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!

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