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

Grinderman "Grinderman 2" Anti

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Take a look at the artwork for the newest Grinderman album, why don't you? It'll give you a pretty good idea of what to expect when you first hear the record. "Grinderman 2" shows a rabid wolf snarling and bearing its fangs in an opulent white marble bathroom. You hope the bathroom door is closed and that the rest of the house has been evacuated. This wolf means business and is out for the blood of something sweet. The effect is startling. And that sums up the music in a nutshell too. Grinderman is Nick Cave's break from his day job with the Bad Seeds. The first Grinderman release was reputed to have been more lighthearted. There is plenty of humor in the grooves of "Grinderman 2," and it's of the dark. lyrical variety. I think of the album as the sonic equivalent to a slasher film. One with some stylistic substance and an underlying theme that's not as serious as the gore would suggest. And one that is, above all else, emotionally and intellectually stimulating. So, maybe it's the sonic equivalent of a stimulating slasher film that was never made or that I'm unaware of because none are coming to mind, after all. Whatever. I'll cut to the chase and say right off the bat that I love this record. I'm gonna play it again and again. And I'll probably stare at the picture of that wolf while I do. I'm not sure why.

And it follows the listener right off the printed cover into the framework of the first song, "Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man," which finds Cave howling like a madman... or a wolf. And then the Wolfman himself makes an appearance in "Heathen Child." But that's just one color in Cave's ink well. We get snake charmers, the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman ("Worm Tamer"), and a song called "Evil" that feels like desperation disguised as a punk song. Cave is clearly concerned with religion and violence as there's a lot of burning and crushing happening in these stories along with references to Buddha, Krishna, Allah and the gang, but the only discernible theme, at least for me, is a general one of menace and foreboding. There's wisdom too when Cave recognizes that we can waste our lives not only on the usual, booze and drugs, but on husbands, wives and making money too ("When My Baby Comes"). If the songs fit together to form a tangible storyline, I missed it. But I feel like I got the point loud and clear as the music puts the message in focus, no matter where you're standing. This is not the performance of a virtuosic group of musicians, but feels more like the work of a gang just discovering their collective identity. And now it's come to me! This album makes me feel like I'm in "A Clockwork Orange." The grotesque imagery is sometimes blatant and sometimes suggested, but always with a spoonful of humor to help the medicine go down. By the time "Bellringer Blues" wraps the story up, you're ready to get the hell out of here. But then you want to play it again, and that big, bad Wolf is prowling around your conscience without your permission. Keep a light on if you're given to night terrors. That's my advice.

This package is a blast from start to finish. No detail has been spared as the spine even looks scary and cool. I got the deluxe version which came with a CD, a huge poster of the band in Roman gladiator apparel, and, most importantly, an LP-sized book with lyrics and illustrations to help you through the maze. The drawings, of course, fit the mood as they are unsophisticated and almost childlike, but emotive and scary in their simplicity - just like the music. Grinderman's coming to the Warfield at the end of November, and I may have to find my way their even though the date is not ideal for me. I'd really like to know what these guys do live. I think. I suspect it will be a bit unsettling, but worth the price of admission. Not unlike "A Clockwork Orange" which is amongst my favorite films even if I can only bring myself to watch it once every year or so. I won't have that issue with "Grinderman 2." I'm up for a listen right now. It's 8:18AM. Time to feed the wolf...

Ray Charles "The Genius Sings the Blues" Mobile Fidelity/Atlantic Records

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Ray Charles

Shopping for vinyl reissues can be challenging. Sometimes you don't know which tapes were used for the release. In fact, sometimes tapes aren't used at all, but reissues are made from CDs. Those are the ones I avoid like salmonella. Sometimes you get a stereo release when the real gold was clearly in the mono mixes. Sometimes you're left wondering why in the world a certain record was chosen for release in lieu of an artist's stronger material. I just found "The Genius Sings the Blues" by one Ray Charles, and none of those concerns even showed up as a blip on my untrusting radar. It's a compilation of his work on the Atlantic label between 1952 and 1960. And it's by Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs. These facts should be enough to get the sale on their own, but I'll proceed in case any readers have been living under a rock with their fingers in their ears for the last fifty years. Seems unlikely, but you never know...

Fortunately, I was raised in a household with an appreciation for Ray Charles that was established before I got there so I didn't have to look far to find him. To this day, I'd guess that he's my dad's favorite recording artist, and I'd say that's the finest choice on the menu. Charles was invariably the most accomplished musician in whatever room he occupied, but the real goods are in the depth of emotion that the music springs from and the feelings it produces. I try not to judge folks by their taste in music or books, but I'd almost say that there's something wrong with someone that outright doesn't appreciate the music of Ray Charles. It reminds me of a lifelong friend of mine that I met in college who used to say that he didn't like the Beatles. I always thought he said that as a way to set himself apart from the rest of us music freaks. It was more for dramatic effect than it was an honest musical opinion (in my musical opinion). Perhaps it's not your thing, but you have to respect the Beatles and even admire the band from a historical perspective, and from the perspective of someone that grasps musical genius. And I feel exactly that way about Ray Charles. I can do without the symphonic accompaniment on the bulk of his recordings for the ABC label, and some of his novelty duet records, but his gift was undeniable right up until the end. His work at Atlantic was almost unimpeachable, and "The Genius Sings the Blues" was released after his defection to ABC. It's almost like a sports team trading the face of their franchise before his contract expires just so they get something in return for his having been there in the first place. But the folks at Atlantic missed the point if "Genius" was released as an afterthought because it's as strong as anything else that I'm aware of in Charles' oeuvre.

One can almost trace Charles' development from a Nat "King" Cole imitator to the monster that he became by listening to "The Genius Sings the Blues." (This is not meant as a dig. Many, if not most, great bands began as garden variety cover bands. Beatles, Zeppelin, Stones, you name it...) It would be nice to have some updated liner notes to help trace this progression, but MoFi went with the original notes which don't even mention that this is a compilation. It makes me wonder if the release was sold as new material in 1961. The songs aren't sequenced chronologically as the set starts with "Early in the Morning" which finds Charles as a fully realized bad man with a sound all his own - ubiquitous electric piano and all. His acoustic piano work on "Hard Times" takes the listener back a few years and the man changes voices mid-song to convey what needs to be felt - in this case the blues. Every piano note is as clear and detailed as anything I've heard on record, and the man's voice seems like a family friend to me at this point even if it changes from song to song or verse to verse. The mono mix is such that we can all sit back and lose ourselves in the work rather than risk distraction by a stereo mix that would have been new and tempting towards trickery at the time. By the time the needle finds "The Right Time," the listener is strapped in for a mind warping ride that is only just beginning. My advice would be to scoop this one up ASAP. MoFi's releases are limited. I got number 000861. It's a mover, and I feel fortunate to have it. I'm hopeful that MoFi will dig more deeply into Charles' Atlantic work before they're done. They knocked one out of the park with "Genius," that's for certain.

Widespread Panic "Live in the Classic City II" ATO

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Widespread Panic

Widespread Panic was a band at the height of its superpowers in the year 2000. The classic lineup was intact, the sound was massive, and the hometown heroes announced a three-night run in Athens, Georgia which was to be officially recorded for posterity and future live releases. Of course, every move the musicians made was recorded by their legion of fans, but this was different. On these three nights no outside taping was allowed. This had only happened one other time that I can recall, and believe me, I was paying attention in those days. The second installment of the "Live In The Classic City" set finally saw the light of day a few short weeks ago. It's a not-so-subtle reminder of what this band could do at the dawn of this millennium. One could question a couple of choices the band made as far as presenting the material goes on these sets, but the power of the actual performances is undeniable. This was their era. If they see another one like it, I'll turn back flips, quit my job, and grow my hair out. Again. Until then, "Live In The Classic City II" will occupy an exalted place in my vinyl collection as a ticket to a simpler time for me and a reminder of the community and energy that I was a fortunate participant in for the better part of a decade.

Until recently, I was working under the assumption that the first installment in the series was comprised of material from the first night's show and that the second installment would represent the second night's performance, etcetera. In fact, the releases are compiled from the entire three-night run, and cobbled together in a manner that presumably works better in a home setting. Or a Volkswagen mini-bus. This attempt at continuity can backfire for some fans as there are fade-outs to end songs on the recording that were actually just getting started at the show. Most of Panic's songs have big live endings if they end at all. Often, one song bleeds into the next and the band routinely plays entire sets without pause. So it's a bit jarring to hear a fade-out on an album when the actual performance may have just been gaining steam. Is this a tacit acknowledgement that the incessant jamming doesn't translate to the recordings? I, for one, will go on record as saying that most "jam bands" are self-indulgent, bloated, and boring. I'll also risk the scorn of many by saying that I never considered Panic a jam band. I've always thought that the material was stronger and heavier than that. There was jamming and there were risks taken, certainly, but the songs were really songs and not mere vehicles for guitar solos and relentless wanking. Check out the instrumental "Machine" if you don't believe me. That may be the best illustration on "Classic City II" of former guitarist Michael Houser's genius. He passed away a couple of years later which makes this set even more essential for longtime fans. Appearances by Bloodkin's Daniel Hutchens and Eric Carter add to that urgency as their catalog has been raided by Panic multiple times over the years. An official document of these rare performances helps make this set special. They close "Classic City II" with Bloodkin's "Success Yourself" and "End of the Show" which is especially poignant as Bloodkin's manager, Zac Weil, passed away later that same evening. His personality was larger than the event itself and he's still a daily presence in his friends' thoughts and memories more than ten years on. "Classic City II" also includes first time performances of "Imitation Leather Shoes," and "E on a G" which brings the historical nature of the set full circle. The band had fifteen years of history to draw on at the time which was impressive enough. Now, they have twenty-five which almost seems impossible. I must have not been paying attention or perhaps I was just... "distracted."

It gives me great pleasure to report that the vinyl presentation of "Live in the Classic City II" is almost flawless. Three heavy discs in a tri-panel cover with high-quality inner sleeves and pristine pressings with larger than life artwork. The set includes a double CD version of the festivities, but mine was mistakenly packaged with two copies of the first CD and none of the second. Thus, I say "almost flawless." The other flaw is that a gentleman named Wade Hester sat in on guitar for "Rebirtha" and he's not credited for his performance. Everyone else, including R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, is acknowledged for their contributions in the liner notes. Hopefully, we can get at least one more installment in the "Classic" series since the performance of Traffic's "Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" didn't make it onto either of the first two. If not, I'll make do with my vinyl copy of "Classic City II" which will serve as my replacement for the hundreds of bootlegs I used to have on cassette tape. I call that progress

John Legend and the Roots "Wake Up!" GOOD Music/Sony

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John Legend and the Roots

I'm not aware of much "message music" on the world stage these days. I'm sure there are young bands singing protest songs somewhere for their local or regional fans, but I don't see it happening on a large scale. Against Me! is a band that could be the exception to that rule, but I haven't checked in with them for a while. Springsteen had some tunes on "The Rising" that were timely in the wake of 9/11. On the whole though, I can't think of many songs that struck me as being "important" at all recently. The last song that did was "One" by U2, and that song's starting to age a bit. The Roots and John Legend have met us in the middle with "Wake Up!" which is comprised of twelve conscientious tunes to shake us from our slumber and get us back in the game. One tune is a Legend original, the eleven others are covers from the '60's and '70's. I'll take it. I'm no activist, and I'm not clamoring for a bunch of self-righteous blathering from today's teen idols, but there is a war going on and some important issues to be addressed. "Wake Up!" is a notable entry into the realm of political pop music if such a thing still exists. If not, it'll have to carry that torch solo. We could do worse.

I bought Legend's debut on a whim a few years back and didn't regret it. In fact, I bought it twice. Once on CD when I'd temporarily taken leave of my senses, and once on vinyl when I got them back. It's called "Get Lifted" and it's good. Old soul music was my first true love, and it's nice to find a new artist making ripples in the pond every once in a while. Legend counts. I've been meaning and meaning to check out the Roots as I've always had a hunch that they're worth it, and some friends whose opinions I value had recommended them, but I didn't know where to start, and then they started playing as the house band on a late night talk show and I lost interest. I think it worked out just as it should have because I am really enamored of what I'm hearing on "Wake Up!" Many of the selections would be considered obscure, and I'm proud to say that I'm familiar with many of them already. "Compared To What" was one that I knew from my college days seeing Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. (If you're unfamiliar with that band, you shouldn't be.) I found a Nina Simone version a little later, and it's more likely that her version was the one that was pilfered for "Wake Up!" Bill Withers' "I Can't Write Left Handed" is a gem from his "Live at Carnegie Hall" album, and the original includes a lengthy spoken word bit which I was curious to hear covered. Legend circumvents the potential for awkwardness by telling the story of Bill Withers telling his story on his live disc. It's tough to improve on what Withers did, and the band makes an honest attempt at it playing it straight here even if their version is heavier and more forceful musically. It starts to drag towards the end as the newer take is even longer than the original, almost as if the band was knocked out by what they came up with for their version and just couldn't stop playing. I think it would have been stronger if it were about two minutes shorter, but I'm not easy to please and I think I know everything anyway. And this much I know for certain: the Roots can play and Legend can sing, and the two have melded to form a muscular unit that runs efficiently and with great power. The instrumentation is clearly discernible with all hands on deck. No superfluous DJ or percussionist guests mucking up the atmosphere. Just guitar, keys, bass, and drums recorded in a style that stays out of the way and lets the instruments talk. The obligatory "featured" raps are present but not overpowering. We obviously can't have a soul or hip-hop release without them ever again which has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt over the course of the last few years. If that's the case, then "Wake Up!" is about as good as it gets for that. Legend's voice is strong as ever even if his lone original contribution sounds a bit out of place next to the rest of the material. It's called "Shine" and it's tagged on to the end of the record like an afterthought which is pretty much how it comes off. Still, it's far from embarrassing and better than most. (It's also included in a recent documentary about our public school system called "Waiting for Superman" which I highly recommend.)

The vinyl version of "Wake Up!" is first rate all the way. I mean, these folks have spared no expense. The gatefold cover is made from heavy cardboard stock and the artwork is so lively that you can't look at it with the naked eye. There are extensive liner notes giving you a cool feel for the songs' origins before veering wildly into unabashed Roots/Legend worship and attempting to make this record into more than it actually is. Then again, we're living in apathetic times and someone has to try to pull us out. I commend these musicians for giving it a go. This is one you'll want to play for your friends and a CD is included for that purpose. The two records are at least 180 grams each and the pressings are impressive, indeed. I cleaned my copy, cleaned my stylus, and experienced zero background noise from start to finish. I wanted to play it again when the needle found the lead out on side four. That's the sign of a keeper, and I highly recommend "Wake Up!" to anyone with even the vaguest interest in protest songs or new soul music. I just don't see it getting any better than this. If the Roots or John Legend come up with any material of their own that's as compelling as these covers, I want in on it ASAP. "Wake Up!" we'll keep me fed until that ship comes in. I know it's a stretch, but we have to have hope, right? Otherwise, this type of music would be extinct rather than endangered. Let 'em play!

Solomon Burke "Nothing's Impossible" E1

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Solomon Burke

Solomon Burke passed away while sitting in an airplane on 10/10/10 at the age of around 70 as, like a lot of blues men, his exact date of birth is a matter of speculation. I had a couple of chances to see him perform live recently and I availed myself of none. I'm a fool. I was mostly unfamiliar with Burke's work until 2002's "Don't Give Up On Me" which is exquisite. I still play my white vinyl copy religiously on Sundays which seems fitting as Burke was an ordained minister. He was also an undertaker. And he fathered 21 children. In short, he was an interesting guy and he got around. Last year, he got around to recording an album with Willie Mitchell in Memphis, who passed away last January, at the same studio that Mitchell used to make Al Green's most celebrated '70's work. I heard Solomon Burke's thunderous baritone superimposed over Al Green-like instrumental grooves in my head before the first listen. I wasn't totally off base, but the record stands on its own without Mitchell's or Green's reputations to guide it. They called it "Nothing's Impossible." I thought it was Burke's last release before his passing, but I was mistaken. He got one more in under the wire which was a collaborative effort with a Dutch soul band. "Nothing's Impossible," indeed.

As a general rule, the songs on "Impossible" with a string section sound like Burke singing over Al Green tracks. The ones with the horn section are more traditional with easily discernible blues structures. I left the room while listening to the title track, and could hear the muffled strings from my hallway while talking to my neighbor. I got distracted during our brief conversation. Enough so that, by the time I returned, I was surprised to hear someone other than Green singing. And, honestly, these are the songs I find most interesting. I have no problem with hearing an updated version of the Hi Records sound because that was Mitchell's sound to start with. You always were certain that you were hearing an Al Green record even if the intro was a solitary drum track. Until now. And, of course, the classic sound is not a straight reproduction. The modern style is thinner and more Pro Toolsy. But you still get enough of the old feeling to make it worth the effort. The flimsy liner notes explain that this collaboration had been on the radar for decades, and you can almost hear the two masters' elation at finally getting the whole thing down on tape. Or on the hard drive, whichever. And I'm glad they did. The first song, "Oh What A Feeling," has a superfluous, unaccredited vocal response track that had me braced for a spate of guest contributions (i.e. distractions). But my fears were unfounded. By the time I got to the cover of "You Needed Me," first made famous by Anne Murray, I'd forgotten all about it. And I realized that "You Needed Me" is not an inherently vapid song. Not when Burke and Mitchell are at the helm, at least. Sorry, Anne.

"Nothing's Impossible" probably won't change the world or light up the pop charts. It is a worthy addition to the current crop of rhythm and blues albums if there is, in fact, a crop to add to. Again, I'm surprisingly unfamiliar with Burke's earlier work (including his hit song from the sixties that they dug up for the "Dirty Dancing" soundtrack), but I can't imagine that his voice was ever any stronger than it was during his last recording sessions. It would be frightening if it were because the man's voice was nothing if not insanely powerful. The vinyl presentation on this release is somewhere between okay and good. It's a double album with no download code or CD included. The liner notes aren't insightful and the pressings are not pristine. Basically, you should be in it for the music as the packaging is not dazzling. Furthermore, "Don't Give Up On Me" had stronger songs and more nuanced performances. "Nothing's Impossible" relies more on old-fashioned soulful emotion. I'm partial to the former effort, but will be hanging on to the latter as Burke's most famous recordings for the Atlantic label are pricey online and I need more than one album to satisfy my craving. I'll make do with what I have until I find a way around that. And what I have here are two killer rhythm and blues records by a master vocalist whose talents will be missed. Long live King Solomon. He was more influential than he was well known, but I wouldn't be surprised if that changed for him posthumously. His work seems to extend in all directions, and I'm just as happy to have started at the end and to work my way back towards the beginning. I have a lot of ground to cover and plenty of digging to do. Let the games begin.