- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 07 May 2014
R.E.M "Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions" MTV/Rhino
I almost thought about maybe trying to give up on Record Store Day after a less than stellar outing on Black Friday 2013 when I got my hands on a few records that sounded like ass. Some were scratchy, some flimsy, and it didn't seem like anyone was taking things too seriously. But this is a holiday for me, and I was foolish to think I could lose my religion. R.E.M. headed up this year's roster with a four record set documenting their appearances, spaced ten years apart, on MTV Unplugged. That would have gotten me out of bed and in the record store line on its own. But there was so much more. Let's have a listen…
Growing up in Georgia, I'd been aware of R.E.M. since the tender young age of about ten. They got huge and I'd tune in to the occasional song or pretend to like them in the interest of painting myself in a more flattering light for whatever girl I was chasing at the time, but I didn't really care. Until their 1991 appearance on Unplugged. Something about that performance got me the way it was supposed to. I recorded it on a VHS tape and wore it out. I thought I was hot because I'd picked out a bit of the Unplugged version of "Losing My Religion" on the guitar. Peter Buck played the part on a mandolin. I'd never seen a mandolin used to further the cause of Rock and Roll. I was hooked. And then it just went away. It was never released on a DVD or in album format until this four record monster set was loosed on April 19, 2014. And they tagged another Unplugged appearance from 2001 on too. I didn't even know that was on the menu, and it's quite a revelation. The '91 set takes me back to a really confused time for me, and it's a confusing listen in some ways. It sounds like TV. By that I mean, the sound is a little jarring in its cleanliness and placement. You can almost feel the camera cutting back and forth to whoever is doing whatever is most interesting in the song. And everything feels right up front and "intimate" almost to the point of intrusion or creepiness. The 2001 set is much more refined and "professional" sounding to me. By that time, Bill Berry had bailed and I suspect the band probably had a pretty stout period of adjustment to explore. The band performed with hired hands as a sextet this time, and the organ feels warmer and more assured in 2001 than it did ten years previous. Still, '91's show had that version of "Fall On Me" that's stuck with me for so many years now. I actually really enjoyed Reveal from 2001, and half of that record's twelve songs found their way onto this set too. I call this a victory.
And I call getting my hands on a copy a victory too. They only made 1,000. The pressings are really nice on all eight (!) sides, the crappy inner sleeves needed immediate replacement, and no digital copy of any kind was included. The set is housed in a book-like presentation rather than the more traditional box, and I expect that the cover will fall apart one day as a result. I feel like it was worth getting up at 5am for it, and it was worth the $90. They're selling like hotcakes on Ebay for $275 now. Don't let my comments about the '91 sound sway you. You could do worse than an overly intimate R.E.M. performance, and there's no way that it could have stood up to my memory anyway. It was too much. All of it.
Outkast "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik" LaFace Records
As early as I was to the R.E.M. party, I missed the turn en route the Outkast game. I'd already tuned out Hip-Hop when Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (I will be copying and pasting that title henceforth) was released in 1994. I just didn't think there was much happening for the genre in that era. I was mistaken. First time for everything. Luckily, a college buddy turned me on to Aquemini a few years later and I was able to circle back and atone. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was re-released a week shy of its twentieth birthday for Record Store Day 2014, and it was second on my list of must haves. Which is kinda stupid because I believe the plan is to give it a proper re-release in the coming months so be on the lookout if you slept in on April 19. I did not. I got copy number 3608 out of I forget how many. It doesn't matter. If you love Outkast, you'll get it soon enough even if it doesn't have a foil stamped number on the cover. If you don't love Outkast, you're a weirdo.
Oddly enough, the very things that turned me off to Hip-Hop in '94 are all present and accounted for on Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. All the bragging, all the car talk, girl talk, we'd talk (which is far from novel now), maybe even a wisp of violence - it's in here. But it's better in here. "Player's Ball" put the record over the top and the group on the map, and that's just how it should have been. The Curtis Mayfield inspired tune is just about perfect. I'm to understand that Outkast used a live band for the recording. They certainly did when I saw them at Atlanta's Fox Theater in support of their Stankonia record, and I think their originality and respect for authenticity put them way out in front of the rap game for a long, long time. The genre's supporters seem to have short memories and a lack of respect for the innovators that made Hip-Hop the global entity that it is, but Outkast did not. And Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik happened before Big Boi and Andre 3000 had developed their super speedy rapid fire vocal delivery that would be evidenced for the first time on Aquemini. I love that record, and I love Stankonia too, but I really enjoy putting on the first two Outkast records that found them developing a signature sound before they'd taken over the world with it. Their debut is no sonic masterpiece as far as production values go. Using live musicians is cool. So are audiophile recordings with depth and clarity and three dimensional sound stages. This is not one of those. This is a debut Hip-Hop record by a couple of young guys from Atlanta in 1994. They were finding their way. Once they did, they changed the game for a few minutes. I don't hear much of their influence in Hip-Hop records today, but I'm talking out of my ass a little bit too because I don't listen to much of what's out there now. The beats make me feel like I'm having a seizure and the sounds are tired. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was wired. In a laid back Southern way. I think it's a historic recording and worthy of the reissue treatment it is getting. All aboard? Swell.
And as some of my Southern brethren might remind you, putting icing on a pile of manure does not make it a cake. The sound is a little thin; there have been no tweaks or improvements. The quality of the vinyl is passable. I scrubbed a couple of ticks out with a second heavy cleaning. And I couldn't be happier to have this record in my collection.
Jerry Garcia "Garcia" Round Records
Man, I loved Jerry Garcia. And sometimes I liked his Grateful Dead band. But mostly I liked his playing and his personality. A while back, I made it a point to find some Dead records that I could live with all the way through. It was a task, but it happened. Three times, in fact. Then, something strange started gnawing at me. I wanted to continue. I wanted to find more. But I didn't want Dead records taking up all the space on my shelf because I'm rarely in the mood for them and I have limited space. I'd seen a couple of Garcia's solo records at one of the used stores I was frequenting at the time, but I always passed due to a lack of record quality or song quality. Then, I saw that they were re-releasing Garcia for Record Store Day, and I put that at number three on my list. (This is another one that will see a wider release shortly. My logic was not sound, but it was fun.) I got number 871, and it's a jewel. I can't help myself.
The thing is, this record has some of what I thought was my favorite Grateful Dead material on it. Turns out, it's some of my favorite Garcia material. And he plays everything except drums on Garcia. We're talking here about songs with names like "Sugaree," "Bird Song," "Loser," and (to a lesser extent) "Deal." I like them all. Especially, "Sugaree." And I liked the sound of this reissue immediately after the first notes were played. If Outkast's debut was lacking a little bit in the sonics department, Garcia has presence and clarity to spare. As the press release will tell you, "the album was re-mastered for vinyl release by Joe Gastwirt using the original 30ips 1/4" mix master reels and pressed to 180 gram black vinyl by RTI." Those are a lot of words, and it seems like there might be some wiggle room in there that could potentially have allowed some digital process to creep in. But maybe not. The sound is warm. The bass is tight and punchy, but it will never usurp the estate. Garcia's keyboard work is worthy of an "honorary mention," at least. All of the songs that I mentioned previously comprise the record's first side. Things go a little sideways in the second set which leads me to believe that Garcia was more involved in the Grateful Dead's wonkier material than I would have liked to admit. And that's the maddening thing about that damn band. They could go from heroes to zeros quicker than you could say "patchouli." At least Garcia loaded all of the best material onto one side so I can just skip the second without having to jump around. Actually, "To Lay Me Down" is buried in the middle of a bunch of spacey stuff on side two, but that song doesn't mean enough to me to wade into these noodley waters. And, "for the record," the Record Store Day edition was pressed on white vinyl, not the black version that is described above. I think you may have to order the mass release directly from Garcia's website. I say do it. You can dry your Birkenstocks on side two if you don't like the material.
This one came with a download coupon, a sticker, and a scratchy inner sleeve. I'm really excited to have it. Maybe the second side will grow on me if I do enough drugs. But I'm a little old for that so I think I'll stick with what brought me here. That would be "Sugaree." Shake it, baby.
Steve Earle "Townes: The Basics" New West
I had a Steve Earle record on my Record Store Day list at number four. This actually made sense because, to the best of my knowledge, this was a limited release in true Record Store Day fashion. By that, I mean that there will be no wider release now that the date has passed. The record is called Townes: The Basics and it is comprised of the solo acoustic recordings that Earle made as the framework for his Grammy award winning Townes album from 2009. I got number 1,111 out of 2,000. I know that because someone took the time to hand write "1,111" on the back of my album cover. I like that kind of thing.
And I like these types of recordings. If anyone were fool enough to be paying attention to anything that I've written here, they would probably assume that I would prefer these versions of the Townes songs to the original album. Actually, if we're splitting hairs, this is the original album because the real original album was based on these tracks. According to the info on the back of the RSD release regarding the 2009 version, "other instruments were added later in subsequent sessions for the album in New York, Nashville, and Los Angeles." Based on all that, you might imagine that Townes was some sort of glitzy production involving multiple producers and the like. I'd have assumed that the 2009 record was made like most are: with drums and bass as the first tracks and the rest filled in on top of that. Turns out it was the opposite. And neither album would be considered "glitzy" by most, but comparing the two versions obviously shows The Basics up as the earthier of the two. And New West did a really fine job with The Basics. These tunes were originally only available as a bonus CD in conjunction with the original release. The pressing and the quality of the vinyl for The Basics is stellar, almost flawless. But there's something about these acoustic recordings that lacks a little bite. It feels like there's some sort of barrier between the listener and the songs. I couldn't dig up any info around the recording of the Townes record beyond what I've already described above, but I did read that Earle released his first digital recording in 2007 just before Townes. Like I say, I don't know if that trend stuck, but these tunes are a little lacking in dynamics. Now, this is all relative. This record sounds really fine compared to what it might have sounded like in days of yore if only because of the quality of the actual pressing and the wax. I just don't get the feel from it that I do from some of Neil Young's more recent acoustic reissues, for example. Or even the Garcia RSD release. You can feel the love and the effort that folks put into those records within the first few notes. Luckily, The Basics is made up of a bunch of notes that Townes Van Zandt wrote as performed by Steve Earle. So, I'll shut up.
I'm excited about this record. The cover is nice. Just plain, gritty cardboard with some matte black graphics printed on it. The front graphics are raised which gives a nice texture to the sleeve. A download was included and the inner sleeve needed replacing. I'll likely get more use out of this one than I did Townes, and I loved Townes. You can probably still get your hands on a copy of The Basics at a reasonable price if you act fast. Act fast.
Various Artists "The Folk Box" Elektra Records
And so those were the four full-length Record Store Day releases that I was most excited about, got out of bed at 5am for, and stood in line for five hours to get, then got. Beyond those, I wanted and purchased a couple of 45's (one by Spanish Gold, a new collaboration between My Morning Jacket's drummer and Hacienda's former lead guitarist, and one by Ronnie Spector with the "E" Street Band from the '70's which didn't work out like I'd hoped). I also got the Drive-By Truckers 10-inch with outtakes from their most recent album. It's called Dragon Pants EP and having it maintains the integrity of my complete Truckers collection. It also affords me access to more kick-ass Wes Freed cover art and DBT Rock. (Having said that, there are fine reasons that these tunes didn't wind up on English Oceans, mostly, I think, because the EP songs don't cohere with the LP songs. They made the right move. Of course.) The thing that I didn't plan on (and what pushed me way over my Record Store Day budget) was The Folk Box. I was aware of it going in, but I didn't think that I'd have to have it. Turns out, I couldn't put the damn thing back once I had it in my hands. So I put back my copy of Joe Strummer with the Pogues, my "Paid In Full" 7-inch, the Velvet Underground Loaded reissue, and the Gram Parsons thing. I'd love to have all of those. I'm thrilled to have The Folk Box. You would be too. I got number 704 out of 2000. I don't know that this was one of the more popular RSD titles so I bet there are still some floating around. You should arrange for one to float your way. I can't say enough about it.
This is a 50th Anniversary Edition of a set that has been out of print for eons. The records were cut from the original 1964 master tapes, and the set contains a lengthy booklet with liner notes and essays, and a bonus 7-inch that was not included with the original set. I don't know where to start. I'd have almost bought the box if it were empty. The front cover is a wood grain sticker affixed to the box top. I think it's a sticker. It sure seems like a piece of painted wood though. This was a collaborative project between Elektra Records and Folkways which gave both labels the ability to put out more material within this box than would have been possible on their own. The line-up is legendary consisting of names like Pete Seeger (who endorsed this reissue in writing just prior to passing on), Jack Elliott, Leadbelly, and Woody Guthrie. All of those artists have songs on side two! Josh White is also on here as are Judy Collins, Bob Gibson, Doc Watson, and the Dillards. And Sonny Terry, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Dave Van Ronk (whose story inspired the recent Coen Brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis). The sides are pressed in non-consecutive order (sides one and six are on a disc, sides two and five on another, etc) which I've never understood, but whatever, and each side has its own theme. We have work songs, religious songs, blues, bluegrass, ballads, and protest songs amongst others. The clarity of the recordings really took me off guard. I was expecting scratchy old 78 sounding stuff, and a couple of the songs (by Leadbelly, for instance) fit that bill. But there is a surprising amount of depth and clarity to most of the material. These are not field recordings (except for the occasional prison chain gang contribution or the tabernacle choirs); these were done in a controlled environment under the watchful eyes of professionals who knew about how to do this kind of thing. Jac Holzman is the big name attached to this project. I knew him as the guy that signed the Doors. Now, I can thank him for The Folk Box and the Lizard King too. But mostly for The Folk Box. It's a jewel.
That's a wrap on 2014's version of Record Store Day. It was a strong one. My faith is restored. My funds are depleted. My ears are on fire. Things are as they should be. I waffled on The Folk Box due to costs, and I could have picked up an extra copy of the R.E.M. set to sell online which would have covered all of my expenses and ruined the spirit of the day. If you like supporting local businesses, RSD is a fine way to do it. If you're not into that kind of thing, Wal-Mart has tons of CD's that you can buy with your Ajax cleaner and your diapers and your wicker furniture. I'll take the vinyl.