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A Collection of New Vinyl for the Audiophile - September, 2013

Charles Walker and the Dynamites "Love Is Only Everything" Gemco Records

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A Collection of New Vinyl for the Audiophile - September, 2013 - Love Is Only Everything

It wasn't hard to see this coming. I knew, upon first listen, that Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings were going to open the door for similarly styled Rhythm and Blues bands of this era. That doesn't make me any kind of genius. It's as obvious as tying your shoes once you've been exposed. Some people might think of the "Soul Revival" bands as imitators, and there will almost certainly be some amongst their ranks, but I think they're doing the world a kindness overall. I mean, what do you do if your style happens to have not changed with the whims of the Pop Music machine over the course of the last few decades? Change your style to adapt? Now, who's being disingenuous? And I'd prefer that a new band draw inspiration from an Old Master than the reverse scenario. So, when a band like Charles Walker and the Dynamites puts out a record like Love Is Only Everything, I pay attention at least long enough to see if they feel like the real thing.  

A quick Internet search shows that Charles "Wigg" Walker is originally from Nashville. He recorded his first sides there around the dawn of the 1960's, then lit out for New York City where he performed at the Apollo and probably every other venue available to Black performers at the time. Toured as an opener for all the Big Names throughout the '60's and '70's before setting up camp in Europe during the '80's. The theme is as familiar as the music. The man went where the work was. Moved around as much as was necessary to support himself doing what he loved. Stood his ground while popular tastes shifted and shattered, and now he's enjoying the fruits of a rejuvenated career back in Nashville where it all started. He hired a bunch of younger players that wanted to capture the Old Soul Sound as his backing band, and then they went and did it. Love Is Only Everything isn't quite as rough around the edges as the best Daptone recordings are, but they're far from shiny and the content is classic. It's a Big City sound with full horn arrangements and lots of tasty organ sounds. Clean electric guitars and plenty of syncopation. Rump shaking music. And Walker's voice plows through it all like some sort of monster machine. His voice reminds me a little of Bootsy's minus the overt humor and with the power of Solomon Burke behind it. The band recorded this one in three different Nashville studios, plus one in Hoboken, and one in Los Angeles. The sound is consistent throughout which I see as a testament to the power of an honest recording process. The simplicity of it all is a bit reminiscent of the Meters recordings on Josie, and the Dynamites' guitarist seems to have a pretty firm grasp on Leo Nocentelli's accents too. Add it all up, and you've got a right compelling new Soul record. You can't get enough of those.

The single disc in this package is not a visual spectacular, but it's more than serviceable as the sound is silent at the appropriate times and as lively as a house party when needed. There's a download coupon so you can convert all your friends on the fly. I'm going to do my part and I'll be keeping an eye out for live dates too. If they can do it onstage like they did on wax, it'll be a formidable live experience.  

(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)

Stevie Wonder "Music of My Mind" Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab

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A Collection of New Vinyl for the Audiophile - September, 2013 - Music of My Mind

I checked in a while back with the Vinyl Oracle, Michael Fremer, in hopes of getting some clarification on what exactly was going on with Mobile Fidelity's Silver Label series. They cost less than standard MoFi titles and they make no mention of the original master tapes on the packaging. According to Fremer, the records are not pressed on 180 gram vinyl and there is, in fact, no guarantee that the original masters were used in their manufacture. In our email correspondence, Fremer specifically referenced some Stevie Wonder records that will never be remastered from the original tapes because of a fire that destroyed them and many other original masters. This is what we refer to in the business as a "catastrophe." MoFi still uses a 100 percent analog process while engineering these reissues, and based on my experiences so far, there is nothing to complain about from a quality perspective. Especially with regards to Stevie's material. (This info, admittedly, is not new to readers of this website, but I thought a refresher might be in order.) I've rarely been blown away by the quality of original Motown pressings anyway, even on the rare occasions when I've found some minty ones. I think the Silver Label's take on Music of My Mind is a musical mind blower. I'm excited by it.

Music of My Mind is often thought of as Wonder's first entry in his "Classic Period." It's the second album on which he had complete artistic control, and he takes the mile he was given and runs screaming for the horizon like a man possessed. Of course, he is just such a man. He is possessed of otherworldly talent, and an obviously deeply abiding spiritual foundation that seems to permeate everything he does. The material on Music of My Mind may not be as instantly recognizable as some of the Talking Book hits, for instance, but it is just as varied, just as expansive and just frigging great. The harmonica intro to "Sweet Little Girl" lends the song a Country/Funk vibe that Jim Ford might have been proud to produce himself. Wonder tries on multiple voices like he's changing his socks just within the span of this one song. It has spoken word breakdowns, Wonder's inimitable Fender Rhodes work, and an overall level of grooviness that just moves you. He also references Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and utters the most historically derogatory term for African-Americans on record during the song's lead out, then prints it all on the lyric sheet in case you missed it during playback. How excited do you think Berry Gordy was about all of that? Wonder played all instruments on the record excepting guitar and trombone. This, clearly, includes the drums, and I have always been a huge fan of the way Wonder acquits himself behind a kit. In fact, I think he's one of the best drummers in all of popular music history although I never hear anyone talking about it. But, despite my best attempts to make it worth reading, words are not going to get the point across when it comes to Stevie Wonder. Music of My Mind is for listening. We should do that immediately.

I'm stoked to put this one on the shelf next to Talking Book and my original Songs In The Key of Life, and I'm looking forward to completing the Silver Label Stevie collection ASAP. These are well made records from the best available sources and they are not priced outrageously. And they carry the music of Stevie Wonder within their grooves. They should have sold out already. Act fast and look alive.  

(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)

Iron and Wine "Ghost On Ghost" Nonesuch

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A Collection of New Vinyl for the Audiophile - September, 2013 - Iron and Wine

I'd gotten so desperate to cobble together five new records to review last month that I started searching for music labels that released quality vinyl packages instead of searching for specific artists. As far as new music goes, no label puts more effort into their vinyl releases than Nonesuch. And I like Iron and Wine. I also like iron and wine well enough, I guess, but that's not what we're talking about here. So, Iron and Wine released their latest on Nonesuch and I thought maybe I'd hit on a winning formula for a good review. I wasn't entirely successful, but I didn't fail miserably. The record is called Ghost On Ghost. Unfortunately, there's not much of a story here. I'll do my best to make this interesting.  

I enjoy talking about music that I like, and I love avoiding music that I don't. I've liked most of what I've heard out of Sam Beam in the past. I think his music is virtuous. And I don't mind his progression from home recording musical genius discovery to a genius musician who polished his act a bit after said discovery. I don't think an artist's merit is diminished by their popularity. And I am completely supportive of the artist's right to follow their muse without regard for what their fan base expects or wants from them. I don't know that Beam's polishing was performed in hopes of bettering a chance at mass consumption. It may have been an artistic choice from the start. But it all adds up to Easy Listening in a couple of spots on Ghost. The songs that work best for me are the ones where Beam falls back on his rapid vocal delivery ("The Desert Babbler," "Low Light Buddy Of Mine"). Kind of a folky rap presentation that is not at all in line with Beck's folky rapping. Beam just fits more syllables into a passage than one might expect based on the song's structure. Mike Cooley can do the same thing to great effect. And then there's Dylan, and now I'm rambling. But I warned you that I might because I just don't find this record as inspiring as I'd thought I would. There's a lot going on, but I don't feel like the content supports the horns. Or the strings. And I feel like you have to be especially careful with strings. They've ruined many a sonic experience in my book, and they only add to the Easy Listening vibe on this one. I bet Starbucks can't keep this on their counters. And Beam should have tagged the muted NPR interview that almost surely transpired in support of this record onto the end of it as a bonus track. It might have spiced things up a bit. "New Mexico's No Breeze" could have used it.

To the surprise of no one, the cleanliness of this record is ruinous to my ears. Nonesuch did their part. The vinyl is pristine, and it shows that cleanliness up in the most natural way available. There's a CD included and the inner sleeve won't require replacement if you opt to hold on to this record. I will not be doing that, but I'll likely replace it with an older Iron and Wine work that I haven't explored yet. I whiffed on this one, but I'm glad I took a swing. I'll be back in the batter's box for Beam's next release.  

(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)

Neil Young "After The Gold Rush" Reprise Records

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A Collection of New Vinyl for the Audiophile - September, 2013 - After The Gold Rush

I never know what to tell folks when they ask me what my favorite band is. It's an impossible question to answer because the response could vary depending on what kind of day I've had and what I'm in the mood to hear as a result. But the space an artist takes up on my record shelf might be a good barometer. If that's the case, then Dylan has separated himself from the pack. Maybe because his box sets are so formidable. The Beatles are woefully under represented due to the price of mint originals and a lack of decent reissues. Wilco and the Drive-By Truckers collections are complete. The Stones are in the race (and are probably my favorite band in all actuality). But Uncle Neil is always going to be a presence and his vault reissues are top shelf quality. I was having a hard time finding five records that I was interested in reviewing this month, and so I journeyed through the past and landed on After The Gold Rush. It's like coming home. Provided that you really love where you're from.

I saw Guns 'n' Roses perform "Don't Let It Bring You Down" with Neil at his Bridge School Benefit last October. Axel Rose made mention of the fact that Neil was going to "kick his ass" vocally on the performance, and his statement proved prescient. Probably would have been true even if Wax hadn't had a cold. Or the flu, or whatever. The band seemed to be in as much awe of Young's vocal turn as the audience was, and I was reminded of how much I love that song in the first place. I'd had Gold Rush rattling around in the back of my head since, and now I remember why. It's a perfect hybrid for folks who are divided along Electric Neil versus Acoustic Neil lines. I mostly fall on the Electric side, but I wouldn't want to have to live in that universe exclusively. Still, "Southern Man" packs quite a punch even if you are one. The titular (love that word) song epitomizes Neil's heartfelt nasal warbling almost to the point of parody, but I know he means it. His passion overshadows his technique in live recordings of the song, but the studio shows his methods up in sharp relief. Especially on these reissues. Neil is a noted audiophile, doing what he can to drag the digital formats into the arena of respectability. But until he cracks the code, the vinyl in this series will stand as the benchmark for me. Gold Rush may not unseat his Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere as "Best Sounding Rock Reissue In My Collection," but that doesn't diminish its impact. Nowhere has all those triumphant Gibson electric tones to fill the space between the amplifier and the studio mic while Gold Rush is left with a little more air in between the notes. Danny Whitten makes his presence felt on both, but Neil's harmonica is exclusive to Gold Rush and that's cause for celebration in and of itself. (At this, the competition between Neil and Dylan is really no competition at all. Neil hands Bob his ass on harmonica. Some will say their styles are just "different," and they're right. They're different because Neil's playing is better.)

After The Gold Rush is housed in a sturdy gatefold outer sleeve, and the vinyl is preserved in a high quality inner after having been pressed at Pallas in Germany and mastered, obviously, from the original analog tapes. No digital copies included as Neil would probably find the very thought ludicrous. We get the handwritten lyrics reprinted on a monster poster - just like in the original. But Neil makes no attempt to fool us with note for note repackaging. His "Vault Series" branding is all over the spine and back cover. That's what I admire most about him. Neil is an honest man.

(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)

Pillow Fight "Pillow Fight" Bulk Recordings

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A Collection of New Vinyl for the Audiophile - September, 2013 - Pillow Fight

I woke up on Monday morning, August 26, gloriously oblivious to the events that had stoked the raging media storm around the prior night's MTV Video Music Awards. By that, I mean that I had no idea that the show had even taken place. I've always said that the 1980's were our cultural nadir, especially as far as popular music was concerned. But what we have now is a super strain of decrepitude. No shot of good taste or talent is going to make a dent in this contagion. I have to believe that Miley Cyrus got exactly what she wanted out of her VMA performance which was a boatload of publicity around her lack of clothing, the fact that her tongue kept falling out of her face, her ass kept flying around the room, and whatever else. Not one mention of the fact that the music throughout the entire segment was aggressively crappy. It would have been a total afterthought if anyone had thought about it at all. I feel dirty for having succumbed to the temptation of YouTube. I had to see what the fuss was about. Now, I have to live with it.

Despite all of this and against incredible odds, I still look for compelling sounds in this wasteland of auto tuners and digitization. Sometimes I find some. Sometimes they find me. Pillow Fight found me through a friend's recommendation. There has to be hope in the midst of plague. Heroes and supporting players. I think Pillow Fight falls into the latter category. They may never make it to the front lines, but they'll hold down the fort until the cavalry comes. That's my dream, anyway.  

The group is a collaboration between Dan the Automator and Emily Wells. I was vaguely aware of the former prior to this release, and not at all familiar with Wells. They're doing their part to help balance the scales. This style has been done before, but they're deploying plenty of original ideas on the battleground too. (I mean, it's not a Robin Thicke-like rip-off of a specific prior work. And I can't imagine the Pillow Fight members preemptively suing a deceased artist's estate for that artist having gone to the trouble of writing a superior song for them to steal. I guess Thicke has given Marvin something other than his murder to avenge from the grave. So we have that to look forward to.) Wells' vocal presentation might remind the listener of Macy Gray during certain passages, but without the added flare and histrionics. The Automator's beats are more laconic and succinct than what's en vogue now. Add them together, and you get a laid back, sneaky affair that kinda cuddles up next to you while you're drifting off to sleep. Right in that space between slumber and wakefulness where you're too happy to resist. Throw in some acoustic instrumentation and hand claps over those lazy electronic beats, and you have a formula that even I find hard to resist. And Wells is a gifted lyricist too. She goes to some darker than normal places, and doesn't require a giant foam finger jammed in some litigious faker's crotch to make the listener feel a bit uneasy. In short, there was some real talent involved in the creation of this work, and the work stands on its own. Remember that? Talent? Albums made up of songs for their own sake? Anyone? Who's with me?

I needed an album like this at a time like now. Pillow Fight was released by Bulk Recordings out of South San Francisco which means that I was able to support a local business on top of everything else. You don't get much in the way of extras with this package. It came with a nice inner sleeve that won't need to be replaced. The single record is heavy and mostly silent. There's a cool color photo of the duo on the back cover, and no digital copy included. That's unfortunate because this is perfect walking around the City with your iPod music. I'd like to take it with me, and I might actually download the album from iTunes for just that reason. I'm thinking of buying it twice. Maybe I should have just said that in the beginning and spared the reader all of my griping about what is not on this record. I apologize. Times are tough. The enemy is not at the door. They've blown the door off its hinges and razed everything worth saving. It's time to rebuild.

(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)