- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 06 November 2012
The Avett Brothers "The Carpenter" American
The Avett Brothers used to play regularly at a little hole in the wall bar in my hometown of Augusta, Georgia when I'd moved back there long enough to plot my escape to California. But I never went and saw them. I can't imagine what I might have been doing instead of checking them out because the locals were buzzing about them pretty good and there's not tons to do in that town. I was probably sleeping. I did that a lot there. A few years later, once I'd been in San Francisco for a while, I went to catch one of the Brothers' Friday night shows at the sold out Fillmore. I'm surprised the place is still standing. Those folks went nuts and most of them were women that looked like they were seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan or something. And the music was rocking. Rocking, ragged, and a little bit mad. Flash forward yet another few years, the Avett Brothers are performing live on the Grammy Awards show with Bob Dylan, their picture is plastered all over town as part of an ad campaign for the Gap, and Rick Rubin is producing their records and hiring half of Hollywood to help flesh out the Avetts' sound. Their latest is called "The Carpenter," and I bet the band has had to hire a stage hand to sweep the panties off the stage when the Brothers play these songs live. The songs are rife for that type of behavior.
And they bare little resemblance to what I saw happening at the Fillmore that night. Live, the band displayed some serious punk rock leanings with a bunch of hollering and hopping around. The Rubin records reveal almost none of that type of energy. These tunes have been polished for public consumption, and it's paid off in Gap ads. There's not much to disagree with here unless you just don't like pretty acoustic music. The band is adept at creating catchy sing-alongs that stay with you after the first listen and they do this mostly by writing songs that make you feel like you could have written them yourself. Well, you didn't. But they did. And that's why they're making records with Benmont Tench on keys. On "Carpenter," the hollering has been replaced by honest-to-goodness singing that really took me off guard a couple of times when the vocalists reached out for notes that I didn't think they'd find. But they do find them, and the struggle that you hear in their voices provides a ton of emotion and depth. It's even more effective than hollering and hopping. These songs have been following me around since I unwrapped "The Carpenter." They're welcome companions.
I think the vinyl release of "The Carpenter" was delayed a bit, but it was worth the wait. The two discs aren't perfectly quiet and this is especially noticeable on some of the slower numbers, but a good cleaning took care of most of the noise. The recording itself is pretty masterful as the acoustic instruments are clear and detailed while the vocals flit in and around the strings and keys. The set comes with a download coupon, and the inner sleeves have some cool photos and the lyrics printed on them. These guys are growing fast. There may be an Avett in the White House by the time the next election rolls around. All aboard!
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
The Band "Rock of Ages" Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs
I try not to get too caught up in celebrity culture. I'm not into following a complete stranger's every move online or whatever. The hot women don't look real to me, and all I can ever think about is what rollicking pains in the ass they must be. And I don't know who most of the guys are. But I got legitimately bummed when Levon Helm and MCA passed away this year. I owe a lot to both of those guys. They've helped me through a bunch of jams through their artistry and honesty. I'm no authority, but I don't foresee a bunch of "vault" releases coming from the Band or the Beasties as time marches on. I have a suspicion that we're all going to have to get by with what we have already. Luckily, there's a significant body of work for both groups to pour over. And over. I hope I last longer than MCA, and I hope that just one person in the world considers me as righteous as we all felt Levon was before I die. MoFi has been working on the Band catalog of late, and now they've released "Rock of Ages" so life is good for now. And I aim to appreciate that in my own experience because you never know when the whole thing might go up in flames. Heavy stuff, I know. But Levon seemed like a heavy kind of guy. I'm glad to have made his acquaintance.
I really did make his acquaintance once. He was nice, I was stoked. But he was unable to sing at the time due to the throat cancer. He sung his ass off on "Rock of Ages." It's a two-disc live set recorded at the Academy of Music in 1972. It includes an incendiary version of the Band's take on "Don't Do It" which eventually became every band's take on "Don't Do It." In fact, most of my favorite Band songs are on here: "King Harvest, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Rag Mama Rag," just to name a few. The King of New Orleans, Allen Toussaint, handled the horn arrangements too. Garth Hudson's "Genetic Method" as intro to "Chest Fever" is a stand-out and the whole thing comes and goes too fast so you'll probably want to start this one over immediately after the first listen. I did. And I'd have given my left leg to have been at this performance if only I'd been born then. I'm not sure which show I'd have attended if given the choice: the one documented on "Rock of Ages" or "The Last Waltz." Obviously, the latter of the two is the more historical and contained the larger names, but I think the Band's performance on "Ages" trumps the one on "Waltz." But that's just me.
MoFi's version beats my original pressing of "Rock of Ages," hands down. No doubt about it. It's clearer with more depth. The recording itself is pretty swell although it's not going to fool you into thinking that the Band is playing in your living room or anything. You're aware of the room's size throughout, and that's alright with me, but you may want to take a pass if you're looking for a more intimate sound. I'm looking for this sound. It's pressed on heavy wax per MoFi's typically sensational standards and housed in a triple gatefold sleeve that weighs about a ton. I'm ready for MoFi's take on the Band's "Brown Album." Now, please.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
Beck "Odelay: Deluxe Edition" Geffen/Original Recordings Group
I forget about how much I love Beck's music sometimes. I get all caught up in my rocking and rolling and forget about whatever it is that Beck does come record listening time. I consider him as one of my favorite artists, but I only have four of his albums. One of those is the "Odelay" reissue from a few years back. It was pricey when it was first released, but I found a copy on sale and finally jumped in the pool. And it's still not super cheap, but it is assuredly super great. I don't usually go in for remixes and bonus tracks, but we're talking about "Odelay" here. For my money, Beck invented remixes. The music lends itself to it, I think. And he's so prolific that I feel like I'd be missing something if I didn't check out the bonus tracks. Add all that to the fact that "Odelay" is one of my favorite albums recorded in the last 25 years and I find myself wondering why I waited so long to grab this one. Better late than later, I say...
This is classic stuff, gang. No question. Beck's a shape shifter. You could put "Odelay" next to "Sea Change" and swear you're listening to two entirely different artists. "Sea Change" is the outlier in this example as Beck forged his reputation with his "busier" sound where he throws so much into the gumbo that it's hard to tell what you're smelling when you hear it. Hip-hop is often way out front in the recipe and that is certainly true of "Odelay." And I love the juxtaposition of his acoustic guitar over electronic beats. He gets me with that one every time. "Odelay" is a record that you know straight through whether you realize it or not with the most obvious hits being "Devil's Haircut" and "Where It's At." I love them so. But there's some gold in the bonus tracks too wherein Beck plays straight acoustic blues ("Devil Got My Woman") and shows his morose side to astounding effect on "Feather In Your Cap" which would not be at all out of place on "Sea Change" (which is also one of my favorite recordings of the past couple of decades). There are "skippers" on this set. There were bound to be. If all of the material was strong enough to make the record, it would have been on the record, right? But it's a fun trip, man, and there's nothing to make you cringe even if some of it is a little half-baked. You get to hear "High 5" on high quality vinyl, for crying out loud. You can't argue with that unless you're just a bona fide stick in the mud. Don't be a bona fide stick in the mud.
This set is pretty sick. It's huge and I'm concerned that the packaging won't stand up over time, but I'm going to do my best to see that my copy does. There are four heavy records presented in a book format rather than in a box so I'm thinking the weight of the discs will ultimately undo the binding. There are liners by people with names like Thurston Moore and Dave Eggers, but they are not where it's at. The gold is in the grooves, and these are so dense you'll need a pick axe to get to the bottom of it. Start digging.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
Widespread Panic "Wood" Widespread Records
I used to think that a band had to have a really great sound to "make it." At the very least, it should sound really great to someone. Later, I decided that the sound didn't have to be great at all, just "big." Create a sound that's big enough for long enough, and I think you've got a good chance of making it as a pro musician. Last year, the boys in Widespread Panic decided they'd take the bulk of 2012 off to make no noise at all and they wanted to go into this hiatus having given their fans something different to chew on during the time out. And so they went out on their first ever acoustic tour and now we have "Wood" to show for it. This is way more exciting than I'd reckoned it would be.
Panic's sound is, if nothing else, really large. I've heard all the hipster complaints about the band's lack of sonic variety, that they don't write enough of their own songs, that this has all been done before. Okay. But some of us don't care about any of that. Some of us still like electric guitars and music played by people that know how to play it regardless of whether or not they have great haircuts and can wear skinny jeans. "Skinny" is not a word that many of us jump to when we think of Widespread Panic. And, although the "Wood" sound is basic by definition, it is not lacking in heft or gravitas. The most obvious difference after the lack of electricity is the amount of canvas that opens up for John Bell to paint his vocals on. The man has come a long way since "Space Wrangler" (which is a great album on its own) and that's never been more easy to appreciate than it is on "Wood." He swoons, and swings, and flies, and floats with such effortless ease that you feel like you're finally hearing him for the first time - thousands of shows into a career that is already legendary depending on where you're from and who you ask. There are twenty tunes on "Wood" and about half of them are covers and about half of those are new to the band's repertoire. "Mercy" and "C. Brown" weigh in as the eldest originals while newish tunes like "St. Louis" and "Tickle The Truth" balance things out for the more "contemporary" fans. I've loved the sound of most official live releases in Panic's catalog, and "Wood" might be tops amongst them all. Maybe it was easier to get the feel of these recordings across without the clutter that distortion brings or maybe it was the most elusive sound they've yet captured and they almost killed themselves getting it right. Regardless, I think they finally have a recent official release that rivals the energy of their earlier works. This one sounds like a celebration.
Panic put out a teaser of this set back in April for Record Store Day which was great, but the "Wood" box set boasts four records pressed nicely on heavy vinyl with a book of photographs and a poster to create what is easily their most compelling vinyl release so far. I don't know how limited this edition really is, but I'd say get a copy while you can if you're a fan. It's the best this line-up has offered us to date. Suddenly, 2013 looks really intriguing for Spread Heads…
Van Morrison "Astral Weeks" Warner Brothers
I've been waiting for some many years now to reach adulthood. I thought for sure it would have happened prior to my 39th year, but the prognosis is not good. I guess I've learned a few things though. I've found that part of being an adult is identifying where you're willing to compromise and where you are not. And I've learned that these spots can shift over the course of time no matter how fervently you've built your identity around them. Had you asked me only last year if I would call off my hunt for a pristine original copy of "Astral Weeks" and opt instead for a reissue from Warner Brothers Records, I'd have asked you if you were really talking to me or the loser standing just off my shoulder. And whether or not that loser knew anything about vinyl at all. Well, it turns out that loser is me. And losing never sounded so good.
God knows, if you're unfamiliar with this record you should stop reading immediately and fix this problem post-haste. Van Morrison had just resolved a lingering contract dispute and was embarking on his solo career as a member of the Warner Brothers roster. He'd hit it big with "Brown-Eyed Girl" so, in the tradition of Bob Dylan, he was about to set himself to dismantling the stardom he'd constructed for himself with an album of stream of consciousness lyrical musings over soft, acoustic instrumentation played by a bunch of jazzers that he'd never met. Out of all that, we were blessed with the masterpiece that is "Astral Weeks." It defies classification. It's one of the more powerful entries in the pop music canon, but it doesn't puff its chest out and announce itself so much as it quietly makes its way through the crowded room to a quiet corner where it sits by a lantern reading Kerouac over a Guinness while waiting for the rest of us to catch on. My dad turned me on to Morrison via "Moondance" in my youth and I loved it, but I didn't really catch on until I'd heard "Astral Weeks." It's as heavy as war and as light as air, the instruments spaced so perfectly as to let Morrison's voice climb over and around them like a ballerina with linebacker strength. All this beauty was created over the course of three quick recording sessions in late 1968 (one of which was entirely scrapped), and we've heard nothing even similar to it since then. Morrison was clearly drawing from a deep, deep well to get this stuff, and it's worth noting that the man who has staked his reputation on not repeating himself in content or mood went back a few years ago and played this record to sold out audiences in its entirety. Finally. Not resting on your laurels is healthy. Denying the world a chance at seeing these songs recreated in a live setting is mean. I'm glad he found the balance.
This version was mastered from the original analog tapes by Kevin Gray. It was so silent when I dropped the needle that I thought my stereo was off. And that's exactly the treatment that this recording deserves. This one has been around for a while and stocks are dwindling so get it while you can. I felt kinda like I was eating barbecue from a chain restaurant when I bought it, but sometimes the corporations get it right, I guess. This is one of those times. Buy with confidence.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)