A Collection of New Vinyl Releases for the Audiophile - January, 2011

The Autumn Defense "Once Around" Yep Roc Records

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The Autumn Defense

Pat Sansone is Wilco's Swiss Army knife. He handles percussion, guitar work, vocals, and keyboards with equal dexterity. He and John Stirratt, Wilco's bassist and longest tenured member along with Jeff Tweedy, have also been doing their thing together as the Autumn Defense for a few years now. I love Sansone's playing and musicianship and I never realized that he was involved with this project or I'd have checked them out sooner. As it stands, their latest, titled "Once Around," is serving as my introduction. And it's pretty much exactly as I imagined it based on my knowledge of what the two principle members bring to their 9-5 job with Wilco. That is to say, this is a feathery, breezy affair with lots of acoustic instrumentation and pretty vocal harmonies. No discernible dirt or angst to speak of. There's also nothing here that's going to keep me running back and forth to my record player for any length of time. That's not to suggest that "Once Around" is a bad record or an embarrassment in any way. On the contrary, it's a very cerebral, pleasant listen with enough beauty and light to warrant its spot next to the Avett Brothers in my vinyl collection (I alphabetize). But I need a little grit in my music as a general rule, and it seems like Stirratt and Sansone might be too happy to make that happen. Or maybe they're saving it up for another record. Regardless, "Once Around" is a fine record for shiny, happy people. I know some girls that will love this one...

As I mentioned, there's no gravel in these vocals and the compositions themselves wouldn't lend themselves to that anyway. Luckily, there's a lyric sheet included for those of us that care about knowing who's doing what. I wouldn't have noticed that the two principles alternate lead vocal duties without it. Their voices are pretty similar. Of course, they're also noticeably different once the curtain of ignorance has been lifted, but the casual listener might have missed this entirely without the liner notes. "Tell Me What You Want" is a Sansone song and would be the most obvious choice for a single if we lived in an era where these types of songs were played on the radio. They may have stood a chance in the early to mid-'70's, but not now. There aren't enough gimmicks and there isn't enough posturing on "Once Around" to compete with Nickelback or whoever the kids are so crazy about now. I don't know much about Todd Rundgren, but he was the first person I thought of when I heard "Back Of My Mind" which starts things off. I'm thinking mostly of Rundgren's "Hello, It's Me." This music would be more apt for inclusion on the soundtrack of a TV show than it would be in an arena rock show. Something on the WB network, maybe. Is the WB network still around? Substitute any show you'd like that fits with the "Party Of Five" template or, more accurately, with what I imagine the "Party Of Five" template to be. It sounds like I'm slaughtering this record, but I really do like it. The band obviously followed their sound through to completion of a very mature, safe record. You know, the kind of thing you could put in the background of a very safe primetime TV offering. There's nothing wrong with being safe. I just get more kicks when a little danger's involved. "Once Around" holds up pretty well on its own as long as it stays away from the super-strummy, gleeful acoustic guitars. I'm talking about the "hippy rhythm strum" that most guitarists start with, and then grow out of. Some don't. And someone in the Autumn Defense didn't quite. It's used to fine effect during the chorus of the aforementioned "Tell Me What You Want." Not so much on "The Swallows Of London Town." These are both Sansone originals so I hold him accountable. You've got to hand it to anyone that can relinquish the reins and let the song lead. I guess these songs called for this technique. I doubt I'd have had the nerve to go through with it.

"Once Around" stands up pretty well against most truly independent vinyl releases. It's a single record in a gatefold cover with the liner poster containing lyrics as well as a download coupon for the entire album. The pressing is good with minimal background noise. It's not perfect, but it's better than some major label releases that I've encountered recently (Bruce Springsteen, I am looking at you). I'll revisit this record when spring time rolls around or when all of my problems mysteriously disappear and I'm left with nothing but a glazed smile and a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. If you're a fan of light rock and you can't find anything to listen to on the radio, you might want to give the Autumn Defense a try. If you like a little more muscle in your music, you can wait for the next Wilco record and enjoy Stirratt's and Sansone's contributions to it. I wouldn't call "Once Around" a masterpiece, but I'm glad to have it in my collection. I might get happy one day and I'll want it around when I do.

Creedence Clearwater Revival "Bayou Country" Fantasy Records/Analogue Productions

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Creedence Clearwater Revival

When I was a kid, I thought that Creedence Clearwater Revival was a band that existed solely in Time-Life compilation commercials. It seemed like they were always on TV in ten second increments as part of some music set that could be yours for only $19.99 if you ordered now. Even then, I knew they had a different sound. They certainly seemed out of place next to the other artists advertised. Tellingly, I can't remember who those other artists were. I know exactly who Creedence Clearwater Revival is, or at least what their music is to me. Basically, it's some of the finest authentic rock and roll produced in the last fifty years. There aren't many bands whose catalogues I prefer which makes sense considering the relative brevity of their career. They just didn't have enough time to water down their inventory with filler or weird experimentation. It's hard to realize now how quickly things were moving in the late '60's and early '70's. It's easy to assume that bands like CCR took years to accumulate their hits when, in fact, they were only together for around five years. (They released three albums in 1969.) By comparison, it seems crazy to think that the Earth has made it's way around the sun at least fifteen times since I've been a Son Volt fan. We're playing with time here which seems appropriate in a discussion centered on CCR. They sounded ancient even then. Never more so than on their second long player, "Bayou Country." I picked up Analogue Productions' single record 33rpm version as an intro to that company's take on high quality rock and roll. The results were mixed, and mostly very good.

Creedence music has an entirely original tone which is tough to describe in wholly original terms. I mean, they used ample amounts of distortion, but the effect is rarely as heavy as Hendrix's. Lead singer, John Fogerty, wails, but never as conspicuously as Robert Plant did when he still had the option. Their sound is bluesy, but not as obviously as early Stones work, for instance. It seems like they were drawing from the same well as their peers, but they were coming up with a whole new bag owing nothing to the other sounds from their era. "Born On The Bayou" takes the listener on an airboat ride through the swampland of American lore with lyrical images conjuring visions of grandfathers' porches and steam driven locomotives. Of course, the time was 1969 and I can't imagine how this sound must have assimilated itself into the lexicon of the day. Quickly and forcefully, I suspect. "Proud Mary" was the classic hit on "Bayou Country" and has since been covered by who-knows-how-many acts. But "classic hit" doesn't quite get it done for "Proud Mary." It goes way beyond that. "Proud Mary" feels like a part of the American patchwork quilt by now. Every bit as much as baseball for sports fans or all-you-can-eat buffets for... all of America. And "Proud Mary" wasn't even the centerpiece of the album. I'd have to give that distinction to "Keep On Chooglin'." Eight minutes of blues-funk before there was such a thing. In fact, "Bayou Country" consists of just three choice rock originals, a version of Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly" that will damn near burn your face off, and the rest of the album is rounded out by dirt-funky blues tunes. They're technically Fogerty compositions, but really they feel like he was just functioning as an antennae at the time. Channeling blues sounds through his own whacky filter. How did a California man sound so Southern? Especially having never been to the South? And which South are we talking about and from what era? Mysterious stuff, here. Alchemy, really.

This release is more or less exquisite except for one noisy section during "Graveyard Train." I wouldn't mention it if it were a single "pop" or a slight "tick." This is a full-on offense that may be specific to this pressing, the original tape, or my particular record. Regardless, it's there right out of the wrapper, and no amount of record or stylus cleaning has helped. The song has lots of spaces so the affront is that much more noticeable. Beyond that, I give this one an "A Plus." I'm replacing my reissue of "Cosmo's Factory" with the AP version too so the noisy "Graveyard" clearly wasn't enough to dissuade me. The packaging is cool, but nothing to go crazy about. The record came in a surprisingly pedestrian inner sleeve which needed to be replaced. I'd have thought they'd know better, but you rarely get a release with all the bases covered. Maybe in time... Until then, these are the finest new CCR records available. It'll probably take me longer to collect them than it did for the band to record them. I'm still stuck on that one...

Little Richard "Here's Little Richard" Specialty/Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs

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Little Richard

Little Richard's a hard man to pin down. I mean, there are a lot of variables at play. There's the juxtaposition of the southern preacherman with the hell-raising firestorm witnessed on thousands of stages throughout the world in the '50's and '60's, for starters. Furthermore, his father turned him out of the family home as a result of his "alternative lifestyle" and he wavered back and forth from the pulpit to the secular throughout his career while skirting racial issues, substance abuse, and all of the rock and roll accoutrements of the time. Beyond all that, the man is simply one of the baddest entertainers in popular history. I mean that in the nicest way possible. I picked up his Specialty Records box set on vinyl a few years back, and, while essential, it is long since out of print. A quick search on Ebay turned up exactly zero results and we can't delve too deeply into its contents here anyway as we don't traffic in previously owned media at Secrets. Furthermore, the box gives you a bird's eye view of the creative process with alternate takes and false start dialogues which is super cool, but it's nice to have the official releases to document what the masses heard during Richard's heyday too. For that, we have "Here's Little Richard," his first official full-length release. Mobile Fidelity gave us this one in a limited release from the original master tapes. This is a very good thing.

1957 wasn't a time for high end recording, certainly not by today's standards. It's probably safe to assume that the musicians shared one room for the session with precious little separation amongst the players, if any. Therefore, you might get bleeding from one mic to another. You definitely get distortion. You get flawed performances that were left "as is" due to time and financial constraints. Mostly, you get magic. This stuff will make the hair on your arms stand up... and dance. This is forceful stuff. Lot's of power. And, in my mind, the responsibility of MoFi in this instance is to provide the listener with as direct a listening experience as possible. A silent canvas, if you will. Just get out of the way and let the music in. And that's what they've done. These aren't audiophile recordings. It just wasn't possible at the time. But it's an audiophile release as I can't imagine these songs sounding any better unless you could listen to the masters on a reel to reel. That's not in the cards for me. I'll have to "muddle through" with the MoFi version. If you think of the album as a classic painting and of MoFi as a museum, you'll see that they've taken these old recordings and presented them in the most flattering light possible. What more can you ask? The songs are beyond classic. Some of the better known titles are "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," "Rip It Up," "Slippin' and Slidin'," and "Jenny Jenny." These are the songs that resulted in Richard's inclusion in the inaugural Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of 1986. Anything else would have been an abomination. At least they got that one right.

If you're truly an audiophile, and you're into vinyl, then you already know what your getting before exploring a MoFi release. "Here's Little Richard" is no different except the material is grainier and as energetic as any performance that was ever committed to tape. MoFi pressed 2,500. I got number 00518. The company's website is already out of stock. Acoustic Sounds is not, but their stock is limited. A quick glance into the crystal ball shows that MoFi is set to release a bunch of schlock in the coming months. Music by bands with names like "Foreigner" or "KC and the Sunshine Band." I also noticed that a few of their upcoming releases are touted as being "mastered on Mobile Fidelity's world-renowned mastering system," but there's no mention of the original master tapes as the source. These releases cost slightly less and I can't help but wonder why. I hope with all my heart that this company isn't about to swan dive into mediocrity when they're currently one of the only trustworthy sources for quality vinyl reissues. Apparently they INXS and Bette Midler are more marketable than true rock and roll as these are two more stellar artists with releases in the MoFi pipeline. Whatever. I like Little Richard. And now I have his first album in pristine condition with no noise floor to speak of. It's like falling backwards in time. When MoFi released killer records by good artists...

The White Stripes "The White Stripes" Third Man Records

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The White Stripes

A band making it big while staying loyal to its fans is one of my favorite events to bear witness to. There might be tons of examples, but there aren't tons of new bands that I pay attention to so I can only report on a couple. (Please feel free to share any stories in the comments section if you know of some good ones.) Wilco arranges carpools for fans attending their concerts as a kind of two-for-one for their followers and the environment. My Morning Jacket still stays close to home with live shows at local retailer, Ear-X-Tacy, in their hometown, Louisville, Kentucky, amongst a million other charitable interests. But what really sets these types of bands apart is the care that they put into the official releases that will land in their fans' hands. Wilco gives you a gazzillion downloads as a bonus for purchasing their wares on Record Store Day in April. MMJ put out a live double ten-inch record recorded in Louisville (partially at the aforementioned Ear-X-Tacy) as part of the same event. Now, the White Stripes have re-released their first three albums on 180-gram vinyl (similar to recent undertakings by Wilco and the Drive-By Truckers). It's not enough to just put them out though. The three Stripes records are special in that they kept things completely analogue this time. No digits involved in any part of the process. Here's how they describe it:

"We started by mastering each LP from the original analog master tapes, the first time this process had been used for any of these titles. While extremely labor-intensive, this method ensured that the material was never converted into a digital signal."

Good enough to pique my interest. I didn't have any of these titles anyway as they've all been out of print for a few years now. Like most new acts, the Stripes had to prove it to me over the course of a few releases before I hopped aboard. That left me scrambling for their older records with no results to report. Until now.

Holy Smokes! The self-titled debut just jumps out of the speakers, into your living room, onto your coffee table, and dances on your sensory receptors throughout all seventeen tracks. This is a single record so the songs ain't long. But they're impactful. The warmth from the recording and the vintage equipment that the band uses merges to form the most honest sound that I've heard in rock and roll for as long as I can remember. You can almost feel the heat from the tubes in Jack White's amp. The record's infectious. What can I say? We could go song by song and pour over the finer details of each, but "The White Stripes" stands as a complete work that is best heard as... a complete work. I was most interested in the covers of blues tunes that I'm already familiar with (Robert Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down" and Louis Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary Blues"), but I forgot all about the delineation when the record began as every song is as engaging as either cover mentioned. This being the first official Stripes record, the sound is stripped to the bones with minimal overdubs and virtually none of the experimentation that would mark "Get Behind Me Satan" or certainly "Icky Thump." It's totally punk, but punks might dismiss the Stripes because of Jack White's musical accomplishment. The guy can actually play, but he doesn't let his virtuosity stand in the way of raw emotion, that's for sure. The band has been out there for long enough that most folks probably know by now whether or not they're amenable to White's vocal style (often derided) and fretboard dexterity (mysteriously questioned). It all works for me, and I couldn't be more excited about the re-issue project. I'm buying all three. ASAP.

Third Man Records didn't just stop at superb remasters on these titles. They found the original pictures for the artwork "to provide the crispest versions possible of these album covers" which they rebuilt from scratch. They did it the old-fashioned way with the artwork printed on stickers which are then folded onto the actual heavy stock cover. They included a digital download which is very commendable, but I'll be listening to these on vinyl or not at all. That's how strong my love is for the first record, and I can't imagine that the next two will be any different. As a further enticement to the collectors, and this is not uncommon at White's Third Man Records, they printed a few copies of each title on red and white vinyl. These are available in very limited quantities at the Third Man store in Nashville and three other stores (one in Detroit, one in Memphis, and one in the Netherlands). Beyond that, they'll mail a few out at random to folks that order the records from the Third Man website. Does that count as doing something special for your fan base? Affirmative. Get these before they're gone, but not before I get mine.

Bruce Springsteen "The Promise" Columbia Records

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Bruce Springsteen

I caught Bruce Springsteen on his "Magic" tour in Oakland a couple of years back, and I've never been in a room with a person that was more adored by more people. Thousands of smiling people, mostly between the ages of 45 and 60, hung on his every gesture for close to three straight hours. There were tears shed and hands raised. I imagine televangelists get a similar response, but that weirds me out so I'm happy to have gained the experience through the power of rock and roll. And rock and soul. The devotion was not confined to the audience either as Bruce's bandmates were under his spell as well. They'd been with him forever so it's no surprise. Seems like Mr. Bruce had a contract dispute in the mid-'70's that prevented him from releasing any new material for a while. Seems there were a lot of songs committed to tape in that era between "Born To Run" and "Darkness On The Edge Of Town." Seems like they were good judging by "The Promise" which was released in November and was the first time most of these songs saw daylight. Bruce and the E Street Band make a big noise and have a lot of miles under their collective belt. I was a bit suspicious when I first learned that these old songs had been spruced up during more recent sessions. I'm not sure why this bothers me. The Stones did it last year with their "Exile On Main Street" box with results ranging from "disastrous" to "interesting." Software was employed to manipulate Jagger's vocals into sounding like he was in his early 20's again. The modern touch-ups were easily identifiable. This is not the case with Springsteen's "The Promise." I haven't studied his work like I have the Stones' so perhaps he had an unfair advantage. Whatever the reason, I think "The Promise" came out on top. I think it's a vital addition to Springsteen's ouvre. And, at 21 songs long, there's lot's to analyze.

For a work of this length, six sides of vinyl, I broke the songs down into three categories: Strong, Mediocre, and Forgettable. I came away with ten strong songs, one mediocre tune, and three forgettable ones. The other seven fell between Strong and Mediocre. Now, I have a thing about outtakes collections. I tend to think that outtakes were left off the original album because the outtakes weren't strong enough to make the cut. There have been, of course, concessions to that rule. (Speaking of the Stones: "Start Me Up" was an outtake from the "Some Girls" sessions and was released years later on "Tattoo You." Concession, indeed.) But "The Promise" is a little different. As I understand it, these songs weren't so much outtakes as they comprised an entire album that should have stood on its own, but was never released due to managers and lawyers and people that don't really have anything to do with music anyway. By the time Springsteen's recording embargo was lifted, he'd moved on to sounds and song structures that were more influenced by punk rock, and "The Promise" no longer reflected his current stance. The guy's prolific and he must have been on fire in 1978. Writing like he was running out of time or running towards something beautiful. All my research points to this era as his most enduring starting with "Born To Run" through "Darkness on the Edge of Town" into "The River" and, finally, "Nebraska." Throw "The Promise" in between the first two on this list and you have 16 sides of musical muscle by a man whose vision had carried him and his band around the world and to the front of the public's conscience. He'd tapped into a nation's wistful remembrance of racing in the streets, young love, and more racing in the streets. Simple themes with big instrumentation. The influences are obvious, none so much as Spector's and Orbison's. The songs are epic, none so much as, well, "Racing In the Street ('78)" and "The Promise." The results are mixed, but mostly awesome. I prefer "Power Bruce" over "Melodic Bruce" and you get plenty of both here. And you get the original artist's versions of songs he sold to others too like "Fire" (less groovy, but more direct than the Pointer Sisters version) and "Because The Night" (equally as powerful and not so far off from the Patti Smith version). Really, you get an hour and thirty minutes of quality rock entertainment. What are we hoping for if not that?

"The Promise" vinyl package is just moderately compelling, overall. It comes with a digital download coupon for the whole shooting match which is cool because Bruce fans love to share and compare, and now I can engage in such activities no matter where I am as long as I have my iPhone with me. No single side has more than four songs on it so you spend a fair amount of time flipping discs. I might want to hear "The Promise" while cooking dinner or washing dishes, and I might actually opt for the digital version during such times since the vinyl pressing is good, but not spectacular and I won't want to flip discs every ten minutes with raw chicken on my hands. There's some light surface noise that can't be cleaned away, and all three records are housed in a single outer sleeve which will split sooner than later since the records were shipped in pedestrian (i.e. "scratch inducing") paper sleeves which needed replacing. But you can't just throw out the original paper inners because they have the lyrics and an essay (by Bruce) on them so they stay in the single outer sleeve too. Makes for a tight fit, to say the least. The recording itself is fine. Better, I think, than "Born To Run" which sounds a little dry to me. The Band makes a big noise and you can hear everyone in the mix just fine, bells and all. "The Promise" might not be essential for casual Springsteen fans. They might want to hunt and peck for their favorite songs on iTunes. Diehards will have to have it, but that's true of any Springsteen release. Ultimately, the Boss should be proud. He dug into his vaults and came away with a really strong, complete record. That's a remarkable accomplishment in its own right. This one's a limited release, out of print, and some spots have already sold out. I'm glad I got mine when I did. Don't pass up "The Promise" if you're a fan. You'll regret it and pay through the nose later...