Tuesday, December 30, 2008

R.I.P. Gerry Meisenhelder

We got some sad news during our Christmas visit to York, PA. My wife's grandfather and our dear friend, Gerry Meisenhelder, was in the hospital. He had been diagnosed with advanced leukemia and wasn't expected to make it. We got to visit him in the hospital and tell him how much we love him on Christmas night. He was alert, lucid and making jokes, basically doing everything he could to keep the atmosphere light. The next day he was gone.

The York Daily Record has a nice article on Gerry that gives you some sense of what a special person he was. Gerry was York's first Poet Laureate. He was a painter, a playwright, and an actor. He was a WWII Veteran, a peace activist and a humanitarian. He was a husband, a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather. He was a good man and an inspiration to all who knew him. Gerry radiated the kind of wisdom that sometimes comes with age, yet with none of the bitterness and cynicism that also sometimes comes with age. He was one of the most interesting and creative people I've ever met, and I feel blessed to have known him. I'm going to miss him terribly.

There will be a memorial service for Gerry today at 6:00 PM at
Dream Wrights Youth and Family Theater in York. In lieu of flowers, please consider honoring Gerry's life with a memorial donation to the SPCA of York County.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

R.I.P. - Dock Ellis

Former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis passed away Friday.

Dock Ellis, who infamously claimed he pitched a no-hitter for Pittsburgh under the influence of LSD and later fiercely spoke out against drug and alcohol addiction, died Friday. He was 63.

His wife, Hjordis, said he died at the USC Medical Center in Los Angeles.

“It’s a tremendous loss to the family,” she said. “He’s been struggling for about a year with the end stages of liver disease.”

Ellis was certainly one of baseball's more flamboyant and interesting figures during the seventies. His 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates beat my beloved Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, but I'm too young to remember that. Despite the fact that the Pirates beat my Orioles twice during the 1970s, I have tremendous respect for those Pittsburgh teams: Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Omar Moreno...those were great teams. The 1979 World Series was my first real exposure to sports heartbreak. I still get a little angry every time I hear Sister Sledge's "We Are Family."

In 1971 Ellis was the starting pitcher for the first all black starting lineup in MLB history. Here's one song I can listen to anytime with no problem: It's Barbara Manning and the S.F. Seals tribute to Dock Ellis from their Baseball Trilogy EP. The psychedelic feel of the song is a perfect tribute to the pitcher's wild days in the seventies.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Mix 2008

Okay, I know I wasn't exactly a model guest at your holiday party last year. I'm sorry about drinking up all your egg-nog, making borderline inappropriate comments about your teenage daughter, taking over your stereo, and throwing up on your sectional. If you invite me back this year, I promise not to do any of those things again. Except the taking over the stereo part. I'm definitely still going to do that.

As a peace offering I've made a few of the tracks I might play at your party available for download in advance. Once again I've made a zip file of the whole thing available, so if you're going to download more than a couple tracks, just grab this because it will save me some bandwidth. Enjoy and Happy Holidays!

Bud Logan - Sock It To Me Santa
This is not the same "Sock It To Me Santa" that was originally recorded by Bob Seger and The Last Heard. It's a totally different song.

The Sonics - Santa Claus
I can't understand why Little Steven did not include this one on his (highly recommended) Christmas A Go-Go compilation. There would have been more than enough room on the CD if the Joe Pesci track had been left off.

"Sugar Chile" Robinson - Christmas Boogie

Detroit Junior - Christmas Day
Unfortunately, many find themselves depressed during the holidays. If you are among those feeling down this holiday season Detroit Junior is here to kick your holiday blues in the ass.

The Marquees - Christmas In The Congo
You might remember the Marquees from their other holiday classic from the durable "Santa traded his sled for a rocket ship" genre, "Santa Done Got Hip."

Bobby Lloyd And The Skeletons - Do You Hear What I Hear/You Really Got Me
Bobby Lloyd's mash-up of "Do You Hear What I Hear" and the Kink's "You Really Got Me" perfectly captures the tension between the sacred and commercial aspects of Christmas. I remember this one getting a lot of play on WHFS during the holiday season.

Esquivel - Frosty The Snowman

The Louvin Brothers - Santa's Big Parade

Augie Rios - Donde Esta Santa Claus
This is a dangerously catchy song. My kids have been calling my wife "Mamacita" ever since they heard this. Careful or you will find yourself humming this in August.

Lord Nelson - Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

Bob Marley & The Wailers - Sound Of The Trumpet
For some reason Bob Marley's entry in the Christmas song sweepstakes did not make the cut on Legend. I'm sure this is solely because Island was unable to secure the rights to the masters.

Paul & Paula - Holiday Hootenanny
"Hey, hey Paul, we need another hit." "Hey, hey Paula let's try a Christmas song." "Hey, hey Paul I hear surfing songs are big this year." "Hey, hey Paula folk hootenanny songs are big this year too." "Hey, hey Paul let's do a surfing/folk hootenanny song.'" "Hey, hey Paula this is why I love you."

Senor Tonto - Hooray for Santy Claus!
It just wouldn't be Christmas without Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.

Beck - Little Drum Machine Boy
The best thing about this song is the title, but it allows me to give a token shout-out to my Jewish and Scientologist homies this holiday season.

Julius Wechter & The Baja Marimba Band - Partridge In A Pear Tree
What would Christmas be without the dulcet tones of Julius Wechter's marimba?

Ike & Tina Turner - Merry Christmas Baby
A lot of people have sung this song over the years. No one has ever sung it better than Tina Turner.

Hank Snow - Reindeer Boogie

The Martels - Rockin' Santa Claus

Jack Scott - There's Trouble Brewin'
Jack Scott is best known for "The Way I Walk" which was covered by The Cramps. This is a pretty great "I'm in a sexual competition with Santa Claus" song.

Los Lobos - Rudolph The Manic Reindeer

Albert King - Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'
My favorite raunchy holiday song is Clarence Carter's "Back Door Santa." Not even the fact that Bon Jovi covered it can ruin it for me. Albert King's "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'" is a good one too. This time Lynrd Skynrd were the white dudes who did their best to ruin the song for me, but didn't succeed.

Gary Walker - Santa's Got A Brand New Bag
"Santa's Got A Brand New Bag" reminds me of another song, but for the life of me I can't quite put my finger on which one.

Marshall Crenshaw - Sock It To Me Santa
This is a cover of "Sock It To Me Santa" as originally recorded by Bob Seger and The Last Heard.

Edd "Kookie" Byrnes - Yulesville

Sonic Youth - Santa Doesn't Cop Out On Dope
Because even the best holiday parties must come to an end, I've included Sonic Youth's cover of Martin Mull's yuletide favorite. This should clear out anyone who hasn't gotten your subtle hints that the party's over.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My Favorite Albums of 2008

Here are my ten favorite albums of 2008. As I mentioned before, I really have no business compiling a "Best of 2008" list considering how much I haven't heard (still haven't heard Fleet Foxes, although I at least have the album on order). So this is just a list of some stuff I happened to dig this year.

1. Teddy Thompson - A Piece of What You Need
Last year I was the only blogger to list Teddy Thompson's
Up Front And Down Low on their year-end "best of" list. So what does the usually non-prolific Teddy do? He releases an even better album in 2008. A Piece Of What You Need finds Teddy in about as upbeat a mood as you can imagine from the young man for whom "End Of The Rainbow" was written. Producer Marius de Vries (Bjork, Madonna) adds enough pop flourishes (handclaps!) to keep things bright, even if he can't stop Teddy from turning the gun on himself. A Piece Of What You Need is simply a brilliant album that takes Teddy out of his famous parents' shadows once and for all (Richard & Linda who?).

2. Duffy - Rockferry
My wife likes to listen to our local pop music station in the mornings. Because I'm a good husband I only complain about this semi-incessantly. One morning something really weird happened. I actually liked a song they were playing. This was a good song. No, actually it was
great. "Who is this?" I asked (they never say who they're playing on pop radio, you're just supposed to know). Soon enough I figured out it was a young British woman known as Duffy. I picked up the CD at Starbucks that very day (remember when Starbucks used to sell music?). Later I picked it up on LP too, not because the CD sounded bad, but because the music was so good I just wanted to own it on LP. As I noted in a previous post, Rockferry (on CD or LP) has lots of dynamic range relative to most contemporary productions, proving that an album can be massively successful in 2008 without having every last bit of life compressed out of it.

3. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
I don't think I need to say much about Vampire Weekend. This will be on every other blogger's list. This might be the most over-hyped album of the year, but that doesn't mean it isn't also good.

4. Mudcrutch - Mudcrutch
Mudcrutch's debut album was already the subject of much discussion on this blog.
It's an iconic story. A rock band torn apart by external forces over thirty years ago reunites to see if they can recapture the old magic. Against all odds they do, and the now middle-aged rockers find their belated debut album on the bestseller charts. It's a story that would carry the force of Greek Mythology were it not for the inconvenient fact that one of the members (a guy named Tom Petty) has a day job as one of the world's most successful rock-stars, and two others (Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench) punch the clock as members of his long-running backing band the Heartbreakers. Guitarist Tom Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh haven't kept quite as high a profile over the past thirty odd years, but from the sounds of the album they have lost none of their considerable chops.
If you can still find a copy, it's worth the extra money to pick up the LP with bonus "uncompressed" CD.

5. Neil Diamond - Home Before Dark
Neil Diamond has never made music to impress rock critics, and in return rock critics have never been very impressed by Neil Diamond. But
Home Before Dark sounds like a different kind of Neil Diamond album. No, it doesn't sound like it was made with the approval of rock critics in mind (heaven forbid), but it does seem to be an attempt to make a "serious" album in the way that even his previous collaboration with super-producer Rick Rubin, 12 Songs, did not. It's a quiet album intended for intimate listening. I don't see how these songs reach the back rows at a Neil Diamond show. Nevertheless, the songs are full of the kind of drama and showmanship that characterizes Diamond's best work, it's just a quieter, more subtle kind of drama than we're used to from Neil. Unlike Rick Rubin's other big production this year, this album is emphatically not a victim of the "loudness wars." There's oodles of dynamic range on this album, and those shifts in dynamic range really are an essential ingredient in allowing the drama inherent in the songwriting to unfold. Congrats to Neil on the first number one album (and perhaps the best studio album) of his career.

6. Beck - Modern Guilt
This is another album I wrote a bit about already. At the time I was more interested in writing about the novelty of the album being offered on LP with an MP3 download sourced from vinyl than the music itself. Now I'd like to say a few words about the music: it's terrific. (I realize that technically this statement only counts as a few words if you consider the contraction "it's" as two words, but I believe it is legitimate to do so.)

7. She & Him - Volume One
I do not care that "She" is a pretty actress. I do not care that "Him" is M. Ward. This is very enjoyable classic pop music. If you've ever found yourself with a lump in your throat while listening to The Stone Poneys' "Different Drum" you need to add this album in your collection.

8. Orchestra Baobab - Made In Dakar
Hey kids, are you interested in checking out the roots of Vampire Weekend's Afro-Pop influenced sounds? Well, you won't find them here (for that check out Paul Simon's
Graceland). Senegal's Orchestra Baobab came roaring back to life in 2002 with the release of Specialist In All Styles, and Made In Dakar suggests they are back to stay. Orchestra Baobab present a potent mix of Afro-Pop and Afro-Cuban sounds. Honestly, I'm not knowledgeable about this kind of music to say anything intelligent about it (that never stopped me before), but I really enjoyed this skillfully played and passionate album.

9. Mudhoney - The Lucky Ones
Twenty years into their career and Mudhoney are still the loudest thing going on. The secret to their longevity? Clean living. Mudhoney doesn't offer anything groundbreaking with their latest album; maybe their primal fuzz sounds a little wiser with age ("
the lucky ones have already gone down"), but never sounds grown up. Mudhoney still offers retrograde, knuckle-dragging, loud fun. When Mudhoney debuted twenty years ago, few would have predicted they'd still be going strong in 2008. Even fewer would have predicted the long playing record album would still be going strong as well. But here it is 2008 and I bought Mudhoney's new album on LP with a code for a free MP3 download and a bonus 7" single that includes covers of Pere Ubu's "Street Waves" and The Troggs' "Gonna Make You." This is almost as much fun as collecting limited-edition, colored vinyl Sub-Pop 7" singles circa 1989.

10. R.E.M. - Accelerate
R.E.M.'s most exciting music in years was definitely a victim of the "loudness wars." On CD Accelerate sounds like total crap. Eric Zimmerman at REMring diagnosed the problem with this album quite effectively. The expensive 45 RPM double LP sounds better than the CD, but the relative lack of dynamic range (while made worse by CD mastering) seems to have been a choice made at the recording and mixing stage of this production. Pity, because there are some really good songs here. Personally, I think they would have sounded better with a little more room to breathe.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Old Toy Trains

There is nothing like a child's excitement on Christmas morning. It's truly a thing of beauty. Case in point; back when my son Will was two, after he had already unwrapped a bunch of presents, he came to a large cylindrically shaped package which concealed a tub of Lincoln Logs. As he started ripping the wrapping paper off he let out a squeal of delight and exclaimed, "Cat litter!!"

Marjorie and I were reduced to hysterics. After all our planning and shopping, Will would have been genuinely and sincerely thrilled to have gotten the gift of cat litter for Christmas. Heck, he probably wouldn't have cared if it was fresh cat litter or not. Of course this was the one moment that morning we failed to capture on video, so it's a memory I make an extra effort to treasure.

This year, our two year old daughter Amelia has discovered Will's set of Thomas the Tank Engine Trains. As you can see, there is a lot to discover. This is very good news as far as I'm concerned. Will had kind of moved past his Thomas stage and this guarantees a bit more return on a considerable investment. And since Amelia has been playing with the trains, Will has once again become obsessed with them. So it looks like Santa will be bringing more presents from the Island of Sodor this year. (And maybe if Amelia is really good Santa will bring her a bucket of cat litter too.)

Roger Miller's sentimental Christmas song "Old Toy Trains" beautifully captures a young child's sense of anticipation on Christmas Eve. A few years ago Dean & Britta released a nice cover of it as a free MP3. I imagine it's still floating around in cyberspace somewhere. This version is by former Beach Boys' session musician Glen Campbell, and it's nice too.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

28 Years Ago Today

Twenty-eight years ago today I was in the 6th grade and on Safety Patrol duty. I had woken up that morning to the shocking news that John Lennon had been murdered the night before. My Safety Patrol assignment was to raise the flag in front of the school every morning. That morning I only raised the flag to half mast. I didn't ask anyone if it was okay, I just did it. It seemed like the right thing to do, and nobody argued otherwise. I think former Safety Patrol officer (and then still President) Jimmy Carter would have approved.

Monday, December 08, 2008

R.E.M. - Murmur Deluxe (Compressed) Edition

R.E.M.'s "Deluxe Edition" of Murmur has been getting a lot of good notices, including a rare 10/10 review at Pitchfork. Most of the reviews I've read, in addition to praising the original album and the killer 1983 live set included as a bonus, note that the remastered CD is a distinct sonic upgrade over previous editions.

But as BangSplat notes, mastering engineer Greg Calbi was fairly liberal in his use of dynamic range compression on this reissue. According to BangSplat's measurements, on the original CD the first track, "Radio Free Europe," averages -19.73 dB and -20.85 dB (left and right channels, respectively), while the remaster clocks in at -12.76 dB/-12.93 dB. In other words, the remaster is around 7 dB louder on average than the original. I recently transcribed the album from vinyl and after normalizing "Radio Free Europe" to 0 dB got a result that looks very similar to the original CD (-19.1 dB/-19.6 dB). You can see what the difference between the LP and remastered CD looks like below.

R.E.M. - "Radio Free Europe" LP (1983)

R.E.M. - "Radio Free Europe" Remastered CD (2008)

So what does the difference sound like? Not as dramatic as you might think. I hate to admit it, given the obvious application of dynamic range compression, but the deluxe edition sounds pretty good to my ears. Whatever peaks got compressed out are (in my opinion) not entirely essential to enjoying the music. I would have preferred a reissue that matched the original master tape a little more closely, but sonically the new version is decent.

In fact, I'm not at all surprised that many of the reviews of this set claim the deluxe edition is a sonic upgrade over previous editions. Compared to the original domestic CD, it almost certainly is an upgrade. The original CD of Murmur (released sometime in the mid-eighties) was a nasty sounding thing. It featured a harsh, grating midrange that made it all but unlistenable to my ears. I sold my copy a long time ago. It was exactly the kind of poorly mastered CD that forced me to the conclusion that "perfect sound forever" was a big lie. It was my repeated experiences with crummy sounding CDs like Murmur that made the idea that CDs are inferior to LPs something of a sacred cow for me.

But whatever the original CD's problems were, lack of dynamic range was not among them. As you can see from BangSplat's measurements, the original CD pretty closely matches the LP in terms of dynamic range.

Listening on headphones on my computer or my iPod, the new deluxe edition sounds particularly good. The version I ripped from LP also sounds good, but (after adjusting for volume differences) the new version sounds slightly more focused. I've always felt like there was a slight gauzy haze that hung over Murmur, and I hear less of that on the remaster. The version I ripped from LP sounds kind of like the album cover looks; like everything is in soft-focus. The remastered CD brings everything into sharper focus without really changing the way the album sounds too dramatically (don't worry--you still won't be able to figure out what Michael Stipe is singing).

But when I compared the two versions on my stereo it was a different story. The CD-R I made of the version I ripped from vinyl sounded far more appealing to me than the remastered CD. While listening through speakers instead of headphones, the remastered CD did not sound harsh or fatiguing in the way that overly-compressed CDs often do, but the LP sourced CD-R bettered it in ways that are difficult to quantify. The LP sourced version sounded bigger and more involving, and the gauzy, soft-focus quality of the album sounded both less noticeable and more appealing than it did through headphones. I'm honestly not all that inclined to pick apart the differences in sound quality between the two versions, the fact was the LP sourced CD-R was the version I wanted to keep listening to.

Honestly, I'm at a bit of a loss to explain why I preferred a version of the album sourced from an LP and digitized using an $80 analog to digital converter, but I don't think it had anything to do with dynamic range compression. Some of you will no doubt think I'm either nuts or deaf, but I know what I heard; at least when played through speakers, my LP sourced CD-R sounded better than the remaster done by a professional with access to the original master tapes. A lot better to my ears. I can think of a few possible explanations for this, but none of them involve me being some kind of sonic wizard; I'm just a nerd with a semi-decent turntable and a cheap USB analog to digital converter.

Analog and LP boosters are often quick to dismiss digital sound altogether, but my experience with digitizing music from vinyl has convinced me that there is nothing inherently wrong with digital sound. Even resolution limited 16 bit, 44 kHz CDs are capable of fantastic sound quality. This experience has forced me to the (inescapable?) conclusion that some aspect of LP playback adds something to the sound of music that I happen to find appealing, but which is not strictly speaking "hi-fi." And whatever that LP magic is, it can be captured digitally (or at least most of it can).

To sum up, the deluxe edition of Murmur will likely sound like a major sonic upgrade to anyone who is only familiar with the original CD. Those familiar with the LP (or Mobile Fidelity's mid 90s audiophile reissues) might feel differently. Oh, and sacred cows make delicious hamburger meat.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Found For $1: Peppermint Stick Parade

I've always been a big advocate of scouring record store bargain bins. That is in part because I'm cheap, but also because I enjoy the feeling of surprise when you turn up something really cool among the discarded Boston LPs and Hanson CDs (that's actually how I found my original pressing of The Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat).

Recently I found a CD called Peppermint Stick Parade, a compilation of singles released on Iowa's Bus Stop label, nestled among the $1 flotsam and jetsam. It's a real treat for anyone who is a fan of Velvet Crush with no less than 8 tracks by such V.C. related acts as Bag-O-Shells, Honeybunch, The Stupid Cupids, The Springfields, Paulie Chastain, and Velvet Crush themselves.

I really do hope there is another CD compilation of early Menck/Chastain stuff in the works, because between Paul's Halo EP and stray cuts by The Stupid Cupids, Bag-O-Shells, etc. there is a lot more tuneful ground left to be covered. If you don't already have them, Hey Wimpus and The Ballad of Ric Menck are essential purchases for fans of 60s flavored pop music (I know I've mentioned this before, but that doesn't make it any less true).

These two tracks from Bag-O-Shells have yet to be released on CD anywhere oustside this rather obscure compilation. They're both killer cuts. In fact, I'd rank "Whatever Happened To My Life" right up there with the best tunes on any Velvet Crush album--it's that good. Not bad for a buck. Sometimes checking the bargain bins pays off.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Dream Baby Dream

I just noticed that Bruce Springsteen's live cover of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" was recently made available for download on eMusic. This was previously only available as part of an import 10" record.

It's definitely worth getting if you are interested in hearing a different side of the Boss.

This is the most sparse, hypnotic music he's released since Nebraska.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Favorite Albums of 2008?

Once again this year, Hype Machine is doing a year end Music Blog Zeitgeist list. Anyone with a blog can enter (you do not have to be aggregated by Hype Machine). Submission deadline is December 15th.

As I said last year when I put together a post of my favorite albums of the year, I am about the last person whose opinion on current music should be taken seriously. I'm old and mostly listen to old music. Even the new music I buy leans toward new releases by established artists. That said, somebody has to balance out the whippersnappers, so I'll enter.

Here are my current contenders, although I'm probably forgetting something.

New Music:
Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
Wye Oak - If Children
Brian Wilson - That Lucky Old Sun
Teddy Thompson - A Piece of What You Need
Sun Kil Moon - April
Stereolab - Chemical Chords
She & Him - Volume One
R.E.M. - Accelerate
Paul Westerberg - 49:00
Orchestra Baobab - Made In Dakar
Neil Diamond - Home Before Dark
Mudhoney - The Lucky Ones
Mudcrutch - Mudcrutch
The Last Of The Shadow Puppets - The Age Of Understatement
Elvis Costello & The Imposters - Momofuku
Duffy - Rockferry
Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
Beck - Modern Guilt
Various Artists - Daptone 7 Inch Singles Collection, Volume 2
The Fireman - Electric Arguments
Belle & Sebastian - BBC Sessions
Ida - Lovers Prayers
Adele - 19

Old New Music:
Dennis Wilson - Pacific Ocean Blue
Neil Young - Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury House, 1968
Buena Vista Social Club - Live At Carnegie Hall
Mingering Mike - Super Gold Greatest Hits

I don't know if these should count or not. The Neil Young and Buena Vista Social Club were both released for the first time in 2008, despite having been recorded 10 and 40 years ago. The Dennis Wilson has been out-of-print long enough to practically qualify as a new release. Mingering Mike's not gonna make the cut anyhow (sorry Mike).

So what am I missing? What would be on your list? What do you think will make it to my final list of 10?