Media

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

Record Store Day

Record Store Day

Record Store Day is the finest invention since crushed ice. It's the best idea anyone has had in as long as I can remember. Apparently, we can thank a man named Chris Brown. Not the pop starlet-abusing, hot shoe-having, marginally talented and tremendously over rated vocalist Chris Brown. I'm talking about the good Chris Brown. The one that works for an independent record store in Maine. That Chris Brown married two of my favorite causes, supporting local businesses and record collecting, on one glorious Saturday in April, 2007. The first one got by me, but I've participated in the last two, and I can tell you that there is a skill involved. You have to approach RSD with a plan or you'll find yourself on the outside looking in at all of the magical products that are specific to the day. That, by the way, is the thrust of RSD. Artists release recordings, often on vinyl, in limited quantities just for the third Saturday in April, and they can only be purchased at independent retailers. No Best Buy finds, no Wal-Mart allowed. I don't even know if the chain record stores that I grew up supporting are even around any more. When was the last time anyone saw a Turtle's Records and Tapes? How about a Camelot Records? Sam Goody, anyone? Didn't think so. Good by and good riddance. They wouldn't have qualified to participate in RSD anyway.

I chose Amoeba Records in San Francisco as my venue for the 2010 event. Actually, I think of it more as a holiday. I could have gone with Rasputin Records or Aquarius Records, but had a hunch that Amoeba would have more of the records I was looking for. Not all participating stores get every release available to sell. I got to the game late in 2009, and all of the My Morning Jacket 10" records were sold out when I arrived. I was in line with the rest of the geeks when the store opened this year. There were about 25 folks in front of me when I arrived 45 minutes prior to opening. I had a list of participating artists whose products I was after. I learned, while waiting, that this year's event would differ from last year's in that the RSD releases would be in the individual artists' sections. Last year, there was a special section for RSD releases. This, as you can imagine, resulted in congestion, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. I envisioned punk rockers trampling each other for the Joe Strummer releases like Tickle Me Elmo time at Christmas, but the new arrangement precluded such base behavior. Amoeba had a rule stating that each customer could only buy one copy of each RSD item. In theory, everyone should have been able to get a copy of everything they wanted. It almost worked out perfectly for me.

I got everything I wanted except for a Beastie Boys 12" single called "Super Surprise." I never saw it or I didn't recognize it if I did. I met a guy that got one and he said it was in a white sleeve without a printed sticker. I still don't know if it contains a song from a future release or if I just missed out forever. That was the only key piece to my plan that went unfulfilled. I sure as hell got my Wilco "Kicking Television" box set though, and it's right on par with all their other recent vinyl releases. Amazing, that is. Printed at Palais, in a sturdy box with fancy inner liners, with an LP sized book and a concert poster for the run of Chicago shows from whence the songs were compiled. Eight bonus tracks. Sounds infinitely better than the digital release from a few years back, and looks killer next to my complete Wilco vinyl catalog. Big score. I also landed a re-release of REM's "Chronic Town" on numbered blue vinyl. This was the band's first official release to the best of my knowledge and the EP is legendary. It's held up well over the years and it spawned a movement, folks. Get one if you can find one.

Those were actually the only two full-length offerings that I came away with. Everything else was of the 10" or 7" variety, and I got some winners if I do say so myself. I made a b-line for the Rolling Stones "Plunder My Soul" 45, and came away with copy number 1591. I think they printed five thousand. The song is an outtake from "Exile On Main Street" which was a double album already. I was skeptical as to whether or not the single could stand up to the rest of the material since they'd already included at least one more song than that album needed, but I like "Plunder" more than "Sweet Black Angel" and I know I'll get plenty of mileage out of it. I grabbed "Your Woman Is A Living Thing," by the Drive-By Truckers, which reminds me a bit of the Stones' "Far Away Eyes" from "Some Girls." Both tunes on the Truckers' 45 feature Mike Cooley and he might be my favorite songwriter from that band anyway so it's a welcome addition to my collection. It also maintains my complete Truckers 45 collection to the best of my knowledge. I don't know that they have any others besides "Your Woman," the recent Eddie Hinton tribute, and "Bulldozers and Dirt" from 1997. I picked up a split single between Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings ("Money") and the Budos Band ("Day Tripper"). Nothing on this single that's going to change your life, but it's worth having. I'd have worried myself to illness wondering how these covers sounded if I hadn't gotten a copy so I reckon my peace of mind is worth the $6 or so that I paid for my copy. I also picked up an Elvis 45 as it happened to have one of three songs from his catalog that I'm actually in the mood for once in a while. I'm talking about "That's All Right" in this instance. It's a pretty cool little package with a picture sleeve and download coupon. Looks like it's part of some big 75th birthday thing that RCA will cash in on this year. My aunt will be ecstatic and will probably cry a couple of times before this whole thing blows over. She loves Elvis Aaron Presley, I can tell you that much.

As mentioned, I rounded out my RSD celebration with a couple of 10" finds. One was by the Boss, and one was by Fela Kuti and His Africa 70. The Springsteen record has live versions of "Wrecking Ball" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad." The latter features some guitar work by Tom Morello which is pretty neat. The Fela record flew off the shelves and I wouldn't have come away with a copy except that a friend of mine tried to buy two before they read him the riot act. I was in line a few folks behind him and he handed his extra to me. It's as groovy as you'd expect and it's already got some miles on it.

I'd call Record Store Day part three a smashing success based on my observations. The 45 section was overrun from the moment I hit the door to the time I left about two hours later. I met some cool folks in line too, honest music fans every one of them. Some big name artists stepped up to the plate this year with some truly unique offerings for one of the best causes I can think of that doesn't involve the environment or human rights. I can't wait to see what's available next year although I'll have to find another venue. Amoeba puts masking tape across all of their vinyl and my Wilco box was slightly damaged as a result. I called to ask about exchanging it, but the manager on duty claimed that I caused the damage and wouldn't consider it. That's really disappointing because I've spent a ton of dough in that place, and have never once put masking tape on my vinyl. I suspect that there was a hole in the shrink wrap and that the tape adhered directly to the box. I vote with my money, and I can't support a store that doesn't stand by their products and practices no matter how cool the place is. I assume that they tape their vinyl to prevent theft or to keep folks from changing the sticker prices? That's my best guess, but it's a lame practice and I bet I'm not the only one that's had this problem. Luckily for me, there's another independent record store just a few short blocks from my place. Not shopping Amoeba for vinyl is like not buying concert tickets from Ticketmaster. Someone has to sacrifice convenience for ethics at some point. Might as well be me.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers "Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers" (a/k/a: "Moanin'") Blue Note/Classic Records

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Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

Last month, I attempted give words to my feelings about "Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers," and I left off with a threat to try again in April on "Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers," and to compare the two. It's not an easy thing to do. But it's big fun trying. I've done some more research in the interim and I've uncovered a couple of facts that clarify the Jazz Messengers' history a bit. First, Silver left the group after the first recording and he took the principle players (Kenny Dorham and Hank Mobley) with him. The band name stayed with Art Blakey who conceived of the Jazz Messengers as a springboard for up and coming young jazzers. It seems he enjoyed working with the new names as a way to stay fresh mentally and creatively. That explains the lineup being entirely different on his "Jazz Messengers" record and subsequent recordings. The Jazz Messengers, in this sense, were the Menudo of serious musical art. Their roster, at various times, included Keith Jarrett, Chuck Mangione, the Marsalis brothers, Lee Morgan, and Kenny Drew amongst a million others. It's a neat idea, and it worked out magically on "Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers" which is often referred to as "Moanin'" due to the opening song's popularity.

The first thing I noticed in comparing the Silver version and the Blakey version was that Blakey's version sounds tougher and less glossy. I wonder how much the album art plays into this notion, honestly. Am I projecting? Horace Silver is all smiles on his cover while Blakey looks like he might throttle you sooner than play drums for your entertainment. I don't mean to pit the two against each other. I haven't read anything to suggest that these guys didn't get along or that Blakey was a bad man. But the horns on "Moanin'" are more distorted and the drums seem to be a little louder. The arrangements are tight as ever, but the songs seem less breezy. My ears hear a heavier sound, and I'd have to say that I prefer it a little more to the shinier, happier tone on the Silver record. That's just me. I prefer the Stones to the Beatles while I'd be happy to hear either every day until time ends. There's not a thing in the world wrong with "Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers," but right now I seem to get more play from "Moanin'." Silver makes me think of sharp dressed guys smiling big while winning stuffed animals for their gals' at the fair. Blakey makes me think of dark rooms and darker suits with the darkest liquor and shady dealings. I enjoy carnivals, but I've spent more time in dark rooms. A creature of habit, perhaps. Or a screw-up. Regardless, it's nice to have a soundtrack.

"Moanin'" starts things off in standard fashion: a memorable piano theme soon echoed with slight variations by the horns, then everyone falls in and starts bopping at once. Again, these aren't jingles. These are hard drivers, up front and obvious. None more so than "The Drum Thunder (Miniature) Suite" which starts the second side and showcases the band leader in major ways. The suite is broken into three "themes" and opens and closes with Blakey solos. The guy was a monster and clearly earned his spot in the pantheon of great jazz drummers. I suspect Max Roach wouldn't have argued the point. "Are You Real" is perhaps the sunniest composition on "Moanin'." It's uptempo and swinging, and lacks a little of the danger that makes this record so tempting. Blakey's breaks are flashier here and less aggressive than in the "suite." Jymie Merritt gets a little space to lay out on bass too before the band reconvenes for the ending theme. "Along Came Betty" is slower and sexier, and makes you think of under the table flirtations while the rest of the company talks about their week at the office. I wish there was music like this being made today. I'm certainly not aware of it if there is.

Here is one sad little fact about "Moanin'," and unfortunately it ties into something else I mentioned in last month's Silver review. My copy isn't as visually perfect as other Classic Records releases, and there's a little surface noise to contend with too. It's not overpowering or even noticeable in most places, but it's there and it's nothing I've encountered before from this label. And, as I've previously alluded to, it does appear that Classic Records is on its way out. The online prices for their products have skyrocketed in the last 30 days, and I take that as a bad sign. A single Duke Ellington record that sold for around $30 in March is listed at $60 now. That's a drag in multiple ways. There are a couple of other re-issue companies that I trust for quality, but they're pricier and less discerning with regards to what they'll release. I'm still hoping I'm wrong about Classic Records' impending doom, but I'd buy what you can find now if you're a fan of their products. All things must pass, right?

Hacienda "Big Red and Barbacoa" Alive Records

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Hacienda

It's been a while since I've found a relatively unknown, young band to champion and promote socially. I used to talk peoples' ears off about Wilco, the Drive-By Truckers, and the Black Keys. None of those outfits have had any major radio hits, but they're shows sell out and people have gotten the word. They're all making a living and they don't seem to need my help one bit. I found My Morning Jacket a little later than I should have and they're coming along quite nicely too without much radio play. Those bands and their members have made the bulk of the new rock and roll that I've listened to during the past decade. Luckily, they're all relatively prolific and I've been able to stay afloat. But that pipeline can't sustain itself forever without some new contributors. That's where Hacienda comes in. I gave their first record some good press on this very site last year after seeing Hacienda serve as Dan Auerbach's backing band during a break from his day job as lead bad-ass in the Black Keys. I saw Hacienda play their own set last Tuesday night, and I'm lucky my head didn't explode. If I were a dancer, I'd have danced until my feet flew off. Instead, I just stood in the balcony and tried to look calm while crying internal tears of joy. Seriously though. Internal tears of unmitigated joy. And thankfulness. I am thankful for the band Hacienda. I love them very much.

And their second record is twice as nice as their first. This one's a game changer, folks. Their time on the road with Auerbach has paid off. "Big Red and Barbacoa" is a complete effort from a band that has found their sound. At least for now. The members look young and will hopefully have plenty of time to expand their palate. Right now, their sound is firmly anchored on the vintage side while never stooping to imitation. Some of their influences are obvious enough. Beach Boys harmonies abound, and I can't imagine a band from San Antonio being unaware of the Sir Douglas Quintet. They tackle the Everly's "Your My Girl" to great effect too. But the Hacienda sound is something new. The evidence of their musical taste is comforting, but the future of this band should not be confined to retro rock and soul. They're too good at what they do to get stuck in someone else's shoes. They can burn your barn down with a song like "Mama's Cookin," then smooth you out with an instrumental like "Big Red." And they'll take you everywhere in between. Listening to this record is like sliding into your favorite jeans. You know how they're gonna feel and you can't wait to put them on, and then you find a $20 bill in your pocket that completely takes you by surprise. Right now, "I Keep Waiting" is the $20 surprise on this record for me. But I feel like this is a truly great album, and in time I suspect that every one of the songs on "Big Red" will have been my favorite at some point. There's nothing on here that doesn't work. The reverb, the hand claps, the organ, the guitar solos, the bells. It's all been done before, but never like this. I'm glad it's happening now.

I wonder how much Auerbach's hand has played in this band's sound to date. Legend has it that he's the only person that the band sent their demo to. That seemed to work out for them. They've toured about everywhere with Auerbach, and honed their chops to a razor fine point in the process. I was able to find a quick interview with Hacienda's guitarist, Dante Schwebel, online this morning and he wants to release material annually or more frequently. That'll keep the pipeline flowing for a while. A moderate level of success found this band relatively quickly through their affiliation with Auerbach. He'd be a nice guy to have on your side, and they wouldn't have drawn his attention without having the goods. I say keep this team intact until the young bucks can do it on their own. By the sounds of things, that shouldn't take long. I'd be happy for an album per year from these guys. We know you can get by without the radio, now. If these guys come to your town or one near it, go see them while you're still needed. The first 500 copies were printed on red vinyl. Get yours quick so you can say you were one of the first on board.

Bill Withers "Just As I Am" Sussex/Speakers Corner

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Bill Withers

Some artists arrive fully formed. Dire Straits' first album, for instance, was wholly original and sounded like the band had been playing for all of eternity. Similarly, the first time he performed live, Bill Withers was in front of an audience of 3,000. So the story goes, anyway. "Just As I Am" debuted in 1971 containing "Grandma's Hands," and "Ain't No Sunshine." These are important songs, right? This, from a guy that had been assembling airplane toilets while recording his debut and even after its release. I guess the man was being practical. That honesty and realism is on full display throughout "Just As I Am," right down to a spoken word passage in "Do It Good" explaining that this was his first recording and that he knew next to nothing about what he was doing. I don't know how I'd have reacted to this record had I been around in '71. But I can imagine that I'd have been excited to discover the new soul sheriff in town. At least, I like to think of it that way.

If you're familiar with Withers' music, there's no need for explanation, really. The man's a master. His vocals are powerful without ever even approaching pretentious or self-serving. Everything works within the function of the song and no sound or effort seems wasted. Even the greatest soul singers, like Al Green and Marvin Gaye, had their trick bags displaying amazing agility and range that sometimes was used to showcase their abilities outside the necessities of the actual work. But Bill Withers was a working man. He's carrying his lunch box on the album cover. The guy was a poet, but decided to get into music because he thought it would pay better. Plenty of folks get into music with visions of fame and fortune dancing in their heads, but have you ever heard of anyone that got into it as the most practical way of earning a living? And then kept their day job while performing on the Johnny Carson show? It's all too much especially when you find out that he quit the music business some years later just because he didn't like what went on outside of the studio. He didn't like the actual business so he got out and spends his time making music at home. For himself. How real is that? Fortunately, we're left with albums like "Just As I Am," and "Still Bill" to keep us company and to remind us of what this guy can do when he feels up to it. "Just As I Am" is full of revelations and surprises from the gospel workout on the Beatles' "Let It Be" to the suicide ending in "Better Off Dead." This album was an announcement, and Withers' standing in soul history shows that his message was received and its relevance is undiminished.

And Speakers Corner did a heck of a job with this re-issue. Nothing too fancy and nothing that would denigrate the immediacy of the original. Just a single high quality record in a rice paper inner sleeve, and the sparse original artwork with liners on the rear cover. The vinyl is pristine with no scuffs and zero surface noise. The acoustic instruments are featured prominently in the mix and the sound is as natural as any I've heard in the genre. I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of the recent Withers biopic on the big screen. It's called "Still Bill," and I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing curiosity about this man's life and art. He's done it on his own terms, and "Just As I Am" is where it started. That would be enough of an endorsement on its own, but the music makes it all the more real. Get this one while you can. It's hard to imagine hearing it and not loving it. It's universal music that anyone will enjoy.