Monday, April 30, 2007

The Atomic Bitchwax - "Ice Pick Freek"

Seeing both Monster Magnet and The Atomic Bitchwax live left no doubt in my mind that guitarist Ed Mundell maintained his membership in the former for strictly financial reasons. The Magnet put on one of the worst live shows I've ever seen, an unwarranted showcase for frontman Dave Wyndorf's ego run amok. The 'Wax, on the other hand, was clearly Mundell's dream band: a low-key side project with an effective but unpretentious vocalist, minimal commercial expectations and plenty of unhindered opportunities to riff away undisturbed and solo as long as he pleased.

Of course, I may have misjudged them: Mundell left the band in 2002; bassist/vocalist Chris Kosnik hired ex-Core wank-man Finn Ryan to replace him and soldiered on. So perhaps they were more than just Mundell's vanity project.

The 'Wax emerged at the peak of the "stoner rock" hype-fest, and embraced the pseudo-genre's clich├ęs in all their bell-bottomed glory: unabashed 70s arena-rock fetishism; a visual image predicated entirely on sci-fi, muscle cars and bare breasts; and a deal with Tee Pee Records. II doesn't differ significantly from the band's self-titled debut, and that's not a complaint. The 'Wax distinguished themselves from their peers via sheer chops, and they're on display in spades on II's opening track, the instrumental "Ice Pick Freek [sic]". It's a perfect opening number, a chance to flex their skills with their tongues firmly entrenched in their cheeks.

I'm pretty sure I got this one new via mail order when it first came out from either the label or All That's Heavy, so there's no great crate-digging story behind this one, just a killer tune. Bang that head and boogie, maaaaan.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: The Atomic Bitchwax - "Ice Pick Freek"

Friday, April 27, 2007

Flatt & Scruggs - "Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms"

It's not like I have a ton of bluegrass records, so the choice for Friday's track basically came down to Bill Monroe vs. Flatt & Scruggs. Due respect to Monroe, but I'm a banjo guy, and I can't finish out the week without throwing Earl in there.

Keep in mind, the banjo was traditionally a rhythm instrument, used essentially to fulfill the function of percussion in old-time mountain music while other instruments like the fiddle or the mandolin carried the lead melody line. Scruggs took it to the forefront as a member of Bill Monroe's band, playing melodies while maintaining the instrument's propulsive drive. Listen to him rolling across those strings, spraying out, like, 128th notes, all within the frame of a catchy melody.

The other aspect of this track, and of Flatt & Scruggs' music in general, that just kills me is the vocals. They seem so casual and yet so completely in control of their sound. It seems as though their note perfect harmonies just came out that way the first time they practice the tune, and they kept on singing it just the way it happened. This is, of course, completely imaginary; bluegrass singers are notoriously meticulous in their arrangement of vocal harmonies. But the illusion of spontaneity they manage to conjure is what makes the sound that much more infectious.

I don't know much about the album whence this track is taken. It was released by Everest Records but not this one. They describe themselves as an "Archive of Folk & Jazz Music". The liner notes say the record was previously released on Mercury Records, which makes me think it's a reissue of a studio album (another hint: it's one of those dreaded simulated stereo records), but doesn't have it listed in their discography. The cover says both "Flatt & Scruggs" and "Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs"; I can't even tell which is supposed to be the title. A Google search for the catalog number turned up what looks to be a copy of the same record on eBay if you're interested, but truth be told I think there are far better Flatt & Scruggs records to be had. The $3.99 price tag makes me think I wasn't looking for anything definitive anyway.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Flatt & Scruggs - "Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms"

Listening to players with chops this tight makes me wonder why there isn't more of an overlap between bluegrass fans and metalheads. Next week I'm posting some shred-o-phonic guitar wankery.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Carl Story - "Tramp On the Street"

I began listening to bluegrass music when I was in college. My roommate had a copy of the High Lonesome soundtrack on cassette, and I used to walk around New York City blaring it on my Walkman, reveling in the juxtaposition. I was inspired to purchase a few bluegrass compilation records, my favourite being one called The Bluegrass Hall of Fame. The hand-written price tag reads $1.99, but I can't place it; presumably some shop in the Village that's not even there anymore.

It was a struggle to pick one track to post here. I wanted to pick an fast-paced rave-up with prominent banjo leads, as those are usually my favourites, but something keeps drawing me to this Carl Story track.

Story was at one time the fiddle player in Bill Monroe's band before striking out to lead his own combo and develop his own style of gospel bluegrass. Today he seems to have fallen so far into obscurity that he has yet to warrant his own Wikipedia page.

This is the only Story track I've heard, and it's a heartbreaker. It's a slow waltz with lyrics comparing a drifter who dies alone to a series of Biblical figures. It's the guy doing the high parts in the harmonies that really kills me. Listen to the way he wails "Once he was yooouuung." I dare you not to shiver.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Carl Story and His Rambling Mountaineers - "Tramp on the Street"

Monday, April 23, 2007

John Hartford - "Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry"

As promised, I'm leading off the week with a John Hartford track. Unfortunately, I don't have enough in my collection to make a whole week of it, so I'll make this bluegrass week. You can certainly argue about whether Hartford counts as real bluegrass, but he's a descendant who reveres the tradition, and stands in some ways as a forerunner of iconoclasts like Bela Fleck. I'm going with it; I'll make the next two a little more old-school.

After he left RCA, 1971's Aereo-Plain was Hartford's first album for long-running folk indie Rounder, and it's the very definition of a lost gem. He lets his oddball sense of humour run wild here while a crack band of Nashville then-outsiders follows him wherever his muse leads. The result is both confusing and charming.

"Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry" is a perfect example of Hartford's subversive streak. The title seems an obvious swipe at tradition: screw the past, he cries. Kill yr idols! But the lyrics say just the opposite:

They're gonna tear down the Grand Ole Opry

They're gonna tear down the sound that goes around our song

They're gonna tear down the Grand Ole Opry

Another good thing has done gone on, done gone on

He pokes fun at the past, but at the same time he treasures it, and recognises its timeless value.

I first became aware of Hartford's music a few years back while riding around Nashville in C—'s truck. I heard a sound unlike anything I'd heard before, and asked him to back it up (the CD, not the truck) and play it again. The album was Steam-Powered Aereo-Takes, a collection of studio outtakes from the Aereo-Plane sessions; the song was "The Vamp From Back in the Goodle Days", an extended take on the riff from the song mentioned in the title. It remains the most truly psychedelic sound I've ever heard made exclusively on acoustic instruments.

Unfortunately I don't have a copy of the album, so you'll have to seek it out yourself. What I do have is a copy of Aereo-Plain I picked up shortly thereafter. I found it on GEMM for about six bucks. The record's a little worn and the sleeve's a wreck, but the music can't be stopped.

Buy it... on vinyl.

NOTE: Aereo-Plain appears to be out of print on CD, and I can't find "Opry" on any of his extant compilations. I've linked to Aereo-Takes instead, which doesn't have "Opry", but has "The Vamp".

From my deck to you: John Hartford - "Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry"

Friday, April 20, 2007

Elvis Presley - "Gentle On My Mind"

This post isn't so much about Elvis Presley as it is an excuse to call attention to the strange life and career of one John Hartford. If you're only mildly familiar with bluegrass music, he's the weird guy in the Down From the Mountain PBS special, produced in the wake of the popularity of the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, who plays the fiddle and sings a song about a farmhand who steals a hog and hides it in his bed. Hartford got his start as a middle-of-the-road Nashville also-ran, producing a pair of middle-of-the-road country albums in the mid-1960s. The second contained a minor hit entitled "Gentle On My Mind".

Ring a bell? Glen Campbell turned it into a monster hit, won a slew of Grammys and made it into one of the most recorded country songs of all time.

The success of that one song pretty much set Hartford up for life, a life he spent recording a series of abstract post-modern bluegrass albums with some of Nashville's best up-and-coming players. The best of those records, Aereo-Plane, features Vassar Clements and Norman Blake, both of whom later appeared on the Nitty-gritty Dirt Band's zillion-selling Will the Circle Be Unbroken, many a yankee's first introduction to bluegrass music back in '72.

Presley recorded "Gentle" for his 1969 return to his roots, From Elvis in Memphis, perhaps the best of the post-Hollywood studio albums. I have no idea who plays bass on this track, but he really carries the whole thing. 70s country bass players rule. No joke.

I don't actually have that album; this version is from some random two-record compilation called Elvis Country Memories. All I can tell you about it is that RCA put it out in 1978 and it has no liner notes and no logical sequence. I got it for $4.95 at The Book Trader, which has a great room full o' vinyl hidden in the back upstairs. I bought it just to line the crates for a DJ gig at a friend's wedding. The bride's mother insisted on as much Elvis as possible. I did my best.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Elvis Presley - "Gentle On My Mind"

That does it: I'm posting some Hartford on Monday.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Elvis Presley - "Heartbreak Hotel"

The Dorsey Bros. Stage Show was Presley's first national television booking (that's right, before The Ed Sullivan Show). He played six shows in early 1956, performing two numbers on each with the Dorseys and their band. This recording is from the third show on 11 February, and marks the public debut of "Heartbreak Hotel".

The song had been recorded one month earlier during his first RCA session, and was to be the first single released under his new record deal. It was considered an unusual choice at the time, the adolescent exuberance of the Sun recordings replaced by a bleak emptiness. (In defiance of conventional wisdom, the single became Presley's first number one.) By contrast, the Dorsey Bros. orchestra turns it into a barn-burner with their dynamic drum fills and blaring horns. Plus, check out that big-band vamp at the end. Hardly the spirit of the original, but quite a showpiece nonetheless.

Four years after the release of the eight-record silver box, RCA saw fit to release the six-record Elvis: A Golden Celebration, this time celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Presley's birth. Let it never be said that the Presley estate passed up an opportunity to give the fans more product. This time it's a collection of mostly live performances, many from TV shows. Included is an awful recording of both sets (afternoon and evening) from the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in Tupelo, consisting mostly of female screams, that stretches the definition of "archival value" to its limit. As far as I can find, the Dorsey performances don't appear on any album still in print.

No good story about the find this time, I'm afraid. The price tag on my copy says $39.99 and I'm pretty sure that's what I paid. At a record store in Chicago, I believe, from one of the first times I visited the city with who was at the time my girlfriend. She took me to meet her family, I made her take me record shopping. A fair enough trade, methinks. She's now my wife, so it's not like I blew it.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Elvis Presley - "Heartbreak Hotel (featuring the Dorsey Bros. Band)"

Monday, April 16, 2007

Elvis Presley - "Polk Salad Annie"

Widely considered by casual listeners to be his comical nadir, Elvis Presley's Las Vegas years could be argued the most underrated period in the career of any major artist of the rock era. Presley began performing in Vegas not long after his famed 1968 television special (commonly known as the "'68 Comeback"). The special was, amazingly, his first live performance in nine years. All through the Hollywood years, Presley had not given a single concert.

When people who don't know any better bag on Vegas Elvis, they're really referring to his mid-70s national tours, when he really was a fat, drug-addled shadow of his former self. But the Vegas years—1969-70 especially, but also 1972—are absolutely terrific, an exhilarating career renaissance by one of the greatest American performers of the 20th century.

In 2001, BMG released a four-disc box set of Presley's Vegas years that's terrific top-to-bottom. In fact, the weakest part of the set is a performance from 1957 (his first Vegas show, pre-army years) which Presley himself considered an abysmal failure. It's not that bad, but clearly pales next to the later years. Presley is comfortable and energetic, in total control of the show. And he's backed by a crack band that includes back-up singers and a horn section; despite the unfortunate creative missteps Presley made throughout his career (and Lord knows there were many), at the very least the man never worked with hacks as far as the musicians went.

This is not to say the shows were without their comical moments. Presley was always a ham; an audio recording is mercifully unable to display his notorious karate routines whenever the band goes into an extended instrumental vamp. And it's well-documented that, although "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" remained a concert staple throughout the later years, Presley was rarely able to make it through the song's spoken-word bridge without cracking up.

The strangest element of the concerts is, without question, Presley's between song banter. To his credit, he sounds genuinely appreciative of his fans' adoration. But his sense of humour is like an underdeveloped muscle that has atrophied from lack of exercise. I won't transcribe any of the extended semi-intelligible riffs in which Presley compares himself to a squirrel (reading them wouldn't do them justice anyway); the file below offers a brief taste of the weirdness. Suffice to say that this is what happens to someone's sense of humour when he's been surrounded for his entire adult life by friends on the payroll and other sycophants who guffaw obligingly at every half-assed attempt at a joke.

In 1980, three years after Presley's death, RCA released a career-spanning box set titled simply Elvis Aron Presley (now known among fans as "the silver box"). Ostensibly assembled to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Presley's first single, the set was the first (of many) posthumous multi-disc set to compile lesser-known recordings for the serious fan, as opposed to the many all-hits albums already larding the marketplace. I found a good copy at the Record Exchange for thirty bucks, but didn't have enough money on me, and told myself I'd come back for it. A couple weeks later I still hadn't forgot about it when I went to see the mighty Big Sleep open for the Thermals at the 1st Unitarian. The guys from Beautiful World had come to the show with a few crates of LPs and CDs and set up an ad hoc record store in the hallway just off the main room. I was flipping through the vinyl when lo and behold: the silver box, in perfect shape, no price tag. I asked the guy how much, figuring if it was under thirty I'd found a steal.

"Hmm... I dunno. I guess I could give it to you for eight bucks."

Record Five (of eight) is all Vegas highlights, and it opens with a performance of "Polk Salad Annie" from February 1970. While the recording isn't a rarity (this particular concert was previously released as a stand-alone live album), it's a strong performance of one of the best mainstay songs of the later concerts. The band is tight, and Presley has room to mess around a little: listen to the band vamping away while Presley segues from his rambling introduction to a lame army joke. Once the song gets going, the choruses swing hard and the whole ensemble is in killer form.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Elvis Presley - "Polk Salad Annie (Live in Las Vegas)"

Bonus (so to speak; not from vinyl): Elvis Presley - stage banter, Las Vegas 1969

Sunday, April 15, 2007

End of Week Zero

So I put up a few posts this week to test everything out and I think it's all in order. Starting next week I'll try to keep up a regular schedule of posting every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, usually with some sort of theme for the week.

For now I'm storing the files at You have to click through to their page to play/download the tracks, but it was the best I could find for free storage. If anyone has a better suggestion, just post it in the comments and I'll switch over.

Starting Monday: Elvis week.

Friday, April 13, 2007

New Order - "Best and Marsh"

Don't ask me why, but I've always been a sucker for a slick piano riff over an electro dance beat. I really have no idea why. I guess that's why I always liked this track: the piano bit that comes in at 1:50 just gets me every time. I know it's a bit of a throwaway, but I dig it.

I have no idea how the work is divided within New Order, but I assume the whole band didn't contribute to this track. Based on its similarities to the b-side of Electronic's "Getting Away With It" single, which came out around the same time, I'd to guess this is Sumner alone in the studio, but I have no evidence to back that up. Bottom line: an unremarkable b-side so completely non-descript that the band, in their recent aggressive fits of repackaging, have felt no need to include it on any of their numerous compilations. At least that I can find. So what we've got here is a bona fide rarity.

I can remember buying the "Round & round" (yes, it's capitalised like that on the packaging) twelve-inch when it was new at the Tower Records (why is that site still up?) in Boston. It's a terrific single (with a subtly creepy/sexy video to match), from arguably the band's last great album. There were, of course, several different versions of the single, each with its own permutation of the same group of half-a-dozen remixes, plus "Best and Marsh". There were even different releases in Canada and the US. Anything to soak the die-hards, I suppose. Mine is the plain old American one. It's got "Best and Marsh" on it. And some remixes.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: New Order - "Best and Marsh"

[File removed 23 April 2007]

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Jam - "Set the House Ablaze"

I got really into the Jam after buying their Greatest Hits CD in high school. It's absolutely loaded; just about every song on it is good. When I got a turntable in college, I bought a whole bunch of their records. At the time, the first two could be a bit pricey, but the later albums could be had for about three or four bucks a pop. I liked them all, even the later albums when they went through their Motown-wannabe phase.

I think what separated the Jam from most of the other UK class of '77 bands was their chops: these guys were players. Due respect to the anyone-can-do-it spirit of punk, but it makes a big difference.

Dig the New Breed was a live compilation released shortly after the band broke up. I can't remember buying it; presumably it was in 1994 in New York. As live albums go it's pretty pedestrian, but a few tracks really stand out. The version of "Set the House Ablaze" was recorded in London in December 1981. It kicks the shit out of the version on Sound Affects for one obvious reason: it's clearly a live showcase, written to close shows in a blaze of glory.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: The Jam - "Set the House Ablaze" [live]

[File removed 23 April 2007]

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Jackie Brenston - "Much Later"

"Rocket 88", as recorded in March 1951 by Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm featuring Jackie Brenston, is frequently cited as the first rock n' roll record. Brenston recorded several singles with Turner's band in the early 50s, and later toured with them until 1962. Listening to the song today, it's easy to see where the song differs from its peers in the R&B marketplace of the day: the melody. Rather than simply shouting over a 12-bar stomp, Brenston sings what could today be described as power pop.

Historical significance aside, I've always been partial to Turner and Brenston's "Much Later". The performance has more energy, and Brenston really lets it rip on the mic. And even more so than "Rocket 88", the lead melody and chord progression are at least a decade ahead of their time.

I found the song on a record called Stomp!n' Volume Three, one of a series of arguably the worst-annotated compilations of all time. Not only are there no data on any of the songs save artist name and title, there's no release date or label information either. They used to have a bunch of these downstairs at Generation, the Village punk standby whose downstairs vinyl section is one of the best-kept secrets in New York. I bought at least a half-dozen of them at ten bucks a pop over the course of a year or two, and they're worth every penny.

The paucity of liner notes meant that I had to track down the story behind "Much Later" elsewhere. Alas, I have little to report. I found out that the writing credit goes to Turner, but I never found a recording date. I managed to locate a recently released King Records compilation that includes "Much Later", along with a few other essentials from the label (most notably Hank Ballard and the Midnighters' widely-censored "Work With Me Annie" and the "5" Royales' "Think", later a hit for James Brown). Who knows, perhaps the liner notes in that set are a bit more revealing. But for now, the song must stand on its own.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Jackie Brenston - "Much Later"

[File removed 23 April 2007]