country music.

"You Gotta Be My Baby" (1957) Town Hall Party [Introduction by Tex Ritter]

This is one of the earliest video clips I was able to find of Jones. Here he is performing one of his great early honky-tonk scorchers on Town Hall Party hosted by Tex Ritter. On an odd note, Ritter introduces Jones as standing only five feet tall, but he was actually about 5'7", which is not really all that short (or at least I hope not as the Possum still had a couple inches on me).

"Eskimo Pie" (1957) [No video]

Novelty songs would play a huge role in Jones' career through to the end. Some would claim Jones was wasting his talents on such lightweight material, but I've always found (most of) his novelty numbers fun and refreshing. "Eskimo Pie," recorded in 1957 is one of the weirder ones, it's an answer song of sorts to the briefly popular sub-genre of country songs about inter-cultural romance (see also Bobby Helms' "Fraulein" and Hank Locklin's "Geisha Girl," both also from 1957). This attempt to cash in on a trend did not pay off in a hit, but it still gives me a giggle today. I actually had to buy a bootleg (or grey market import) CD to first obtain this track. I almost never buy bootleg recordings of my favorite rock artists, but for George Jones I was willing to make an exception.

"White Lightning" (1959) [Unknown Source]

"White Lightning" was one of Jones' biggest hits, and one of his better known songs in rock music circles. If you listen closely you might just hear a trace of the ghost of "Thumper" Jones here. This was about as close to rock and roll as Jones ever got successfully. Written by The Big Bopper, "White Lightning" was later covered by The Fall, among other rock acts.

 "Cup Of Loneliness" (1959) [No video]

Jones recorded some great country gospel numbers and "Cup Of Loneliness" features what is, in my opinion, one of the greatest vocals of his career. There is a real soulfulness to his vocals on this number that cannot be denied.

"Out Of Control" (1960) [No video]

Drinking songs played as large a role in Jones' career as alcoholism would play in his personal life. The desperation in his voice on "Out Of Control" is absolutely spine chilling. Nobody could do this kind of song as well as Jones, not even Merle Haggard.

"She Thinks I Still Care" (1962) Country Music on Broadway

Jones switched labels to United Artists in 1962, around the same time he started to fully develop his "mature" ballad style. This is one of my favorite country ballads and still sounds great all these years later.

"Brown To Blue" (1964) [No video]

I first became aware of "Brown To Blue" thanks to a cover version by Elvis Costello from his "country" album Almost Blue in the 1980s. It took me years to hunt down Jones' original version. I first acquired it on a United Artists LP called Trouble In Mind, and later on the Bear Family complete United Artists box set. Today I am happy to report that the song is available  without too much bother on Omnivore Recordings outstanding Complete United Artists Solo Recordings CD in pristine mono sound, just the way millions first heard it as they cried away their troubles into rivers of whiskey and beer. Penned by Jones himself, I can understand Costello's affection for the song. It's a terrific divorce song with clever lyrics that show the Possum could do more than just sing.

"Love Bug" (1965) Mathis Bros. Country Social

"Love Bug" was one of the bigger novelty hits Jones had during his stint with his third label, Musicor. It's goofy, but I love it. This amazing clip came from a local Oklahoma City television program that was sponsored by and filmed in an appliance store. How cool is that?

For many years, Jones' Musicor recordings (1965-1971) presented a real challenge to anyone wanting to assemble a reasonable George Jones collection. The rights holders for the Musicor catalog were apparently reluctant to license the material to labels that did not exclusively distribute through truck stops. I still have a few cut rate truckstop collections that I bought trying to track down key Musicor tracks. They have titles like "20 All-Time Country Classics," but the songs appear to have been chosen more or less at random from his Musicor catalog. Invariably, the artwork on these releases features a picture of Jones (his hair lacquered into a helmet) taken some ten to twenty years after the recordings featured on the albums, with his image pasted over some gold records or a drawing of barn.

Collecting Musicor tracks was made even more difficult by the fact that when the label originally released the material on LP they repeated many tracks from album to album. You could easily buy 10 Musicor LPs and find they had less than 60 unique tracks between them. Add to that the fact that there was a very good chance the previous owners of the albums were in no condition to operate a record player (let alone heavy machinery) when they listened to the albums. And then there was the sheer volume of material he recorded for the label--better than 250 songs recorded over period of just over five years--some of it great, some of it good, some of it unnecessary.

"Milwaukee Here I Come" with Tammy Wynette (1969) The Wilburn Bros. Show

Jones performed "Milwaukee Here I Come" on several TV programs with his then new wife Tammy Wynette, but for contractual reasons he could not record with her while still under contract to Musicor. On the I'll Share My World With You LP Jones performs this song with Brenda Carter, but it's Wynette pictured with her new husband on the album cover. Confused? That was probably the idea.

Happily, the Musicor years are now exhaustively documented on two massive Bear Family box sets (9 CDs in total). For those who just want to hear the highlights, Time/Life recently released a nice 2CD set called The Great Lost Hits. While this period is occasionally dismissed by critics, in part due to the admittedly shoddy way the catalog has been handled over the years, Jones recorded some great material for Musicor; "Walk Through This World With Me," "If My Heart Had Windows," "Love Bug," "I'm A People," "Sometimes You Just Can't Win," "Burn Another Honky Tonk Down," etc., etc. Hearing this material made the effort I went through to obtain the songs worthwhile.

"A Good Year For The Roses" (1970) [No video]

This is another Jones song that first came to my attention thanks to Elvis Costello's treatment of it on Almost Blue. Jerry Chesnut's lyrics are brilliant for the way in which they capture how often mundane things can loom large in our minds during an emotional crisis. This was one of Jones' final hits at Musicor, and finds him edging closer to the "countrypolitan" style that he would embrace fully at Epic with producer Billy Sherill. As always, his delivery is heartbreaking and superb.

"The Grand Tour" (1972) [Unknown Source, introduction by Tammy Wynette]

When Jones moved to Epic records in 1971 he hooked up with "countrypolitan" producer Billy Sherill. Sherill and Jones recorded many hits together over the next two decades. He recorded a lot of great material during his Epic years, and in general his albums from that period are much better thought out than those of the Musicor years. A Picture Of Me (Without You), George Jones (We Can Make It), Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad As Losing You)--Jones developed a thing for parenthetical titles during this period--The Grand Tour, Alone Again, The Battle, I Am What I Am, etc. are all very strong albums with a lot to recommend them beyond the hits.

"Golden Ring" with Tammy Wynette (1976) Hee-Haw

When his marriage to Tammy Wynette ended badly, Jones' personal life spiraled out of control like a bad honky-tonk song. Nevertheless he continued creating some fine music, some of it with Wynette. "Golden Ring" is another all-time country classic with a brilliant circular motif worthy of the great filmmaker Max Ophüls. I am also very fond of the duets Jones recorded earlier in his career with Melba Montgomery, but his recordings with Tammy Wynette are really something special.

"He Stopped Loving Her Today" (1980) The Ronnie Prophet Show

Recorded near the nadir of his personal life, Jones initially rejected what would become the biggest hit of career ("He Stopped Loving Her Today") for being too maudlin. On paper maybe it is too much, but Jones makes it work, and no doubt this is the song he will always be best remembered for. It is amazing to me that someone who had stumbled so badly in his personal life could still rise to such great heights in the recording studio. Many consider this the best country song of all-time, and I'm not sure I'd argue with them.

Whatever you do, avoid picking up Double Trouble, the album Jones recorded with his former sideman Johnny Paycheck in 1980. Comprised entirely of rock and roll covers, Double Trouble demonstrates once and for all the wise choice Jones made when he decided to stick exclusively to country music. The Possum just never had much of a feeling for rock and roll.

"I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair" (1992) Country Music Hall of Fame Induction

After leaving Epic, Jones spent much of the 1990s on the MCA label trying to keep up with the "new country" sound with mixed results.  Here he is seen with younger stars Alan Jackson, T. Graham Brown, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Mark Chesnutt, Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, Joe Diffie, and Clint Black at his Country Music Hall of Fame induction.

His MCA period (1991-1998) coincided with the apex of my own Jones fandom, and I dutifully picked up most of these albums when they came out and gave them a fair chance. None of them are bad, but they are only rarely inspired. The lone exception is the his final duet album with ex-wife Tammy Wynette, One from 1995. Wynette and Jones harmonize together so naturally they could sing the phone book and it would be compelling. The phone book might actually be more compelling than a couple of the songs on One, but in general it is a strong effort.

"Choices" (1999) CBS TV

The later part of Jones' career was disappointing to some (okay, to me) in several respects. While he remained in good voice until near the end of his days, his choices were mostly conservative and he avoided taking some of the risks that revitalized the careers of contemporaries like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. However, he seemed to put his all into making his 1999 album Cold Hard Truth something special. Unfortunately, this "comeback" was cut short by a relapse of alcoholism that resulted in an SUV crash and some serious injuries.  Jones won a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for "Choices" the lead track from that album.

As big a fan of Jones as I am, even I could not bring myself to buy an album called The Rock: Stone Cold Country 2001 in which he duets with Garth Brooks on a song called "Beer Run (B Double E Are You In?)," a number which was penned by no less then five Nashville song doctors. Or as Jones once sang, "uh-uh no, never."

I remember reading the liner notes that Elvis Costello penned to the reissue of his Kojak Variety album in which Elvis recounts his disappointment that Jones rejected a demo tape he had prepared specifically for him. The tape was full of some inspired choices like Bruce Springsteen's "Brilliant Disguise" and other songs Costello judged worthy of Jones' brilliant voice. You can hear Costello's versions on the Kojak Variety deluxe reissue and imagine what might have been. Who knows if Jones ever even listened to the tape, but I would love to have been a fly on the wall when and if he did.

While Jones may not have sung the kind of material Elvis Costello and I wished he had during the later years, there was a very real integrity to the way he conducted his career from start to finish. Jones never rebelled against the Nashville system, he embraced it fully, even past the point where he was reaping many rewards from the system, either artistic or financial. While he was respected by a new generation of performers, he was practically persona non grata on country radio for the last quarter century of his life. His last top-ten country hit came in 1988, and even teaming up with Garth Brooks only got him up to number 24. Many of his singles from 1990 onward did not chart at all. This is entirely country radio's shame, not Jones'.

George Jones remained a stubborn country traditionalist to the end, committed to Nashville and its way of doing things. Unlike Johnny Cash, he wasn't about to start singing songs written by folks like Trent Reznor, Beck, or artistes who go by names like "Bonnie Prince Billy." I respect Johnny Cash's open-mindedness and willingness to take artistic risks, but I also respect Jones' insistence on doing things his own way. As a result, his work is not as well appreciated outside of country music circles as it should be, and even there he is not justly esteemed because of country radio's fixation with youth.

And that's a shame because Jones was one the great artists and singers of the late twentieth century. Strictly as a singer and interpreter of song his name belongs in the rarified company of names like Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. Like Holiday, Jones had a knack for transforming even slight songwriting into great art. As a country artist, George Jones belongs in the discussion among the all-time greats: Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, The Carter Family, Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers and a very few others. We'll never see another like him.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

R.I.P. - George Jones

American music lost one of its true giants with the passing of George Jones. I'll have some thoughts on Jones, one of my favorite artists regardless of genre, in a few days.

Scott Miller Family Memorial Fund

Jozef Becker, former Loud Family bandmate of Scott Miller, has set up a Memorial Fund for Scott's family. If you are a fan of Scott's music, please consider a donation:

We lost a dear friend and the world lost a brilliant and talented musician suddenly on April 15, 2013. Scott Miller left behind his beautiful wife Kristine and daughters Valerie (age 10) and Julianne (age 7). In addition to his musical gifts, Scott was also a valued, talented and dedicated engineer with Mark Logic in San Carlos, California. Scott was the sole provider and dedicated father and husband to his girls and Kristine.
Scott's family and friends are bereft and grieving, but many dear friends have expressed their concern, commitment and dedication to providing some financial support for the educational future of Valerie and Julianne, and in honor of Scott.
Whatever gift or donation you can make is sincerely appreciated. If you are unable to donate, just hold the love for this man and his family in your hearts; it means a lot to all of us.
In love and peace,
Jozef Becker and Kate Flynn Becker and Nan Becker

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Record Store Day 2013: In Your Ear Records, Warren, RI

I'll be spinning some tunes this Record Store Day, Saturday April 20th at 5:00PM, at In Your Ear Records, 462 Main Street, Warren, Rhode Island. If you've followed this blog for long, you know I will probably play a fairly eclectic mix of music. If you're local to the area, stop in and say hi.

Some band called the Feelies will play an acoustic set at 2:00 PM at What Cheer Antiques on Angell Street in Providence, RI in advance of their show at the Met in Pawtucket that evening. That might be worth checking out too...

R.I.P. - Scott Miller (Game Theory/Loud Family)

It's really hard for me to write at the moment, because my own father just passed and I'm taking some time to take stock of things, think about life, mourn, etc. My Dad was one of the most important people in my life, I love him and miss him terribly, and it feels weird for me to write about anything else, especially another person's passing. But I could not let the death of Scott Miller--of Game Theory and Loud Family fame--go without mention. 

Bands like Game Theory were a big part of my original impetus for starting this blog; my primary focus has always been great acts that never got the attention they deserved during their lifetime but made music that should not be forgotten. I'd put the music of Scott Miller near the top of that list. His music was catchy, beautiful, thoughtful and smart--but somehow, inexplicably--never popular. He's often labelled a "power pop" artist, but the tag does not do him justice because his music always had an experimental/arty side that was far more sophisticated than generic power pop. Here is something I wrote about Game Theory way back in 2006 when I first started this blog.

This is really sad news, at 53, Scott was way too young to leave us. I was just thinking the other day that with all the 80s indie acts reuniting that Game Theory should really get back together. Apparently Scott was planning on recording a new Game Theory album this summer. What a shame that won't happen. I'm sure I would have eagerly covered it here.

One of the best shows I ever saw was Game Theory with Yo La Tengo and Peter Holsapple/Chris Stamey at Maxwell's in Hoboken in October of 1988. I talked to Scott after the show and he was really sweet and gracious.
(Looking through the "Ask Scott" archives on the Loud Family website, apparently that was one of Scott's favorite shows ever as well). 

The Loud Family website has made every Game Theory album (more or less) available for free download so you don't have to pay rip off prices for the long out-of-print CDs.

Scott was a brilliant musician and writer who left us far too soon, and whose genius never got the recognition it deserved during his lifetime. Sad.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Record Store Day 2013: Brubeck and Tjader 10" LPs

Concord music group will reissue replica, colored vinyl 10" records from Cal Tjader and Dave Brubeck for Record Store Day 2013. These look beautiful.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Record Store Day 2013: Nick Drake

Perhaps no release better encapsules my ambivalent feelings about Record Store Day than reissue of Nick Drakes' U.S. debut album for Record Store Day 2013. Originally released in 1971 when Island first started distributing records in the U.S. through Capitol Records, Nick Drake drew three songs from Five Leaves Left and five from Bryter Layter, which would not be released in the U.S. in their entirety until 1975.

Let me state the obvious: Nick Drake (the album) was always a poor substitute for the first two albums, and any fan of Drake's music needs all three of his studio albums in their collection. Nick Drake was a flawed addition to his catalog in 1971, but it at least introduced the man's music to the U.S. (although it's questionable how many of these actually made their way into record stores in 1971, as almost all copies seem to have cut-out or promo marks on them).

So why do I find myself wanting to purchase this album in 2013 when I already own every song on it and more? Well, for starters, there's the undeniably great artwork featuring Keith Morris' legendary photographs on the exterior and and a gorgeous photo of Nick in a field on the inner gatefold. This is a nice looking product, and it appears Universal has taken great care with the both the packaging and the sound quality (the music was remastered from the original analog tapes by original engineer John Wood at Abbey Road Studios). Further, as interest in Nick Drake's music has grown over the years this discographic curiosity has become something of a collector's item in its own right. You could probably expect to pay between $80 to $120 for an original copy in nice condition.

Do I need this album? No, absolutely not. Do I want it? I hate to admit it but, yeah, kinda I do. It's an ambivalent kind of desire, I'm cognizant on the one hand of how I'm being manipulated by economies of manufactured scarcity on the one hand, on the other hand...well, I just want it damn it!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Record Store Day 2013: Tommy Keene - Back To Zero Now

12XU Austin will re-issue one of the greatest slabs of 7" vinyl ever released in honor of Record Store Day 2013. Tommy Keene's "Back To Zero Now" b/w "Mr. Roland" originally appeared as a bonus 7" with later pressings of his first LP, Strange Alliance, on Avenue Records. This limited edition RSD release will feature a picture sleeve for the first time ever.

The label will also reissue Tommy's impossible to find Strange Alliance album in May with two songs not originally featured on the LP, "Nothing Is Gray" and "Stuck On A Ship," making it a necessary purchase even for those of us lucky enough to already own a copy of the original 1982 LP.

Serious kudos are due 12XU Austin for reissuing this crucial music.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Record Store Day 2013: Big Star - Nothing Can Hurt Me

One of my all-time favorite Record Store Day releases was Omnivore's 2011 reissue of the Test Pressing of Big Star's Third. This year Omnivore is back with a new Big Star RSD release, Nothing Can Hurt Me, a two LP compilation of alternate versions and remixes of Big Star classics that also serves as the soundtrack to the soon-to-be-released Big Star documentary film.

Nothing Can Hurt Me will be pressed on colored vinyl and will include a download card for those who think there is any other way to listen to Big Star than on LP. If you don't get your greedy mitts on these two slabs of colored vinyl on Record Store Day, resist the urge to pay big bucks on eBay and keep in mind that Omnivore eventually did a second pressing of Third.

This looks nice, but what I really want is a top-notch reissue of Alex Chilton's Like Flies On Sherbert. Perhaps for RSD 2014?

Here's the track list:

1. O My Soul (1973 Demo)
2. Give Me Another Chance (Control Room Monitor Mix 1972)
3. In The Street (2012 Movie Mix)
4. Studio Banter (1972)
5. Try Again - [Rock City] (2012 Movie Mix)
6. My Life Is Right (Alternate 1972 Mix)
7. The Ballad Of El Goodo (Alternate 1972 Mix)
8. Feel (Alternate 1972 Mix)
9. Don't Lie To Me (Alternate 1972 Mix)
10. Way Out West (Alternate 1973 Mix)
11. Thirteen (Alternate 1972 Mix)
12. You Get What You Deserve (Alternate 1973 Mix)
13. Holocaust (Rough 1974 Mix)
14. Kanga Roo (Rough 1974 Mix)
15. Stroke It Noel (Backwards Intro 1974)
16. Big Black Car (Rough 1974 Mix)
17. Better Save Yourself (2012 Movie Mix)
18. I Am The Cosmos [Chris Bell] (2012 Movie Mix)
19. All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain (2012 Movie Mix)
20. September Gurls (2012 Movie Mix)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Record Store Day 2013: Sub-Pop

Sub Pop has announced its releases for Record Store Day 2013. These will include a limited edition, various artists compilation entitled Sub Pop 1000. This release very much takes the label back to it's roots, harkening back to compilations like Sub Pop 100 and 200. Like those now collectable releases, Sub Pop 1000 will be limited to a pressing of 5,000 copies on vinyl.

The label will also release a collaborative 7" single from Shearwater and one of my favorite young artists, Sharon Van Etten. The single will feature a cover of the Stevie Nicks/Tom Petty duet "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" b/w "A Wake for the Minotaur."

Sharon Van Etten and Shearwater cover “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”

The label will also release a free (!) CD sampler entitled, Terminal Sales, Vol. 6: The Silver Ticket, featuring new and "occasionally rare" tracks from Mudhoney, Low, Shabazz Palaces, Father John Misty, Still Corners, Pissed Jeans, and 13 others. Free is good.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Record Store Day 2013: Public Image Ltd.

Light In The Attic will reissue a reproduction of the first Public Image Ltd. single, "Public Image" b/w "The Cowboy Song," for Record Store Day 2013. The 7" single will feature an "exact reproduction" of the fold-out newspaper packaging of the original U.K. single. This marks the first time the single has been issued in the U.S. The pressing will be limited to 2,200 hand-numbered copies.

If John Lydon were dead he would no doubt be rolling over in his grave at the sentimental, fetishistic nature of this gesture, but since he's alive and well, he'd just as soon have your money.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Record Store Day 2013: Orange Juice LP Reissues

All four of Orange Juice's Polydor era albums are being reissued on LP for Record Store Day 2013. The seminal Scottish post-punk/pop band's albums -- You Can't Hide Your Love Forever (1982), Rip It Up (1982), Texas Fever (1984), and The Orange Juice (1984) -- set the tone for much of the British pop wave of the 80s. Led by Edwyn Collins, Orange Juice are a hugely under-acknowledged influence on everyone from The Smiths to Belle and Sebastian. More importantly, their albums, and the band's refreshingly open-minded approach to music making, hold up very well in their own right. "Rip It Up" was a good enough that when Simon Reynolds set out to write a history of post-punk he named his book after it.

The material on these albums was out-of-print altogether for many years until Domino released the ...Coals To Newcastle 6 CD/1 DVD box set in 2010. No doubt it will be good to finally have these classic albums back in circulation in their original configuration and format.

In other Orange Juice news, former front-man Edwyn Collins plans to release a follow up to his terrific 2010 comeback album Losing Sleep. The album, entitled Understated, will be released on April 16, just in advance of Record Store Day.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Record Store Day 2013: The List (Unofficial)

The official Record Store Day list has not been made public yet. But you can download a PDF of the list that was sent to distributors here. If you see things you want, you would be wise to ask your local retailer to order them in advance.

Record Store Day 2013: Robyn Hitchcock - There Goes The Ice

For Record Store Day 2013 Robyn Hitchcock will make all 8 songs from his previously download only "Phantom 45" series available on an honest-to-goodness 12" long-playing microgroove vinyl record. I'm sure there is a lesson in there about the persistence of the vinyl record in the as the age of the download gives way to the age of streaming. As a reward for supporting your local independent music retailer, the record will also include 2 new previously unreleased songs.

Hitchcock's latest Phantom 45, "There Goes The Ice" b/w "Twitch For Surfer Sam," is currently available for free download at his website. You can download the songs now in anticipation of getting your groovy new vinyl LP on Record Store Day, April 20th. I hope to be one of the 750 lucky Robyn Hitchcock fans to score a copy.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Record Store Day 2013: Hüsker Dü - Amusement

To celebrate Record Store Day 2013, Hüsker Dü will reissue two songs originally released on their debut 7" along with two other songs recorded at their first studio sessions ("Writer's Cramp" and "Let's Go Die") on a four song 2 X 7" vinyl set.

Three of the songs on the set were recorded in August of 1980 at Minneapolis' Blackberry Way Studio with the band hoping the results would land them a deal with hometown indie label Twin/Tone Records. Twin/Tone passed them up in favor of The Replacements, and the Hüskers ended up releasing "Amusement" and "Statues" as a 7" single on their own Reflex Records. The band eventually signed to California indie label SST, and the rest is history. Fans of those SST releases might find themselves slightly confused to discover their heroes started out sounding suspiciously like PiL.

According to Numero Records, "the Blackberry Way cuts have been remastered from a first generation sub-master (the originals have long been lost), while "Amusement" was cut from the original live board tape. The original artwork has been polished and beefed up with a 28pt board gatefold jacket." The 2 X 7" set will be limited to 4,000 copies.

Record Store Day 2013


Jack White is the official Record Store Day 2013 Ambassador. White, through his work with the White Stripes and his Third Man Records label, has long been an advocate for independent record stores and the vinyl medium in particular. From White's statement:
"As Record Store Day Ambassador of 2013 I’m proud to help in any way I can to invigorate whoever will listen with the idea that there is beauty and romance in the act of visiting a record shop and getting turned on to something new that could change the way they look at the world, other people, art, and ultimately, themselves."
White is a good an obvious choice, but will I sound like a jerk if I admit to not being a fan of either his music or his marketing techniques? (That is a rhetorical question, I know I sound like a jerk). Nevertheless, there has always been something about White that rubbed me the wrong way. In particular, I find the endless stream of limited-edition collectible novelty records he releases (fluid filled records, triple decker records, etc.) annoying. It's vinyl record as fetish object taken to an absurd extreme. Maybe that's the idea, and I'm not sophisticated enough to get the joke.

It also bugs me that White will go on and on about the superiority of analog to digital, and yet press his records at United, who are known for producing noisy pressings. I actually have nothing against digital, even though I'm a big fan of LPs. There is a lot to be said for digital recording, mixing, etc. both in terms ease of use, convenience, and the ability to make good sounding recordings at minimal cost. White's advocacy of analog recording always stuck me as something closer to a fashion statement than a genuine commitment to high quality recording, which can certainly be attained in either the digital or analog domain.

But enough complaining! (And I admit, I am probably not being fair to White.) I support Record Store Day because it is a great opportunity to raise the profile of independent music retailers. In the coming weeks I plan to profile what I consider some of the more interesting Record Store Day 2013 releases.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Surrender To The Hype: David Bowie's New Album Is Great

Back in the 80s Bongwater recorded a song called "David Bowie Wants Ideas." In it, Ann Magnuson recounts a dream in which she receives a form letter from David Bowie who is soliciting ideas for the new album he is recording. The song was a joke, but it had an uncomfortable ring of truth to it. After the runaway pop success of Let's Dance in 1983, Bowie sounded very much like an artist adrift, unsure how to navigate the perilous waters of superstardom.

After a couple failed attempts to replicate Let's Dance's success, Bowie spent most of the 90s trend hopping, jumping on the latest micro-trend (grunge, industrial, drums and bass, jungle, etc.) far too late to sound innovative, or even particularly hip for that matter. It was mostly a depressing spectacle for an artist who had spent the majority of his career setting, not following, trends.

After a label change, the 00s started off on a more promising note. On Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003) Bowie sounded like an artist comfortable with his own legacy. To my ears these were good (not great) albums that at least showed Bowie once again in control of his craft. Then came a life threatening health crisis in 2004, followed by what everyone assumed was retirement.

You would be forgiven, my cynical friends if you assumed all the fuss over David Bowie's surprise, super-double secret comeback album, The Next Day, amounted to little more than hype. Bowie fan and professional cynic Lloyd Cole made the curmudgeon's case during a chat on Salon yesterday:
"What I am happy about is that he seems good. Healthy and ambitious. And I think this is his best record for 25 years. Unfortunatly I don't think this is saying that much."
In my opinion, Cole is right. The Next Day is Bowie's best album in 25 years. He's also right that, unfortunately, that is not necessarily saying much. Nevertheless, to my ears after a few listens, despite all the attendant hype (or maybe because of it, how can one ever be sure?), The Next Day also sounds like a great David Bowie album. 

It's an exciting listen, full of strong melodies, fantastic singing (the man's voice has undeniably held up well), thoughtful lyrics that look back on his storied career and life without nostalgia, and sympathetic production from long-time producer and co-conspirator Tony Visconti. The overall sound is vaguely reminiscent of his much praised "Berlin trilogy" (Low, Heroes, Lodger) with a firmer commitment to pop hooks than heard on those albums. I really have no idea what more you could ask for from a new David Bowie album.

Of course, it's 2013 not 1977, and The Next Day is not going to launch a hundred sub-genres of New Wave the way each of his 70s albums seemed to. Bowie is 66 years old and his days as an innovator are behind him. So what? Against all odds he's just put out a terrific album that can stand proudly alongside his most highly praised albums from the 70s. Set your hard-earned cynicism aside and enjoy the moment.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Batman Meme: Punk's Not Music

Inspired by a conversation I made the mistake of jumping into relating to Greg Lake's contention that punk is not a form of music, but mostly just part of my ongoing efforts to teach myself Photoshop and keep myself amused.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: Big Dipper Crashes On The Platinum Planet

"Rock and roll is an old man's game now, so I'm staying in it." -Robyn Hitchcock

Rock music comebacks are a tricky business. Too often we get product from an "older but wiser" band that won't bother anybody while standing in line at Starbucks, but pales in comparison to the more passionate creations of youth. Rock and roll is supposed to be a young man's game, and it's rare for a band working in the idiom to release their best work when its members are past the age of forty.

Into this breach step eighties college rock favorites Big Dipper with their first new album in 22 years, Big Dipper Crashes On The Platinum Planet. I am happy to report that it's a brave and delightful effort that can stand proudly alongside the band's previous work.

For those who have forgotten (or never knew in the first place), Big Dipper made some noise back in the late 80s with two terrific albums, Heavens and Craps, on the legendary Homestead Records label. Heavy touring and substantial college radio airplay earned them a solid following and resulted in a major label bidding war. They signed to Epic records and released Slam in 1990. While Slam had its moments, it could probably serve as a case study for all the things that can go wrong when an indie band signs to a major label. The label never provided the promised support, Slam tanked, and Epic quickly dropped the band. The band soldiered on briefly but, aside from a brilliant retrospective box set released by Merge a few years back, not much has been heard from Boston’s favorite sons since...until now.

I won't mince words: I love this album! I love it so much I've been struggling for months to find the right words to tell you that I think it's worthy of your attention. It's just as good, if not better than, the music Big Dipper made when they were the next big thing.

What really strikes me about Big Dipper Crashes On The Platinum Planet, the thing that I keep coming back to, the thing that really knocks me out, is the fact that songwriters Bill Goffrier, Gary Waleik and Jeff Oliphant are uncommonly willing to take artistic risks. Of course risk always involves the possibility of failure. But Big Dipper has experienced failure before, which is perhaps why they are willing to face it so fearlessly on their new album.

The album starts with Goffrier's deliciously weird "Lord Scrumptious." Lurking beneath the catchy melody is what sounds a serious rumination on the fact that we seem to be in the midst of a new Gilded Age where the rich play by a different set of rules than the rest of us. But the song is no boring treatise on class inequality, it’s full of weird, Dante-esque imagery, and like any proper Big Dipper song it has a fantastic hook.

Gary Waleik's "Robert Pollard," comes next, and perhaps best exemplifies the reformed Dipper's willingness to take big artistic risks and fearlessly court failure. Ostensibly a tribute to the Guided By Voices frontman, the track could easily come off as an insular indie rock joke. But In Waleik's capable hands it becomes more than just an insider's mash note to a fellow traveller. It's a deep and passionate reflection on the creative process. Waleik makes the brave (some might say foolish) risk of placing his own songwriting struggles in a dialectical relationship with those of Pollard and Paul McCartney. You'd be forgiven if your first reaction to the previous sentence is "that's some cheek!" It is a tribute to the meticulous craftsmanship that characterizes the entire album that the song succeeds so brilliantly. You don't have to know, or even care, who Robert Pollard is to understand the song, you only have to have ever struggled to create something to get it. Or you could just sing along, because it's got one heck of a catchy chorus.

Drummer Jeff Oliphant's "Princess Warrior" is up next, and he too takes some major songwriting risks. Calling a song "Princess Warrior" in tribute to a spouse who survived breast cancer could easily turn into a maudlin mess or worse. But the song feels honest and heartfelt without ever succumbing to sappiness. I can't help but admire Oliphant's willingness to court artistic disaster almost as much as his wife's bravery facing cancer. And the chorus is so ridiculously catchy that I find myself helplessly singing along to lyrics about facing a life threatening disease.

It's not just that Big Dipper seems more willing to take artistic risks than ever before, the melodies (always the band's secret strength) sound even sharper than in the past. The band has hinted at why this might be in recent interviews. Crashes On The Platimum Planet was recorded and mixed at the band's lesiure in Gary Waleik's home studio.

I've lost track of how many opinion pieces I've read about how Pro-Tools, and computer based audio in general, is ruining music. But I rarely see anyone admit that smart musicians can actually benefit from these new technologies. Big Dipper's 80s indie albums were recorded in tiny studios on even smaller budgets. While the sound quality never stands in the way of the music, the albums do occasionally sound rushed and incomplete. By contrast, their major label debut was recorded in a big, expensive studio with a huge budget. But the sound of Slam is too slick, and it sounds forced and uneasy with Big Dipper's type of music, like someone else's aesthetic has been overlaid over their own. Crashes On The Platinum Planet presents something like a happy medium. The band has obviously taken advantage of the extra time available to them to make the album sound just the way they want, but without the huge expense or pressure of working in a big studio. More importantly, without the expectations of creating radio-friendly "hit" music, the band can attend to the details on their own terms without outside interference.

The album closes with a reworking of an old Big Dipper song, "Guitar Named Desire (The Animated Sequel)," a song that originally appeared as an instrumental bonus track on the cassette version of their debut EP, Boo-Boo. I was initially surprised they would choose to end the album with a reprise of an earlier song considering what a compelling case the band had made for their continued artistic viability without appeal to nostalgia. But when the newly added lyrics begin at about a minute and fifteen seconds into the song, I began to understand that they were taking one final artistic risk.

It's a risk, like all the others on the album, that pays off brilliantly. Waleik's lyrics initially fool you into thinking he's describing as series of former lovers ("You were born in '63, but you're well preserved/A natural blonde epiphany with several shapely curves"). But he's really singing about his beloved guitars, and in the process explains why Big Dipper is back, why they had no choice but to come back. The need to make music among the group is too strong to stay away. It's a desire, like lust, that starts in the body and controls the mind. It's a beautiful way to end an extraordinary album.

It's rare that I would recommend a comeback album as the place to start an appreciation of a band's music, but there is no better place to start enjoying the glory of Big Dipper than Crashes On The Platinum Planet. After that, if you haven't already, pick up Merge's wonderful Supercluster box that contains their indie albums along with a few odds and ends. Finally, if you can find it, grab a copy of their major label debut (and swansong) Slam. It should cost you about a penny at Amazon's Marketplace, but it's better than its reputation suggests.

Welcome back Big Dipper, and please accept my apologies for making you wait over three months for this review…you made me wait 22 years for a new album, so it only seems fair.