Monday, April 28, 2008

Free Love! This Week Only!

Rock's Back Pages is a subscription service that archives a huge amount rock music interviews and criticism that are unavailable elsewhere. This week they have made some articles on Love and Arthur Lee available for free.

Lenny Kaye makes a valiant attempt to interview Arthur Lee, while Lee sets the record for saying "trip" the most times in one interview (Jazz & Pop, 1970):
LK: Have you always desired to be put in the role of leader?

AL: Leader? Well, it's like I don't know what you mean by leader. You have to explain what a leader is and I can tell you if I want to be one or if I think I'm on that trip.

LK: Well, how you related to the people in the group. When you sat down at a practice to arrange to do a song, were you the one who used to take the initiative?

AL: Right, I'm the leader. I was the leader.

John Tobler talks to Jerry Hopkins about what it was like to manage Love during their early days (ZigZag, 1973):

The troubles started almost immediately; every time a record company executive came down, someone in the band wouldn't show up – even though we took great pains to explain the importance of their all being there. We were getting nowhere fast; all we were doing was running out of record companies who were getting fed up having their time wasted by unknown groups who didn't even turn up to play.... it was just a waste of time for everybody concerned.

Max Bell
reports on yet another new version of Love's 1975 tour of England with George Suranovich back behind the drums and John Sterling on guitar (NME, 1975):

At this Lyceum gig audiences were really on the ball, but the rest of Love's tour lies in tattered shreds – quarter full halls and dance band status allegations. Apparently as some kind of snub to their record company, they only did one genuinely new number, the Curtis flavoured "Who Are You," Lee hitting exact high notes; a voice of our time, his, and in perfect trim. There's a tremendous presence too, making it virtually impossible to shift one's gaze.

Jon Savage digs Rhino's 2001 Forever Changes reissue (Mojo, 2001):

Nearly 34 years after its recording, Forever Changes remains a key, perhaps the key '60s album: a perfect fusion of form and function that both defines and elegantly steps out of its time. Its ambition and scope make it representative of the principal cultural and perceptual challenge of the hippie period (Does life have to be like this?) that remains powerful because it has never been adequately addressed.

Paul Lester talks to Arthur Lee about putting his life back together after getting out of prison (The Guardian, 2002):

Now he just wants to get on with his life. "I don't intend to get into any trouble. Breaking any law is the furthest thing from my mind." Suddenly, he brightens. "Speaking of that, do you know where I can get some weed?"

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Elvis Costello - MOMOFUKU and the Death of the CD

Elvis Costello has released his latest album, MOMOFUKU, exclusively as a 2 LP set. It will be available on CD and as a digital download on May 6th. Rumor has it the original plan was to forgo a CD release altogether, but Costello changed his mind at the last minute.

Costello (or someone at Universal Music Group) may have blinked, but this is a peak into the future folks. The CD is dead. It's hard for a died-in-the-wool vinyl enthusiast like me who suffered through years of "perfect sound forever" triumphalism not to feel a bit vindicated now that it's clear that the mighty LP will outlive the CD. It's also hard for me to gloat knowing that lossy compressed digital downloads are what is replacing the CD, although I can take some comfort in a modest (but real) resurgence of interest in the vinyl LP.

In the age of digital downloads, CDs are totally irrelevant. Sure the music industry will continue to release CDs for a while longer--much as the hair and nails continue to grow on a corpse after burial--but the CD is essentially a dead medium at this point. If you want convenience and crappy sound, downloads are both more convenient and sound even crappier than CDs. Simply put, there is no longer a reason for CDs to exist, and before you know it, they won't. For those who still care about sound quality, the LP will remain the medium of choice. Kudos to Costello for recognizing that.

MOMOFUKU arrived with little advance fanfare. I didn't even know about it until I spotted a copy at my local record store--Zingg Music in Warren, RI--and picked it up. Yes, I still buy Elvis Costello albums and I still buy LPs. What can I say, I'm old. (I keep hearing rumors of "kids" becoming interested in vinyl, but I'm a bit skeptical as to the widespread nature of this phenomenon. I didn't exactly have fight off a horde 13 year-old skate-punks to grab my copy of MOMOFUKU.)

First the good news. If you like anything by Elvis Costello post Trust, you are also very likely to enjoy MOMOFUKU. It's as good as, or better than, other relatively successful late career Costello albums like The Delivery Man or When I Was Cruel. Fans of Rilo Kiley will be happy to know that Jenny Lewis' backing vocals are all over the album, and that works out very nicely. The LPs are pressed on dead quiet 180 gram vinyl, and at $17.99 it's not too expensive. Also, the album was mixed and mastered entirely in the analog domain and has a warm and pleasing vibe to it. Costello envisioned this as an LP release first and foremost, so this is not a case of the LP being an afterthought for the few weirdos out there who are still dedicated to vinyl.

I picked on Elvis a while back for endlessly reissuing his back catalog, but the deal he struck with UMG allows him to release new music when and how he chooses, and no doubt rights to his back catalog were a major bargaining chip in guarantying him that freedom. This is a tough time to make a living in the music industry, and I should probably be a little more forgiving of practices I might previously have thought crass. If an endless string of super-deluxe reissues of the early albums is the price to be paid for Costello to do what he pleases in the here and now, I'm okay with that.

The only thing that bugs me about this package (aside from the cover art, which is pretty lame) is that a sticker on the front of the LP advertises a free download of the full album. However, once you open it up there are no instructions for downloading. A note on Costello's website informs that the download will be available May 1st, but gives no clue as to how to get it. I'm a big fan of the trend toward including a digital download with LPs, it gives me the best of both worlds, good sound and nice packaging to enjoy at home and the convenience of digital on the go.

I'll probably eventually get the download issue settled, but in the meantime I ripped a copy from the vinyl to enjoy on my iPod right now. Speaking of which, the tech-savy bloggers at New York Magazine think it's "really, really hard to make MP3s from a vinyl record," otherwise MOMOFUKU would be leaking all over the internets. I'm not so sure about that. It took me about 10 minutes in addition to the time it took to listen to the album to make my iPod MOMOFUKU enabled. What do these geniuses think people are doing with all those USB turntables you can buy at Target, using them to serve hors' dourves at cocktail parties?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Replacements Reissued

"How can The Replacements be the best band of the 80s when I've never even heard of them?" - Jon Bon Jovi, Musician Magazine (10/89)

The Replacements Twin/Tone catalog gets the deluxe Rhino reissue treatment today. Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, Stink, Hootenanny and Let It Be were a big part of my misspent youth in the 1980s. Now thanks to Rhino I can enjoy them remastered and with bonus tracks during my misspent middle age.

I can still can still recall straining to hear the mighty Replacements' glorious noise outside
a club in Washington D.C. after having my obviously doctored ID rejected by the club's bouncer. It was my 17th birthday, but I doubt I looked a day over 15.

"How young are you? How old am I?"

I can vividly remember the nervous feeling building in the pit of my stomach as the bouncer took what seemed like an eternity to study my driver's license. I had strategically placed a little daub of paint over the "9" in 1969 in order to make it look like a "7." After a long look at the ID the bouncer eyed me skeptically and said "Happy Birthday. How old are you today?" I was so flustered I didn't know what the answer was supposed to be. My throat was dry and my head was spinning. After a few seconds I think managed to say "umm." He told me to hit the bricks.

"19." Damn, the answer should have been 19. 19 would have been old enough to drink in the District of Columbia in 1986. More importantly, 19 would have been old enough to see The Replacements on July 30, 1986. If I had managed to keep my wits about me enough to say "19" I just might have gotten in.

"How smart are you? How dumb am I?"

I didn't know it at the time, but I missed my only chance to see The Replacements with original guitarist Bob Stinson that night. Think about that. I missed out on seeing The Replacements with Bob Stinson because I was too stupid to add 17 + 2. I suppose--given the band's occasional willful stupidity--that there is something appropriate about that. But that was small comfort to me on my 17th birthday.

The worst part of having my ID rejected was that it also kept my buddy Peter (whose doctored ID passed muster) out of the show. I carry that guilt with me to this day. A lesser friend would have probably just headed into the club anyway, but Peter stuck with me. (Then again, maybe he just needed a ride home, I can't remember who drove). It is one of my greatest regrets that I never saw the original Replacements line-up in their loud and sloppy prime. As greatest regrets go that's probably not such a bad one to have, but over twenty years later my ears still burn a bit when I remember getting turned away from that club. 
Mark Richardson at Pitchfork does a good job of reviewing the reissues. It's good to see someone who is (I assume) younger than me conclude that these albums have much more going for them than Gen X nostalgia. I generally don't like assigning number values to album reviews, but his ratings strike me as fair. It's important to keep in mind however that the albums' flaws are an intrinsic part their "lovable loser" appeal. "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out" and "Gary's Got A Boner" may not be Cole Porter, but Let It Be wouldn't be as great without them.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Redd Kross - Trance

Here is another example of a band not getting adequate distribution for some of their most hit-worthy music.

In 1990 Redd Kross released their major-label debut, Third Eye, on Atlantic Records. The album--which sounded like a cross between Cheap Trick and The Partridge Family--probably came as something of shock to anyone who still thought of the band as the obnoxious teen punks who wrote "Annette's Got the Hits." Third Eye was gloriously glossy and commercial, dripping with hooks and a post-modern appreciation of junk culture. You used to have to send away box tops from sugary cereals in order to get songs this catchy, but Redd Kross delivered eleven gorgeous bubblegum nuggets on an easy to find Compact Disc. But despite being inarguably one of the two of three greatest albums ever recorded, Third Eye tanked commercially and Atlantic dropped the band.

The McDonald brothers re-grouped with new musicians including guitarist Eddie Kurdziel, keyboardist Gere Fennelly and drummer Brian Reitzell, and released a couple of independent singles before being signed to Mercury for 1993's Phaseshifter.

"Trance" and "Byrds And Fleas" find the band toughening up their sound, reintroducing some of the punk energy and aggression they had moved away from on Third Eye, while still retaining the chewy deliciousness that characterizes the best bubblegum pop. These would have been the perfect songs to introduce the band to post-Nevermind alt-rock radio, but unfortunately they only received limited distribution. Both songs were released as a 7" and CD single on the tiny Seminal Twang label, a limited edition Australian tour EP, and limited edition EP on Sympathy For the Record Industry. In short, they showed up everywhere except where they really belonged, on a well-distributed major label release.

Phaseshifter was a very good album, but these two songs easily top anything on it. Ironically, "Huge Wonder," the weakest song from the Seminal Twang CD single, appeared in a re-recorded version on the album. Why didn't either of these songs? I haven't a clue.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Chills - Big Dark Day

It's a heavenly pop hit,
For those that still want it.

I'm always puzzled by a tendency among certain artists to essentially throw away their most hit-worthy music, relegating their catchiest songs to b-sides, or not releasing them at all. For instance, it's difficult to understand why "Wonder People (I Do Wonder)" wasn't released as a single in advance of Forever Changes. The song clearly wouldn't have fit the dark tone of the album, but it condenses and simplifies many of Forever Changes' virtues in a way that would have made it the perfect vehicle for getting some radio airplay in advance of its release. It's hard to explain why no one recognized this in 1967 and the song sat in the vaults for nearly thirty-five years. Maybe it was the drugs.

"Big Dark Day" by The Chills is another good example of this phenomenon. Martin Phillipps co-wrote what can only be described as a heavenly pop-hit with former dB Peter Holsapple, but inexplicably stuck it on the b-side of the little-heard 1992 "Male Monster From the Id" single. The song was later relegated to a limited-edition "bonus disc" on The Chills best-of album, Heavenly Pop Hits. Good luck finding either of those.

Don't get me wrong, "Male Monster" is a good song, but you don't have to be some music industry genius to figure out that there aren't enough hookers and cocaine in the world to convince radio programmers to play a song whose chorus goes "the male monster from the iiiiddd." On the other hand, "Big Dark Day" is everything one could ask for in a three minute and forty-one second pop song. It's got a big hook, a melody you can hum, nice production, a touch of drama and a sentiment anyone can relate to. I can't think of a single good reason this song wasn't a hit in 1992, other than the fact that no one was allowed to hear it (heck, even I missed it at the time). It's almost too easy to imagine this song being played on the radio between The Sundays' "Love" and The Cranberries' "Dreams" circa 1992. Pity that it wasn't.

So, how to explain why "Male Monster From the Id" was the a-side and "Big Dark Day" was the b-side, and not the other way around? Maybe no one at the label was paying enough attention or cared enough about the band to do proper A&R. Maybe it was the drugs.

Perhaps Martin Phillipps himself left a clue in the lyrics to "Heavenly Pop Hit," which reflect a deep sense of cynicism about the ability of really great pop music to still connect with a mainstream audience. Why not relegate your catchiest songs to b-sides if you're convinced no one is going to hear them anyway? Why not reward the few fans who are paying really close attention if you believe they're the only ones who will care? Of course, there might be a simpler explanation. Maybe Phillipps just thought the song was flawed in some way that escapes my ears and didn't think it was ready for prime-time. Whatever the reason, here's a heavenly pop-hit for those that still want it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Rainy Day

I'll be the first to admit that not everything I feature here is some lost masterpiece. And I don't know if this 1984 album by the one-off "Paisley Underground" super-group Rainy Day is a masterpiece either. Masterpiece seems like too pompous a word to describe something so unaffected and charming.

Rainy Day was a project headed by David Roback (Rain Parade, Opal) with contributions from Kendra Smith (Dream Syndicate, Opal), Michael Quercio (The Three O'Clock), Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles) and other Paisley Underground luminaries. Much like the more recent Hoffs/Matthew Sweet collaboration, Under The Covers, it's an unpretentious, heartfelt tribute to the music of the 60s that had the most obvious impact on these musicians. Buffalo Springfield, The Velvet Underground, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Who, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Big Star are all covered.

As Kendra Smith's minimalist cover art suggests, in creating this album the group seems to have followed Einstein's dictum that "things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler." Most of the songs sound like they were done in one take, the arrangements are sparse, and the instrumentation is mostly acoustic. But a few subtle touches keep things from getting too simple: some violin or viola by Will Glenn on "I'll Keep It With Mine," "John Riley," and "Holacaust," some reverb around the vocals on "Flying On The Ground Is Wrong." Only the lengthy cover of Hendrix's "Rainy Day, Dream Away" that ends the album falls relatively flat.

It's appropriate that Buffalo Springfield would get two tracks dedicated to them, because it's clear they were a huge influence on the Paisley Underground scene in general, and on Roback in particular. I've been mesmerized by "Flying On The Ground Is Wrong" since I first heard Buffalo Springfield's version on the radio when I was in high school. It's possible I find the song intriguing because I've never been certain precisely what it is about. Is it a love song? A drug song? It's probably both, and possibly neither. But both the lyrics and the melody are haunting and evocative, and Kendra Smith brings those qualities to the fore with her languid vocals. "On Your Way Home" is the simplest song on the album, with just Roback accompanying his vocals on acoustic guitar. But the simplicity allows the beauty of the melody to shine through in a way that it doesn't on the possibly over-arranged original version from Last Time Around. Maybe masterpiece is not too pompous to describe this low-key gem of an album after all.

Judging by the prices the CD fetches, Rainy Day is crying out for a proper reissue. Dare we hope for bonus tracks, or might they break the album's considerable spell?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Love Reissues

I also wanted to mention a bit of news on the Love reissue front. First the bad news: the limited edition Hip-O Blue Thumb Recordings box I reviewed last year has gone out-of-print. Used copies are currently changing hands for reasonable prices (for now). If you think you want this, I advise you to act quickly. However, if you're not interested in the live bonus CD included with the box, you might consider the fact Collector's Choice has reissued the two Blue Thumb studio albums, Out Here and False Start. Additionally, Arthur Lee's solo album, Vindicator, has been reissued by Britian's BGO Records, so it is once again possible to hear this recording without paying insane prices.

Finally, on April 22, Rhino will release a two disc "Collector's Edition" of Forever Changes, which will include a full-length "alternate mix" of the 1967 classic. It's hard to know what to think about that. The value of such a set will depend very much on just how interesting and/or different the "alternate mix" is, but I will never complain about any of Love's music being reissued. I also hear rumors of a Rhino box set, but don't know any details.

In the meantime, I am still waiting for a proper reissue of Reel To Real. Collector's Choice, are you listening?

Though out-of-print on CD, The Blue Thumb Recordings is now available for download from iTunes at a budget price.

Dennis Wilson Finally Reissued

I like to mention when music previously featured on this blog gets reissued, and I have some very good news on that front: the late Dennis Wilson's lone solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue, is getting the Legacy Deluxe Reissue treatment on April 15th. Dennis' critically acclaimed, but light selling solo album has been out-of-print for ages and has been fetching ridiculous prices on collector's markets of late, so this is definitely most welcome news (unless you are the guy who has a copy listed on for $555.00). Even better news is the fact that disc two of the set will include choice cuts from the sessions that were to comprise Wilson's never finished second album, Bambu.

It's crazy that it has taken so long for this reissue to happen, but it looks like it is being done right, having been re-mastered from the first generation analog master tapes. Sundazed will also issue a limited edition 3 LP set, appropriately enough, on blue vinyl. Better late than never!

Close Lobsters - What Is There To Smile About?

Native to Scotland, the Close Lobster is considered a delicacy among connoisseurs of melodic, neo-psychedelic, jangle-pop. Unfortunately, the lifespan of a Close Lobster is known to be quite short, typically on the order of three to four years. Close Lobsters were thought to have gone extinct sometime around 1989, but there were reported sightings as late as 1991.

Several ethnographic field recordings of Close Lobsters are known to exist, but most of them are out-of-print. The first full-length recording, called Foxheads Stalk This Land, is no longer available on the format known as the compact disc, but can be downloaded in the MP3 format. A subsequent EP, What Is There To Smile About, and final album, Headache Rhetoric, are more difficult to locate at the moment.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Princeton Record Exchange

One of my favorite places, The Princeton Record Exchange, is featured in The New York Times today. Key quote from Exchange owner Barry Weisfeld: "It's a cold, sterile world on the Internet, and people get an experience here you can't get online." Indeed.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


My daughter hit her head pretty hard last night and had to visit the emergency room. Fortunately, she is fine. In fact, she was feeling so much better this morning she decided to re-read one of her old favorites.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

So Much Younger Then

R.E.M. is back from the dead. Or so says Time Magazine anyway. For the first time in years there is a positive buzz surrounding a new R.E.M. album (Accelerate, released today). Inherent in the buzz around the album is the admission, even on the part of the band itself, that the last several R.E.M. albums have been duds.

So is the band's revitalization real, or a bunch of hype? I'd like to believe it's real, much in the same way that I'd like to believe that--with proper diet and exercise--I'll one day be able to bench press twice my body weight again, just like when I was seventeen. I don't know how good Accelerate is, I haven't heard it yet. But I guarantee you it's better than the last three R.E.M. albums, if for no other reason than it clocks in at a succinct 35 minutes.

Late career artistic revitalization is not exactly unheard of--Bob Dylan and Neil Young released some great albums after long fallow periods. But Dylan and Young are solo artists, and R.E.M. is a band (or is supposed to be a band anyway). I think it's a taller order for a group of forty-something millionaires who live in castles in different cities to get together and make a great rock and roll album. A better point of comparison is probably The Rolling Stones. The Stones have cranked out some decent, workmanlike albums late in their career, but--face it--Bridges To Babylon isn't going to make it to anyone's desert island discs list, and I predict Accelerate won't either.

Don't get me wrong, Accelerate might turn out to be a very good album, but R.E.M. is never going to sound like the hungry, driven, life force they were in their early days. They're not going to bench press twice their body weight, if for no other reason than they're older and fatter than they used to be.

Anyway, on the occasion of R.E.M.'s purported rise from the grave, I wanted to give you a rarely heard peek back at those early days. These tracks come from a bootleg called, appropriately enough, So Much Younger Then. It's a group of very good quality live recordings from 1981 composed of covers and originals that never made it onto the group's proper albums. Listening to these tracks today I'm amazed at just how vital the band sounded way back then. The ingredients that made the group such a revelation when Murmur was released in 1983 were already in place here with an added dash of rock and roll excitement and youthful energy that the group has never recaptured.

Time will tell whether the narrative of R.E.M.'s phoenix-like rebirth is more hype than reality. But these tracks are a reminder that, whatever the band does going forward, they truly once were a great rock and roll band.