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A Collection of New Vinyl Releases for the Audiophile - June, 2010

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings "I Learned The Hard Way" Daptone Records

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Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

There's a theater in Oakland, California called the Paramount. It's one of a few remaining "movie palaces" from the 1920's and '30's. It's Art Deco down to the exit signs and the bathroom fixtures. It was renovated within the last few years and there's all manner of fun facts regarding the expense and time that went into maintaining the venue's astonishingly authentic detail. It's like taking a trip back in time, really. Not unlike listening to the new Sharon Jones and the Dap-King's record. It's called "I Learned The Hard Way," and I wouldn't be a bit surprised to hear about someone arguing its release date with you. It's almost impossible to imagine that it was recorded at any time past 1965, let alone in 2010. This outfit either found the secret to time travel or a trusty source for vintage gear or both. The effect is so startling that it can almost distract you from the music. And that's remarkable because the music is spectacular.

Songs like "When The Game Gets Old," employ gloriously cheesy rhythm and blues lines that rhyme "love" with "boxing gloves." Couple that technique with the live string and horn sections and you've got yourself a bona fide vintage soul sound. It looks like the Dap-King members spread the songwriting duties around to four or five players. I'm not familiar enough with the material to discern any strong stylistic differences between them yet either. To me, they all add up to a cohesive album and a really good one at that. I will say that Bosco Mann seems to have written the songs that stick with me the longest on "Hard Way." Mann's title track is an epic in miniature with stellar backing vocals and groovy horn lines. By comparison, Homer Steinweiss's "Better Things" comes off a little trite and a little shallow. Then again, we're not trying to solve the world's problems so much as call attention to them anyway. Mann's "Money" is a prime example of this assignment as it focuses on the current economic crises without offering a hint of solution. And that's kind of been soul music's function throughout history in a way.

This is music for the common folk, and its messages of despair are often oddly comforting as an acknowledgement that we're not alone in this mess. Heartbreak and being broke are two subjects that a lot of us can relate to without having to dig too deeply into our subconscious. And when you surround these topics with a band like the Dap-Kings and a voice like Sharon Jones's, you come away feeling better than you did going in if you have a discernible pulse at all. I've not been fortunate enough to catch their act live yet, but I'm going to remedy that in about four weeks time. I suspect that I'll lose weight during the show. This music sounds hot and sweaty and undulating and gritty. I wish with all of my being that the rest of the recording industry would take a page from the Dap-King's manual. They've really found the sound, man. I don't know how or why they were the first, but it works and should be repeatable. I read an article about Mann's recording techniques a couple of years back and he described what he does when, say, a sax is coming through too loudly in the mix. It's revolutionary. He asks the player to take a step back from the microphone. He doesn't struggle with mic placement nor does he try to fix it in the mix later. The result is a sound as classic as the genre itself. Some folks will call it imitation. I call it quality. I don't need someone to reinvent the wheel with every new release anyway. I'm in it for smoking songs and awesome performances. "I Learned The Hard Way" is full of them, and it's as good a soul album as I've heard since the Dap-Kings' last one. I've got one horse in this race presently, and I'd like nothing more than to expand the competition.

There's nothing particularly enthralling about a Daptone Records vinyl release beyond the quality of the work. They're good about giving you a digital download coupon, and that's about it. The weight is pedestrian and the pressing is serviceable. The liner notes are sparse, and the inner sleeves are of the standard paper variety. Somehow, this all works with the overall aesthetic. This music isn't fancy anyway, and a little static between songs isn't going to ruin my experience of the music in the long run. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are expanding their empire, and will make a lasting impression on modern rhythm and blues music if there's any justice in this world. They've got the chops and they've got the ear for details. Right down to the bathroom fixtures and exit signs. I'm going to support this band until bands like them become the norm. That's my vision of a perfect world anyway. We'll see how it goes...

The Black Keys "Brothers" Nonesuch

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The Black Keys

Dan Auerbach is on a winning streak. I'm looking at a stack of five records from the last two years that he's played a hand in and they're all pretty much classics. 2008 saw the release of Hacienda's debut (Auerbach produced) as well as "Attack and Release" by Auerbach's own Black Keys. That album saw an expansion in the band's sound that was met with mixed reactions by their fan base. I thought it was awesome. Auerbach released his solo debut, "Keep It Hid," in 2009, and it was hands down my favorite new release of that year. So far in 2010 he's produced Hacienda's stellar second helping (which we covered at Secrets just last month), and now we have "Brothers" by the Keys to carry us through until 2011, assuming he does nothing else in between now and then. Auerbach's making real rock and roll music with feeling and integrity right now, and I wouldn't ask for anything else. It's not easy to find now, folks. Soak it up while you can.

"Brothers" often feels like heartache. This may be a result of Auerbach's most obvious blues influences or as a result of drummer Patrick Carney's recent romantic break-up (which has been well documented publicly). Regardless of the reason, "Brothers" pours it on thick with despair and the knee jerk reactions that seem spring from it. Songs like "Next Girl" and "I'm Not The One" address the scene directly while others are more suggestive. That's not to say that there's no partying going on here. "Howlin' For You" could rock any sports team's arena during a lively time out, and "Everlasting Light" starts things off with some fuzzy funk soul that gets you moving right away. Blues music has always seemed celebratory despite (or because of) the situations that have inspired the songs. Auerbach applies that approach to create a brand of music that is equally cerebral and carnal. He's developed his trick bag too. The same falsetto that has worked so well for Jim James of late has found its way into the Black Keys lexicon. Pure fun from start to finish. Add that to the hip-hop sensibilities that have always informed the Keys most groovy work and you've got a potent concoction to work with. And we still haven't addressed the fact that Dan Auerbach is a maniac with a guitar in his hands. He's simply one of the most interesting soloists around. There are still a couple of gunslingers left during this era of the DJ, and he's one of the most dangerous. We can all be thankful for that.

"Brothers" doesn't move me in quite the same way that Auerbach's "Keep It Hid" did last year. For that matter, I'll probably get a little more mileage out of Hacienda's most recent release, but this is strictly a matter of personal preference and is in no way meant as a disparagement. And it's not the final word on the subject either. "Brothers" has revealed something new to me during every listen so far. Hopefully, the band's fans will allow them to explore the more varied terrain that they've been mining of late. I love the Keys at their most basic, and I also can't wait to hear where they wind up next. They can always scale their sound back to the guitar and drum attack that garnered them so much attention to start with, but right now they seem a little restless and its serving their sound quite well. Nonesuch did an awesome job with the vinyl release which is on two high-quality 180-gram platters and includes a CD of the entire album as well as a poster the size of my bed with lyrics and credits. It's a killer package from one of today's greatest bands. Grab a copy on the vinyl, the way it was meant to be heard, and don't bet against Dan Auerbach. That's my advice, anyway.

She and Him "Volume Two" Merge Records

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She and Him

I always think about Bruce Willis & Don Johnson when I hear about famous actors' forays into the world of recorded music. Those are the two that I remember most clearly from my youth along with Eddie Murphy. They're all embarrassing and I owned every horrid second of all three releases. On vinyl. Luckily, tastes change. But I still get a pit in my stomach when I hear about singing actors, man. I think you can understand my position on this one in light of the confession above. Zooey Deschanel is a different story. She can sing well enough with a voice as distinctive as any, but her real musical talent seems to be her ability to craft legitimately awesome songs. It doesn't hurt that she has indie darling M. Ward on her side either. The duo call themselves She and Him, and their second album is "Volume Two." A simple moniker for a collection of simple tunes? Basically, that's true. But there's plenty of nuance in these grooves, and the sound conjures memories of Phil Spector and '70's A.M. gold. This is breezy music for a world in peril, I just wish I were happy enough to enjoy it as much as I could.

As I mentioned, this isn't the most complex set of songs. I mean, we're not talking about Frank Zappa here. That's fine, but the songs all run together for me in the end. It'll work for people that are partial to this type of thing, but I'm too grumpy to buy into it all wholeheartedly. Deschanel's voice floats like a feather in the breeze, and it never seems to land especially on songs like "Me and You." The effect can be a bit syrupy for those of us that have allowed our attitudes to sour with age, but I can see my relentlessly positive friends (mostly of the female variety) soaking up every second. "Gonna Get Along Without You Now," for instance, is just too cute for me. I'm more comfortable with music containing some element of danger or music that nods at our darker underbellies. This music has/does neither. It sounds to me like Deschanel's underbelly is made of rainbows and unicorns. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I think we find our most common ground in our influences based on what I'm hearing, and She and Him have some heavyweight inspirations in their corner.

I hear Roy Orbison in the album opener, "Thieves." There's even a hint of mariachi in "Lingering." Phil Spector's production stylings are all over "Volume Two" while the Beach Boys are suggested more so than assimilated. So, the duo creates a mood. I wish with all my heart that my mood was more in tune with their music. I'd be so much happier. I don't mean to suggest that this is anything other than a really good album with some very listenable songs on it. That's exactly what it is. And I'm probably going to keep my copy because I like to have tunes for every occasion. I imagine that I'd have occasion to play this one in polite company on a nice day with maybe some kids around or something? Regardless, She and Him have made two full length records now that are more agreeable than any other actor's crossover work that I can think of offhand. Her voice has a natural, lilting quality that will be very soothing for anyone that can allow themselves to relax into it. And M. Ward's music could chill you out in the middle of a firestorm so the two together make for a really potent cocktail of calm. Don't operate heavy machinery while listening...

So, I'll recommend this record overall. I'd just caution the listener that there is absolutely zero angst to be found on "Volume Two." This is music for the deliriously happy. I like to crash their party for the amount of time it takes to listen to maybe one side. Then, I like to get a little randy and throw some MC5 in the mix, maybe. The vinyl itself is of admirable construction in that it's heavy and visually decent with minimal imperfections. Merge Records did the right thing by including a digital download coupon as well. If you live in a place where the sun always shines and you don't pay taxes, then pick this one up now. Even if your mood flies south for a while, it still beats Bruce Willis singing Staple Singers songs or Eddie Murphy whining about his party time girlfriend.

John Lennon "Imagine" Capitol Records / Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab

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John Lennon

Everyone seems to have a favorite Beatle except me. I can narrow it down to two, but I can't choose between George Harrison & John Lennon. They're both so musical that it boggles the mind. It's like staring at the sun. You can't do it for long before the strain becomes to great. Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs has released part of Lennon's catalog over the last few years, and I figured that would be a good entry point into Lennon's solo work for me. I've been putting it off as a way of generating anticipation. I saw that the MoFi stock was running low on "Imagine" which is generally considered to be his most accessible post-Beatles album so I finally pulled the trigger and bought a copy. I think I made the right choice. It's an easy listen all the way through. Even "Oh Yoko!" (The exclamation point is not mine. It's actually part of song title.) I was full of trepidation going into that one, but it turned out alright. Everything did. A little sugary, but very palatable none the less. Phil Specter probably has something to do with that as he produced "Imagine" along with Lennon and, of course, Ono. It's a slick '70's style. Pretty clean, but capable of making babies. There's plenty of life in these grooves, and the MoFi release brings them into startling relief. I just wish I had an original to compare it to.

I can't "imagine" that we need to spend much time on the title track. It's simply one of the most important rock songs ever. I don't think there's ever been a more direct appeal for world peace in popular music. (U2 made a nice run at it a while back with "One," but the lyrics were more slippery. Furthermore, they've gone behind themselves and cheapened what they'd accomplished with silly versions involving guest female vocalists that don't add to the original.) The country honk in "Crippled Inside" is a little more surprising. George Harrison's dobro parts are fun for the whole family as are Nicky Hopkins' piano bits. "Jealous Guy" is a lovely admission, but I'm more into songs like "I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier Mama" at present. It's greasier and funkier, and doesn't involve symphonic string arrangements. Symphonic string arrangements are tough to pull off, but they work best for people with the McCartney or Lennon surname, and that certainly holds true on "Imagine." (I'd have left them off, but I've never made my own album either. Lennon would have been within his rights to call that to my attention.) History shows that Lennon was at the height of his McCartney feud during the "Imagine" era so that might explain some of the raunch in songs like "It's So Hard" or "How Do You Sleep?" which is rife with Beatles imagery. Then, there's the fact that he was also at the height of his love affair with Ono which resulted in songs like "Oh My Love," and "Oh Yoko." In short, everything's in here that made Lennon famous in the first place. Peace and love and piss and vinegar. You need it all, I guess, if you're going to round out your experience on this rock. There haven't been many folks more qualified to provide you with a soundtrack to that endeavor either. That might ultimately be what sways me in my "favorite Beatle" argument. I listen to Harrison most typically when I'm feeling "up" while I can listen to Lennon any old time. At least for now.

The quality of a Mobile Fidelity release is generally hard to beat, and "Imagine" doesn't stray from that path. The only thing that raises my eyebrows here is that this version was "Digitally remixed at Abbey Road Studios under the personal supervision of "YOKO ONO, Autumn 1999." (Again, the capitalization isn't mine.) I'd just as soon hear the album as it was in 1971. That won't surprise many people, I know. Having said that, I'd probably never have noticed the difference on my own. I saw it in the liner notes, and I think about it all the time now. Hopefully, that'll go away. If not, I'll just find an original. But I can't see finding one that's going to sound better from a quality of vinyl perspective. If you're in it for the purity of the sound, then I'd buy a copy now while you still can. MoFi releases have a fixed quantity, and they get pricey when the well runs dry.

Chet Baker - Art Pepper Sextet "Picture of Heath" (a/k/a "Playboys") Pacific Jazz Records / Pure Pleasure Records

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Chet Baker - Art Pepper Sextet

A buddy of mine who is "in the know" suggested an Art Pepper album to me recently, but I've been unable to locate a clean original copy or a trusted reissue so far. Another friend swears that Chet Baker could sing any woman in the world out of her shoes, and that he was a pretty happening trumpeter as well. A little online research turned the two jazzers up together on a couple of releases, the most famous being the "Playboys" album from 1956. Pure Pleasure Records recently released that very recording, but changed the cover and title due to legalities. That's a bit of a drag, but I don't think about it at all once this record starts spinning. Blue Note Records produced the jazz titles that I'm most familiar with and "Picture of Heath," as we're calling it now, is not at all like anything that I'm accustomed to. This is an example of West Coast "cool jazz" and it may just open a whole new collectable door for me while opening a hole in my checking account too. This album improves my quality of life so I'm calling it "an investment." I've already gotten my return in excess of the price tag, and it's only been a couple of weeks so far.

It seems like the quality of this work was a small miracle as the two principle players were wasted out of their minds throughout the era in which it was recorded. Baker's movie star good looks were eventually ravaged by heroine, and Art Pepper didn't fair much better. He did manage to last long enough to die by stroke while Baker got ripped and fell out of a hotel room window to meet his end. I digress. There's no hint of those habits on "Picture of Heath" that I can discern. The playing is sharp as a tack and tight as a mouse's ear. It sounds like good clean fun to me. Most songs on "Picture" were written by Jimmy Heath, and two were Pepper's. The formula is not new. The sextet often starts with the theme before the soloists go for theirs, and we all meet up at the end to bring it home together, right? But the feeling is unique. At least to me. It's not as sonically tough or as dirty as something from Art Blakey's "Moanin'" or Hank Mobley's "Roll Call," but it's not sterile either. It's not too glossy, but the distortion is minimal. It's not too sunny, but it's not as contemplative as "Blue Train," for instance. "Picture" works as well on a sunny day as it does in the foggy night. Recently, I've experienced more of the latter than I care to acknowledge, and this recording has held strong through it all. Pepper's playing is as fluid as any I'm aware of, and it really lends a classy vibe to a swinging song like "Minor Yours." The pianist for the "Playboys" sessions shared a name with the more famous Carl Perkins, and sounds as accomplished on piano as anyone that I know of in jazz besides Duke Ellington. These folks certainly made a sophisticated sound. A visiting friend from Georgia bought a hat while here, and claimed that he was made instantly more polite by wearing it. That's how I feel about "Picture of Heath." I feel more civilized while hearing it. Perhaps I should loop it continuously and see how much further in life I get as a result. Put this theory to the test...

Pure Pleasure landed on an apt handle for their operation. The sound is indeed pure and, above all, pleasurable. My copy has zero surface noise, and you could use the vinyl as a mirror if you were in a pinch. The horns are lifelike and Perkins' piano really stands out too. There's nothing fancy about the packaging except that the inner sleeve is of exceptional quality which probably explains the record's gloss. Please note, any time you here "Playboys" as "Picture of Heath," you'll be dealing with a song sequence that doesn't match the original. That's a little vexing to me for some reason, and is not specific to the Pure Pleasure release. I'll be keeping an eye out for a minty original to compare mine to or, at the very least, a copy with a clean cover to house my re-issue in. In the meantime, I'll be wearing this one out while searching for other examples of the West Coast Jazz genre on high quality vinyl. I can't wait...