Category Archives: vinyl

R.E.M. • In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 [2LP]

It’s easy for us old school R.E.M. fans to dismiss the post-IRS Records era of the band. Those fabled times were unique in our music experience: Band comes out of nowhere – that is, Athens Georgia – and takes over the college radio airwaves, steadily builds a fanbase with their amazing records and compelling yet elusive videos (you had to look pretty hard to find them at first), and eventually signs to a major label. It’s also easy to say, “they were better before they sold out,” but of course, most of us also realize that R.E.M. didn’t actually do that, since their label switch was on their own terms. Still, I definitely prefer the albums up through Document over the Green-and-on elpees. I certainly didn’t stop buying their albums, though, but aside from Automatic for the People, I’d rate the post-1988 albums lower than those before that.

One listen to In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 tells you that Buck/Mills/Stipe(/Berry) & Co. didn’t really lose the plot – they just matured and morphed into a different monster. Their sonic palette got bigger, better, engulfing the scruffy, indie R.E.M. they once were. In this later personae the band gave us epics like “Man on the Moon,” “The Great Beyond” and “Everybody Hurts,” as well as burners like “Bad Day” and the absolutely gorgeous “At My Most Beautiful.” Even the band doesn’t quite know how to sum it all up; Peter Buck wrote the liner notes to each song and he himself is frequently unsure what the songs mean or where they came from. But one thing is sure: R.E.M. weren’t even close to finished having something to say when the ink on the Warner Bros. Records contract had dried.

In Time was first released in 2003, available in a few different formats (including vinyl), but the 2LP version was hard to find. It’s now been reissued by Craft Recordings in a standard double black vinyl version and a blue colored set offered exclusively by Barnes & Noble. The mastering job on this reissue was done well, and it’s nice to have the 18 songs spread over two records. But I do have a minor issue with B&N’s colored vinyl: the transparent blue could’ve been matched better to the color of the blue moon on the cover. It plays and sounds lush, though, so don’t pay too much attention to that part of my critique. The takeaway from this review is that R.E.M. were one of the great American bands of the ‘80s and In Time is the perfect summation of their latter days.

4/5 (Craft Recordings CR00166, 2003/2019)

 

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Nick Lowe • Love Starvation/Trombone [CD, EP]

NICK LOWE has latched onto a new way of making records in the last few years, and it’s a method that suits him. Instead of waiting until he’s got an LP’s worth of tunes, Basher has been releasing EPs of whatever he deems ready to record. Love Starvation/Trombone is his latest, another 4-song affair recorded with Los Straitjackets and released by his American label Yep Roc.

What’s great to hear is that Lowe has also landed on the perfect latter-day band to collaborate with. Los Straitjackets, those guys with the gimmicky Mexican wrestler masks, provide an expertly empathetic two guitars, bass and drums backing to Nick’s rockabilly tinged pop tunes. They’ve now appeared as his band on a couple of Christmas records and last year’s Tokyo Bay EP. Like those efforts, there’s nothing too slick or too raw here, unless you count the studio-enhanced “horn section” on “Trombone,” the co-title tune that features a ’60s almost-Tijuana Brass arrangement. “Love Starvation” itself is a typically Nick mid tempo rocker with some witty words, while “Blue on Blue” is a sleeper of a slower “blues” song, with some of his greatest, latest lyrics, like “I can’t sleep for all the promises you don’t keep / I wanna run but I’m in too deep, too deep for blue on blue” and “In my mind I’m on the end of a ball of twine / that she jerks from time to time, time for blue on blue.” Finally, “Raincoat in the River” is a cover of an obscure 1960 Sammy Turner tune (produced by Phil Spector, later covered by Rick Nelson) that nicely defies its title with a happy story of a guy whose gal is coming back to him. The song really fits with the other three original Nick Lowe-penned songs, which is no surprise because that’s a skill that the man has had for decades, dating back to his days in Brinsley Schwarz and later with Dave Edmunds in Rockpile.

There’s no telling whether the tracks from this Love Starvation EP and the aforementioned Tokyo Bay will turn up on a long player, but it would be a pretty safe bet. I’m sure Lowe and the ’Jackets  have either recorded more than what they’ve let out or they’re cooking up more tasty treats while they tour the UK and US this summer.

3.5/5 (Yep Roc YEP-2646, 2019)

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Wreckless Eric • Transience [LP, CD]

Our boy WRECKLESS ERIC is on a tear with this, his second album in a year. Transience is its name and “if you think that what you see is what you get / you haven’t seen the half of it yet.”

Out on his own Southern Domestic label, this lo-fi release is a worthy sequel to last year’s killer Construction Time & Demolition. On that album Eric and his conspirators laid down practically off-the-cuff recordings of the man’s musings about where he came from, where he’s been to and where he was then at. Transience (“the state of lasting only for a short time”) finds Wreckless Eric doing the same, and still trying to shake off the adjectivity of his stage name – something he apparently has been working on for a long time. Yet, the very fact that the cuts on these two albums have such a ramshackle (but riveting) feel make the task of trying to shake the stage name’s burden a relatively unsuccessful venture. Luckily, no one picking up one of his albums is going to give a shit about whether he’s now or has ever been wreckless. People new to his stuff will only wonder slightly about where the name came from, and those of us who remember “Whole Wide World” and “Semaphore Signals” (among others) are fine with it. Seriously, Eric: who cares? We love the semi-shoddiness of your albums, your quirky wit and cynical view of (the whole wide) world. Transience contains sarcastic songs like “Creepy People (In the Middle of the Night)” where Eric talks about having a predilection for suffering and the drag of “taking it up the ass” (figuratively), “The Half of It,” which hooks into subject matter first sung about by Ray Davies of The Kinks and Eric’s contemporary (and former Stiff Records label-mate) Nick Lowe, and six more tunes that show he’s still… if not wreckless, definitely wry and feckless. And yet, he’s still capable of writing engaging songs about whatever strikes him: tiny houses, dead end streets (hello again, Kinks), indelible stains, whatever.

Working with Wreckless Eric this time are Steve Goulding (of The Rumour) on drums, amour Amy Rigby on piano and backing vocals, Cheap Trick’s Tom Petersson on the bass and Alexander Turnquist on 12-string. Transience has a full sounding, freckles ’n’ all vibe, with thick low end and raw guitar and organ that make for a fulfilling listen. I’m really digging his latest work and hope he not only tours the US again (saw him last year in Seattle), but maybe even with a full band. But whether he’s solo or accompanied, Wreckless Eric’s music is definitely worth delving into, if not devouring completely.

4/5 (Southern Domestic SD 008, 2019)

 

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Robyn Hitchcock • “Sunday Never Comes” b/w “Take Off Your Bandages” [7″]

This is getting to be a regular and welcome occurrence. ROBYN HITCHCOCK writes a couple of great songs, puts together an excellent band and records them, then treats us to a killer new 7″ single. In this case, Hitchcock recruited The Nashville Fabs, the very same group he took out on the road last fall, to accompany him. I saw them in Seattle at the Neptune Theater and it was a pretty good show, though the band was a little rough around the edges as it was the beginning of the tour. The Fabs apparently found their groove on “Sunday Never Comes” and its B-side because this slab o’ wax is definitely polished and ready for presentation.

Recorded in December 2018 and therefore a couple of months after I saw Rob & the Fabs, these two tracks show that the guys – handpicked by Hitchcock from players populating his current hometown of Nashville – are capable of heights only hinted at a couple of months earlier. Indeed, the members of the band have a pretty impressive collective pedigree so it’s not that surprising that “Sunday Never Comes,” a classic Robyn Hitchcock mid tempo groove, is such a satisfying record. The tunes sound similar to the arrangements on Robyn Hitchcock, RH’s eponymous release from 2017 (I reviewed it here), a fairly spare four-piece (two guitars, bass, drums) affair that recalled the records he made with The Egyptians in the ’80s. What’s decidedly different is that Hitchcock has mostly moved on from writing about animals, insects and frogs (though they weren’t so much the subject matter as the vessels for transport), and his arrangements lack a lot of the superfluous gloss. The A-side was written for the film Juliet Naked and had only been available as a demo for download (see the video below for what that sounds like; it’s quite nice played solo!), while “Take Off Your Bandages” is “a psychedelic manifesto for the current era, inspired by the activism of the students at [Marjorie] Stoneman Douglas High School.” Indeed, both songs have a psychy edge to them, as if The Egyptians were imported from their sarcophagi, sans the trappings of late Eighties record production. Quite fabulous, I must say.

The 7″ single – available only through Hitchcock’s website – is limited to a thousand copies and comes in a nice picture sleeve. You also get downloads of the two songs, plus a longer version of the B-side. In all, an enjoyable seven or eight minutes and hopefully a harbinger of things to come.

3.5/5 (Tiny Ghost TG-02, 2019)

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Devo • Turn Around: B-Sides & More (1978-1984) [LP]

Limited to just 3,256 copies, the latest Run Out Groove release is a collection of semi-rarities from Akron’s finest, DEVO. Turn Around: B-Sides & More (1978-1984) features fifteen tracks on one slice of tomato red marbled vinyl and is something for the devotee who must have everything. I say this because most of the tracks here will be on the hardcore Devo collector’s record shelf and so this limited edition release would be superfluous if it weren’t for the album’s own likely future rarity.

About half of the tracks on Turn Around are B-sides, such as the title track, “Social Fools,” “Penetration in the Centrefold” and “Growing Pains.” A bunch more are remixes, either for single release or as extended mixes, such as “Snowball (Remix),” “Through Being Cool (Dance Velocity)” and my favorite, “That’s Good [extended version].” And then there’s “Working in a Coal Mine,” which is here presumably because it was originally released as a bonus 7″ single that came with the New Traditionalists vinyl album. It’s not very rare, at least not like “Mecha-Mania Boy,” which was the B-side to “Jerkin’ Back and Forth” and is new to me. (I’m not as hardcore as some Devo fans, for sure.)

Turn Around’s fifteen tracks make for an enjoyable listen, yes, and though it’s running time may seem a bit long for a one record set, the mastering job is good and the record itself was pressed at Record Industry in the Netherlands. Mine’s got some surface noise between tracks but that will presumably wear away after a few listens. The cover is definitely of a 1980 vibe, with a painting that looks like something from a 1930s WPA billboard (not counting the energy domes) and was “adopted for commercial release,” whatever that means. To purchase Turn Around – paraphrasing from “Nu-tra Speaks” – “…is not like spending money, but rather it is an investment in the future and a blow against the empire.” Or something.

3/5 (Run Out Groove ROGV-043, 2019)

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Alex Chilton • From Memphis to New Orleans, Songs from Robin Hood Lane [CD, LP]

Here are a couple of “reissues” from our favorite Big Star, ALEX CHILTON. Both From Memphis to New Orleans and Songs from Robin Hood Lane are compilations of previously released Chilton material, chosen thematically or chronologically to fit together nicely. It’s an interesting way to do it – take the best tracks of an era, for instance – and create one superior compilation, instead of reissue the entire albums or EPs themselves. Especially since Chilton’s discography is a little spotty during his solo years, this may be the best way to find the choice chunks of his solo stuff.

From Memphis to New Orleans pulls primarily from Alex’s mid-to-late 1980s releases Feudalist Tarts, No Sex and Black List. Those first two came out in the States on now defunct Big Time Records, and they were a comeback of sorts for Chilton. Buoyed by some great R&B cover songs (hence this new album’s title), this compilation is a gas. Not only do you get “B-A-B-Y” and “Thank You John,” a couple of horns-laden ditties, you also get Chilton originals like “No Sex,” “Lost My Job” and “Underclass,” the former being Alex’s humorous look at the calamities that were affecting people’s sex lives in the mid ’80s (when AIDS was still new and not at all understood) and the latter two funny, bluesy stabs at the kind of lifestyle our hero was leading at that point in his life. Chilton’s arrangements are really good ’n’ raw – definitely not the clichéd kind of slick ’80s production that would be a turn-off to fans of Chilton’s revered band, Big Star – and are part of why most of these songs stand up to the test of time. This one’s worth picking up.

Songs from Robin Hood Lane, on the other hand, isn’t a no-brainer. While the idea of Alex Chilton belting out selections from the “classic American songbook” might sound good on paper, the recorded results indicate that that doesn’t always translate to analog tape. Chilton’s unschooled, technically imprecise singing is a benefit when he’s doing rock, blues and R&B, but in this genre his slightly wavering vocals often miss the mark. In fact, there are a few clams here that would have never made the grade on a Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald record. I’m talking about seriously wrong notes. Granted, in 2019, with the truckload of artists who have extended their careers by releasing CDs of standards, the burnout factor for this kind of enterprise is high. At the time he recorded these (primarily the early ’90s), his Medium Cool and Clichés releases may have been fun curveballs to throw at a party (and the title of the latter was definitely a home run), but today they’re practically superfluous to Chilton’s discography. The arrangements themselves are spare and pretty listenable, yes, but Alex the singer is out of his depth here. I mean, kudos to him for giving it a go, but I prefer it when Alex Chilton stuck to what he did best: rock ’n’ roll.

3/5, 2/5 (Bar None BRN-CD-258 & BRN-CD-259, 2019)

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Jarvis Cocker • Further Complications [CD, LP]

[Originally published 2/15/2010 on Skratchdisc]

The eagle-eyed, front-of-mind of you will note that JARVIS COCKER’s Further Complications came out way back in June 2009. Yes, I’m playing a little ketchup here. And that’s partly because when this came out I didn’t really give it much of a chance, just kind of assuming I’d like it because I like Pulp – JC’s band of Different Class and This Is Hardcore fame – and Cocker put on a helluva show here in Seattle in support of his first solo record, Jarvis.

Good news: I was right. I do like it. But not exactly for the reasons stated above. It turns out that Further Complications is more of a rock ’n’ roll record than Cocker’s ever done. As it says in the notes, Tim Call plays guitar in the right speaker and Martin Craft does in the left; I wouldn’t be surprised if these were the same blokes Jarvis had with him on tour, because these songs definitely have more of an edge than you’d expect. Or is it because the disc was recorded by noiseo/icon Steve Albini? I suppose that’s where these songs get their sort of dry, “just the facts, m’am” vibe.

Finally, there’s the lyrics. Also dry. For instance: ““In the beginning there was nothing/and to be honest that suited me just fine.” Or: “I met her in the Museum of Paleontology/And I make no bones about it.” Or: “I never said I was deep but I am profoundly shallow/My lack of knowledge is vast and my horizons are narrow.” Okay, sure, out of context these sound like Groucho Marx leftovers, but in the context of a Jarvis Cocker song, you’ve got some great stuff here. All in all the songs are pretty good and the arrangements are snappy. And yet, I think his first solo disc may be the better of the two… Or is that just because “Cunts Are Still Running the World”* is so great that it’s gonna be awhile before Jarvis betters it?
4/5 (Rough Trade RTRADCD 540, 2009)  

[* Buried on the final track of Jarvis; also available as a download single.]

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Big Star • Live on WLIR [CD, LP]

Last time I reviewed something BIG STAR related here, I mentioned that Omnivore Recordings had seemed to have excavated about all there was left to find of the Memphis power pop band’s recorded legacy. (My review of Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos is here.) So far, I haven’t been proved wrong. This “new” release, Live on WLIR, is neither new nor all that necessary – especially if you already own 1992’s Live. That Rykodisc release was the first official issue of a 1973 concert recorded for Long Island, NY radio station WLIR, and though of interest to hardcore Big Star fans, was certainly a lesser part of the group’s canon. This release is a pretty straightforward reissue of that concert. Whether you ought to invest in this version largely depends on three things: 1) How big a fan you are, 2) If you already have that now out-of-print CD, and 3) If you’ve just gotta own that concert on vinyl.

The 14 songs on Live on WLIR (the fifteenth track is an interview with guitarist Alex Chilton) appear to be a pretty representative sample of Big Star’s ’73 set. At this point, after the release of the band’s sophomore, trio-recorded Radio City, the band consisted of Chilton, drummer Jody Stephens and new recruit, bassist John Lightman (who had just replaced the recently departed Andy Hummel). You hear the threesome play songs from both Radio City and #1 Record, and though there’s a pretty rockin’ vibe throughout, the pared down band doesn’t quite pull things off the way the original four-piece with Chris Bell did, let alone the studio arrangements of the Bell-less band. What you do get is a real good idea of Chilton’s guitar playing ability, which is greater than you might expect. His distillation of multiple guitar parts into one, live part is quite remarkable. And that’s why I’m remarking on it right now! Had I the opportunity to review Live when it came out in ’92 I’m not sure I would have picked up on it. But after being submerged in Big Star-mania for a few decades, it’s certainly noticeable to me now.

Live on WLIR’s new artwork is nice but not exactly a game changer. The liner notes here are by the same guy who wrote them back then (Robert Gordon; they’re new notes, though, and augmented by a short interview with bassist Lightman). And the mastering? Again, new but not revelatory; I listened to both versions and there are only minor differences. The ’92 Live, by Dr. Toby Mountain, isn’t as in-your-face, true, but it also doesn’t “feature” the slightly out-of-tune and overly saturated guitar that this year’s Live on WLIR by Michael Graves does. Since a multitrack recording of this concert clearly doesn’t exist, all of the audio quality decisions lie in the mastering. I prefer Mountain’s job on Live myself. But that version of the concert hasn’t been available for some time (and was never issued on vinyl), so this likely may be the only one you come across. I don’t know that having this set on vinyl is all that important, as I can’t imagine something that was recorded live to analog, preserved to digital, and then returned to analog is going to be any better on vinyl than it would be on CD. So, since this isn’t a crucial Big Star release, I’d probably opt for (in this order): 1) The original compact disc on Rykodisc, followed by 2) This Omnivore CD, and finally 3) The 2LP vinyl set, which might just be more appealing to you if you’re absolutely adamant about analog.

2.5/5 (Omnivore OV-321, 2019)

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Neil Young • Songs for Judy [CD, 2LP]

Here’s a left field title for you: Songs for Judy. NEIL YOUNG’s latest archival live release is culled from recordings made during his November 1976 tour with Crazy Horse. They’re not on this record, actually, as these tracks are from Neil’s solo opening sets (the band joined him for the second set each night). The recordings here were taken from the board and are very basic – sometimes in mono – with Neil accompanying himself on guitar, piano or banjo and harmonica. There’s a lot going for this release, though, and it would make another worthy addition to your NY discography.

Songs for Judy gets its peculiar title from a song intro Neil did for “Too Far Gone” one night in Atlanta, a rambling but interesting fictional account of meeting Judy Garland backstage before the show. Luckily, Cameron Crowe and photographer Joel Bernstein were taping these shows (they accompanied Neil and band on the tour to cover it for an aborted Rolling Stone article) and so this rap and all the songs here were preserved and now presented to us. The pair recorded the shows, and then for personal use, compiled what they believed were the best takes of each song Neil did on the tour (he didn’t do the same ones every night) and made copies for themselves. Luckily for us, Young has seen it fit for release (finally!) and here we are.

The takes themselves aren’t perfect – which actually is perfect for a Neil Young live release – but they’ve definitely got that mojo you hope for. Songs for Judy’s selections range from the obvious to the obscure (at least at the time), so you get “Mr. Soul” and “Heart of Gold,” but you also get “Human Highway” and “Pocahontas” (which hadn’t been released yet) and every kind of song in between. I really like the renditions of “After the Gold Rush” and “Mellow My Mind,” and a number of others, too. I could kind of do without this version of “A Man Needs a Maid,” what with its synthesizer (?) intro and middle bit, but it does feature a snippet from “Like a Hurricane” which is otherwise not featured here. On the other hand, the audience between songs is sometimes distracting thanks to abrupt transitions (might be unavoidable since these songs came from different shows) and that’s much less nitpicky than my previous statement. The cover art was done by Neil’s gal, Daryl Hannah, and it’s okay. (I’m a critic so I am supposed to criticize!)

Songs for Judy is the second great live release from Neil Young’s camp in the last year and I hope they continue bringing these out. (My review of Roxy–Tonight’s the Night Live is here.) Like, how about a live compilation of the sets he did with Crazy Horse on this ’76 tour? Or, I don’t know, Neil. You choose. Just do.

4/5 (Shakey Pictures 574192-2, 2018)

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The Band • Music from Big Pink (50th Anniv.) [2LP]

It’s taken me awhile to get to some of the current batch of reissues of great rock albums from 1968. One, THE BAND’s Music from Big Pink, has been remixed for its big anniversary and sounds better than ever.

Now, Big Pink is one of those albums that in many people’s books you’re supposed to like. Most folks who aren’t big Band-ophiles will know “The Weight,” a song that was featured in the celebrated movie, Easy Rider, starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. You might also know “Long Black Veil,” “I Shall Be Released” and possibly “This Wheel’s on Fire.” That’s half the album right there – why not get to know the rest of it?

Well, I was one who felt I should at least give it a try, some twenty or so years ago as a slightly arrogant college radio DJ who’d seen Easy Rider (didn’t get it then) and whose parents (mom and stepdad) had the soundtrack. That album had songs from the movie in it but – very lame – did not include The Band’s version of their own “The Weight,” which was the one used in the movie. The album cover said only “specially performed for this album by Smith”; no explanation of why the correct version wasn’t included. (It was probably stupid ’60s record company politics that kept The Band off the actual record.) But, as I later learned, it was on their own album, Music from Big Pink, which I had seen in record stores but knew nothing about. Eventually I pieced together that The Band had been Bob Dylan’s backing band for a few years, and that they had written some of the songs on Big Pink, their debut album, with Sir Bob. Alright, so The Band had great credentials. But what about the band itself? What were they like? You could say they were country rock or even “Americana before it was called ‘Americana’”. To call The Band rock ’n’ roll is a bit of a stretch, but they do fit in there at the country/folk end of the spectrum, and “Chest Fever” certainly has a killer rock groove. Whatever you call them, The Band were an interesting group of guys playing a unique version of rock that embraced country, folk, blues and gospel in a big way. Wiki it if you wanna.

This 50th Anniversary release of Music from Big Pink has been remixed by renowned producer/mixer Bob Clearmountain, who has clarified the, errr, mountain of elements that went into the original mix for a very nice listen. The vinyl version has been pressed on two 45 rpm records, giving more room for the songs to breathe (and giving you a slight workout from getting up to turn over the records a few times). These new mixes really do the record justice, though I don’t have a copy of the original to do a strict A/B comparison. (My memory rarely serves me well!) As pictured above, there is a special version available at The Band’s web site on pink vinyl, which was naturally the version I wanted. It may be sold out by now, but whether it’s pink or black, the vinyl Big Pink is a worthwhile purchase. For a deeper dive into The Band’s most celebrated album, the box set features numerous outtakes, a 5.1 mix of the entire album and the new stereo mix in 96kHz/24-bit high resolution (on a Blu-ray disc), as well as a bonus 7″ of “The Weight” b/w “I Shall Be Released.”

4/5 (Capitol/UMe B0028420-01, 1968/2018)

 

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