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.