Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Stuff I Listened To Last Week – 23 Jan 2011

Every time I listen to a record, I leave it next to the stereo. On Monday, before I go back to work, I re-file them all. Below are the contents of this week's pile.

Bad Brains
It's amazing how fierce this sounds. It's thirty years old this year. The Brains top my list of bands I would go back and see in their prime if I had a time machine.

The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse
Finally brought this one back to the house after a long and successful run as a going-to-bed favourite at the apartment. One of my current I'll-preorder-anything-they-put-out bands, and that list gets shorter all the time.

Bee Gees' 1st

DomSun Bronzed Greek Gods EP

EnvyInsomniac Doze

Guided By VoicesJellyfish Reflector
I love live GBV recordings from this era. It's amazing to listen to a show from start to finish and see how they seem to get tighter and more in tune as they get drunker.


Lightning BoltRide the Skies

Franz LisztEine Faust-Symphonie (Leonard Bernstein, Conductor)

This is the 2008 European reissue from Universal's "Back To Black" vinyl series. I got it to replace my 2009 Simply Vinyl issue because I read that the mastering's better (and because I have the "Back To Black" edition of In Utero and it's awesome), but I wound up keeping both. Why? The Simply Vinly one has "Endless Nameless" on it; the Universal one doesn't.

But the Simply Vinyl one doesn't have "Lithium". This makes no sense whatsoever. I understand why "Elephant Stone"'s not on the recent The Stone Roses reissue; it wasn't on the original UK version, and that's the real album. But what version of Nevermind ever came out without "Lithium"? If it wasn't on early European issues then I've never seen one.

To make things weirder, Simply Vinyl's done more than one pressing of the album, and some of them have "Lithium". Was this a mistake? Anyway, I have the song now on the Universal version. Oh well, whatever, never mind.

R.E.M. Live
For a contract-closing greatest-hits-live album with little or no surprises in the setlist, this one's actually pretty good, assuming you like recent R.E.M., which I do. Live albums seem especially unnecessary from bands that don't improvise much, but here the band is tight and energetic, and the appreciative crowd really adds a lot.

Interesting note about buying R.E.M. albums: generally speaking, if you want stuff on vinyl, nowadays you have to buy it within a year or two of its release (or in the case of certain very annoying metal labels, within about a month). The market is resilient but small, and very little catalogue is kept in print. Once the album is gone, its value rises on the used market and you have to pay more for it.

Not so with R.E.M. While their core fan base remains loyal, demand for their work on vinyl must be pretty minimal, because they're the only band I can think of whose vinyl tends to devalue over time on the used marketplace. New releases can be quite expensive, but if you're willing to wait about two years, R.E.M. records can usually be had for two-thirds to a half of their original retail value. Peter Buck, a known collector, weeps, I'm sure.

But hey, works for me. Their more recent monster live set (also, curiously, recorded in Dublin) was about $90 retail when it first came out, but I've seen it hovering in the mid-$50s recently. I'll probably pick it up soon enough.

The Rolling StonesLet It Bleed, Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, Exile On Main Street
Just about done with the Keef book. Not bad, not great, too long. Kind of worth sticking it out because the parts about what a douchebag Mick is are all towards the end, and they're pretty funny. Actually, scratch that, Keef's assessment of Mick's solo work is downright hilarious.

It's weird, Keef (predictably) goes on about how awesome Exile is, as he's been doing for years. Most of the Stones diehards I know consider that album to be Keef's triumph. And Mick's expressed some skepticism about its greatness over the years. But after reading this Ben Ratliff piece, written on the occasion of the album's recent re-re-(re-?)issue, it starts to sound more and more like Mick is the one who really holds this one together. As strong as the material and overall momentum are, the individual arrangements can be pretty meandering. When I listen closely to "Shine a Light" it sounds disorganised and underrehearsed, like everyone's kind of soloing at once. But it doesn't sound that way to the casual listener, and I think it's Mick's powerful performance that pulls it together and makes it sound like everyone's on the same page. There's a bunch of songs like that on there.

Of course, what makes the album truly great is that this debate could go back and forth for days. Everyone does a great job here, and it all just happens to fit together just right. You can't make an album this perfect on purpose; it just happens.

Run-D.M.C.Raising Hell

Roni Size/ReprazentNew Forms
Once jungle started turning into drum'n'bass on its way to IDM, everybody had to make their double-CD magnum opus. And of course it has to get stretched out on vinyl to about a song a side. New Forms checks in at nine records, all 45 rpm, most of them two songs each. Was this necessary? Were DJs really going to buy this set, or were they going to buy the 2x12" set of "Brown Paper Bag" remixes? I'm going with the latter here.

This was a point in the development of the style when a lot of artists were talking about making music for listening and/instead of dancing. Lots of talk of "from the dancefloor to the living room", lots of invoking jazz as an inspiration in a very non-specific manner (as in, I never read interviews where dudes were like, yeah, early 70s Miles, "On the Corner", that's my jam). So if that's the case, why not format the vinyl for the listener rather than the DJ? Even a double CD could fit easily on four records at the most, maybe even three.

Sonic YouthSister, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star
So psyched that Sonic's 80s LPs are all getting reissued, finally. So psyched that my Sister's on black vinyl (the purple's actually more expensive!). A little bummed that it's the censored cover art with no Mickey Mouse, but I guess Disney's lawyers don't miss a trick.

Listening to Sister has been an interesting experience, because I hadn't heard it in many years. I always thought of it as Sonic's first accessible, sort-of-approaching-pop album. But that's mostly because what stuck in my head through the years were the vocal melodies in songs like "Schizophrenia", "Cotton Crown" and especially "Tuff Gnarl". But when you go back and listen to it, the guitar sounds are still really harsh. "Stereo Sanctity", for instance, barely even has any notes in it, just rhythmic noise. Even an anthem like "Tuff" devolves into an atonal noise jam that must have been off-putting to all but the most open-minded listeners back in 1987.

Still, it's the balance that makes this one such an important breakthrough. Just when the noise starts getting you down, another great vocal melody cuts through to pull you back up.

Justin TimberlakeFuturesex/Lovesounds
Look, say what you will about Will.I.Am; I like a few of the BEP's pop hits, but not enough to passionately defend them from the legions of haters out there. They're not that bad, but I could take or leave 'em. But the guy's got some terrific production work for other artists on his resumé. "Damn Girl" sticks out like a sore thumb on this record, mostly because of the organic drum sample contrasted against Timbaland's plastic-sounding rhythm machines on all the other tracks, and it's terrific. Shoulda been a hit. Definitely shoulda been picked as a single over "What Goes Around".

Kanye WestMy Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
OK, first things first: yes, it's that good, believe the hype, etc. The occasionally juvenile and vulgar lyrics (sorry, I'm old) can't hope to derail the majestic production here. It's amazingly solid start to finish, and doesn't even flag toward the end.

Now that we've covered the music: this is probably the worst vinyl mastering job I've ever heard. Right from the start, when the third layer of vocals comes in in the opening seconds, it sounds like there's a chunk of lint the size of a golf ball on my stylus. It sounds like it got mastered for CD in classic loudness war fashion, and that version just got pressed to vinyl. This is, and I can't say this firmly enough, unacceptable.

One of the reasons vinyl has grown so expensive in the past ten years is that albums have to be mastered separately for the format, and with fewer copies being sold, the cost is passed on to a smaller pool of buyers. Fine, I accept this and I pay it. But if you're not going to bother doing it right, just don't put it out. Don't release a vinyl version with special packaging (which, by the way, looks fabulous), charge me the usual vinyl premium for it, and hand me a shitty-sounding copy of the music. The sound is the whole reason I'm buying this format; the elaborate packaging is just gravy.

And the worst part is I keep listening to it anyway. I can't stop myself; the music is that good! But the sound quality will probably keep me from going back to it over the years, and that sucks. I expect better from you, Kanye. Surely a guy who uses that many old-school samples can appreciate the sound of vinyl. Have you even listened to this?

03:00am Eternal

Macro Dub Infection – Volume One
I can't tell you how thrilled I was to finally find this one on vinyl. This might be the defining album of a certain musical moment in the mid-90s when electronic music and (post-)rock were discovering both dub reggae and each other at the same time. It's ostensibly a survey of the far-reaching influence of dub into all musical styles at the time, but it's really just a survey of all cutting-edge electronica and post-rock of the era. Because, let's face it, none of it was left untouched by dub.

I've actually been looking for a vinyl copy for several years now, and it's always over $30. By chance I came upon a cheap copy for sale on from a seller called "philadelphiamusic". So I emailed them to find out if they had a storefront and it's Beautiful World, about a dozen blocks from my front door. So I went and picked it up and didn't even have to pay shipping. Score!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Stuff I Listened To Last Week – 15 Jan 2011

Every time I listen to a record, I leave it next to the stereo. On Monday, before I go back to work, I re-file them all. Below are the contents of this week's pile.

AcetoneYork Blvd.

Elvis Costello and the AttractionsGet Happy!
My fave Elvis record after the big three? This one or Blood & Chocolate. Kind of a toss-up.

Creedence Clearwater RevivalBayou Country
Such a tasty opening riff. Just four notes, but with just the right touch of discordance. Wish I could come up with something so simple and so perfect.

The DecemberistsThe Hazards Of Love
It's growing on me. A little late for that now, I suppose; they've got a new one coming out soon. I may or may not buy it.

Explosions In the SkyAll Of a Sudden I Miss Everyone
Wow, so did these guys just flat run out of ideas or what? The formula was clearly wearing thin on this one, and it hasn't aged well, in case you were wondering. I guess we'll always have The Earth Is Not...

By the way, I was going to note how long it's been since they released any new material, but I looked over everything and can't find a copyright year anywhere on the packaging.

They've got a new one out and I haven't heard it yet. I'll probably get it. This one holds up great so far, and I've heard good reviews for the EP.

Led ZeppelinPhysical Grafitti
Weird record. You'd think that if any act from their generation had what it took to sustain a killer double album it'd be these guys, but this thing is a mess. The first record is awesome, and even includes one of their few extended blues jams that I actually like ("In My Time Of Dying"). The second record is a mess; every track sounds underdeveloped and half-baked. Really, considering the roll they were on at the the time this should have been a pantheon double, we're talking Exile-level greatness, and they blew it in such a strange way.

Charles MingusMingus At the Bohemia

MogwaiYoung Team
Hadn't listened to this one in a while. Awesome. Interesting to note how many songs I recognise from seeing them every few years when they tour the States, but forgot which record they were on. They're all here. I tend to think of CODY as their masterpiece, but maybe it was this one all along.

PavementWesting (by musket and sextant)
I used to bag on people who said they stopped liking this band after Slanted, then invariably proceeded to reminisce about how they heard the early EPs when they first came out. I think a lot of people who might have really liked them in their heyday resented Pavement's hipster shibboleth status and never really gave the band a chance. But really, this stuff is absolutely amazing. Had I heard it before all the other stuff, would I have forever pined for the early years too? Impossible to say.

"Perfect Depth" remains my single favourite Pavement ballad, maybe favourite song overall. And "Internal K-Dart" is the best pure guitar riff Malkmus ever stumbled upon. Eat your heart out, Kurt Cobain.

PhotekModus Operandi
Holds up better than you might remember. This seemed directionless and overblown when it first came out, and was reviewed as such, but it sounds much leaner now. This guy's stuff was all deceptively minimal. He made it sound like complex "scientific d'n'b", but it's really simple stuff with just a tricky rhythmic turn here and there to keep you on your toes. Not to go all Wes Welker on you.

The Rolling Stones, Now!, Aftermath, More Hot Rocks (Big Hits & Fazed Cookies), Sticky Fingers, Metamorphosis
Yup. Readin' the Keef book.

Souls Of Mischief93 'Til Infinity

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Stuff I Listened To Last Week – 8 Jan 2011

Every time I listen to a record, I leave it next to the stereo. On Monday, before I go back to work, I re-file them all. Below are the contents of this week's pile.

Ferruccio BusoniDoktor Faust (Ferdinand Leitner, conductor)
Busoni died before completing his final work, leaving notes from which an assistant would finish it. Faust is reputed to be one of the more surprisingly minimal of the major works of this period of Italian opera, which... I don't really know anything about opera, that's just what I've read. This is intriguing, but far to dense for me to get much of an impression of after just a few listens with other things going on in the room.

GrooveriderMysteries of Funk
I can remember reading a profile of Grooverider written by Simon Reynolds for some magazine (The Wire, maybe?) back when this album was just coming out. It was his debut after a few killer singles and a lot of hype, and Reynolds, as is his wont, was ready to anoint yet another subgenre with which to classify Grooverider and the maybe two other artists who sounded like him. Reynolds proceeded to spend a significant chunk of his given column inches explaining the subtle differences that distinguished "neurofunk" from dozens of other subgenres within the larger spectrum of drum'n'bass, seemingly spending quite a bit of energy trying to get the term to catch on. My reaction at the time was something along the lines of "Nice try, Reynolds," figuring this one would never stick.

So the other night I'm cruising eBay for lots of used DJ records, and I come across a listing for a couple dozen described as jungle, drum'n'bass, breakbeat and, wait for it...

Neurofunk. After all these years. Score one for Reynolds.

By the way, it sounds like I'm bagging on Reynolds here, but it's more like a good-natured ribbing. Let me add that Rip It Up and Start Again is one of my favourite music history books of the past few years.

Junior BoysSo This Is Goodbye

Lightning BoltEarthly Delights

MonoWalking cloud and deep red sky, Flag fluttered and the sun shined
This or the one after it is probably the Mono record to own. You don't need too many. Very proud of myself for resisting the urge to buy the new triple live LP.

PavementWowee Zowee
Holds up nicely. No longer seems as weirdly dated as it did five years ago or so. I know that seems illogical, but back then we were in the grip of this wave of overt sincerity in indie rock, and this one just seemed so detached.

Rolling StonesBeggars Banquet
There really ought to be an apostrophe in that title. Unless they're eating beggars.

History Of Rhythm & Blues Volume 1: The Roots 1947-52
Any comp with "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" on it is OK in my book.


We Are Reasonable People

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Stuff I Listened To Last Week – 1 Jan 2011

Every time I listen to a record, I leave it next to the stereo. On Sunday, before I go back to work, I re-file them all. Below are the contents of this week's pile.

The B-52's, Wild Planet
Just picked these up recently (at Cheapo in Cambridge), figuring I might as well check 'em out. The big singles from each ("Rock Lobster" and "Private Idaho", respectively) hold up remarkably well, both boffo new wave dance numbers that make you wanna shimmy.

But the rest of the albums didn't blow me away. I think the most surprising and disappointing aspect was how low-energy they felt, in particular the debut. These guys are supposed to be like one of the all-time great party bands, but I kinda wasn't feelin' it. Maybe I need to listen to 'em some more.

Both albums recorded in the Bahamas, incidentally. Maybe they shoulda just done a live EP in Athens to start with.

History of Eric Clapton
Pretty solid comp that stretches from the Yardbirds through the Dominoes. The Delaney & Bonnie tracks are particularly good. I think Clapton's at his best when he's in someone else's band, rather than out front. Don't get me wrong, he's got a few great solo tracks, but the overall body of work favours his sideman stuff, whether he's in a band with another frontman (Cream) or just a hired gun (Delaney & Bonnie).

What's really weird about this record is that it's a double LP with sides one and three on the first record and two and four on the second. I don't think I've seen another album like that, and it makes no sense whatsoever. You have to switch records after every side to listen to it in order. Even the more common 1-4/2-3 split makes some sense, because you can just flip the whole stack on a multi-record turntable. Heck, that Sinatra box I have is six records, and it goes 1-12/2-11/3-10/etc. But this one's ridiculous.

Culture ClubKissing To Be Clever
The wife was a Boy George fanatic in their heydey, and has all the albums. She even has an old VHS tape on which she used to tape any and all of their TV appearances. Anyway, when I put this on she said it doesn't really hold up that well. I think I was even more disappointed than she was. I can't really say why. I hate listening to stuff I loved when I was a teenager and realising it's just mediocre.

Flying Saucer AttackChorus, The Third Eye FoundationGhost
"Feedback Song" still totally pwns, and remains FSA's finest moment.

The liner notes say it's the end of FSA Phase One. The next couple albums were indeed pretty different. Lots of drum n' bass beats. Basically sounded more like Third Eye.

IsisWavering Radiant
Kind of unnecessary. If you have Oceanic and Panopticon you're pretty set with these guys. Another one of those bands like Mono, where I like their general aesthetic enough to keep buying their albums, which inevitably feel extraneous upon listening.

Jay-ZThe Black Album
How come no one's ripped off this idea yet? This is basically a compilation of the dozen-or-so hottest producers in the game each contributing a track and Jigga rhyming over them. It's terrific, was an instant classic when it came out that still sounds great now, and an idea just waiting to be replicated.

John Kongos
So psyched I finally found this. I only knew the two songs the Happy Mondays covered, but the whole thing's pretty solid. Drags a little on side two, but closes strong with "He's Gonna Step On You Again".

Pulled out the box to listen to Leviathan. One of my daughters was pretty into it, and into headbanging in general. Maybe she'll be a metalhead.

RadioheadOK Computer
My copy of this is pretty worn down, which is weird because I certainly own other albums I've spun more times that sound fine. It's a bummer because it's such a great album and I know I'll keep returning to it for years to come. Still, it's hard to justify dropping $25 on a new copy when this one's not that bad.

Saint VitusThe Walking Dead EP
These guys are famous for being one of the first slow-metal bands, but I actually like the faster stuff on here. They hadn't really perfected their doom sound this early, so the slow stuff just sounds like a regular metal song played way too slow.

Sigur RósMeđ suđ í eyrum viđ spilum endalaust
Quite a workout for the ol' character map on that one, but we pride ourselves on our accuracy here at the Shelf.

Sonic YouthMurray Street
Holds up well. Give it a listen.

TannerIll-Gotten Gains
So psyched I found this one on vinyl, and it's just as strong as it was when I used to listen to it back in the 90s. They sound like most San Diego bands from their era, but the vocals and guitar work give them a melodic edge that still sticks out. No idea why they never caught on, they were a great live act as well. I think the frontman wound up in Hot Snakes for a while. If you see this one, pick it up, it's great.

I always think I haven't listened to this one enough, then I throw it on once a year or so and am surprised to find that I recognise just about every song.

Sorry Jenny Toomey, but I'm filing this one under Unrest.

WireObject 47/Read & Burn 03
Wow. I can't get over how awesome last decade's Wire output was. Between this album and the three EPs (one of which is packaged together here) they didn't have a single weak release. These guys can reunite as often as they like and I'll be listening.

This is one of those bands I always read was good but I never got around to checking them out. I knew them from their late-80s/early-90s stuff and wasn't crazy about it. So I finally got this one and... not so into it. Maybe I need to listen to it more, but I can't foresee making time for it. I've got a lot of records. The one after it's supposed to be really good, so maybe if I see that I'll pick it up.

Return Of the DJ Vol. I
Hadn't listened to this in a while. Surprised to see how many names I recognised. This really was an impressive all-star lineup.

Metalheadz Presents Platinum Breakz II