Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Great Holiday Record Swap Tradition Revisited

I’m originally from New York City – Queens, more specifically. In the late 70s, my family packed up and moved to the outskirts. It was an adjustment for me since I loved being a city kid. For years I had plans to move back. As an adult I came to realize that was not a practical option (for several reasons). Now it’s more fun to visit once in awhile. As a kid I had plenty of opportunities to see family down there over the years. The periodic trips back to the city helped to feed an idealized perspective of city life that, to a degree, still persists for me. Most of those visits were to see my Aunt, Uncle, Grandmother and cousins – all of whom I was close to growing up. I don’t have any siblings, so my cousins were the closest thing I had to brothers and sisters. I was the “baby” of that bunch.

I looked up to my cousins. Especially the two oldest – brothers Jimmy and Steve. I was closer to my cousin Steve, he being the younger of the two. We shared an uncanny interest in music and records, along with an extremely trusting bond.  Over the years the holidays became opportunities to have extensive listening sessions (all the cousins got into that) and to exchange albums, books and tapes on loan until the next holiday get together. There are only a few select people I have ever had that kind of trust with. As a general rule, record freaks don’t normally loan out important parts of their collections. Steve and I knew that taking care of the records was a sacred duty to each other. Plus, it made for fun in between holidays to see what kinds of interesting finds we could dig up to pass along at the next meeting. We really had a bizarre sixth sense between us. Exchanging gifts one Christmas it was humorous to discover we bought each other the same album – The Jerry Garcia Band Live at Keystone Volume 2. Family members just shook their heads. Funny!

As we grew into adults, holiday meetings were sometimes augmented with going to see concerts together or doing some record hunting when our schedules allowed. My cousin had some challenges of the unseen variety, which derailed his chosen profession and unfortunately never improved. His illness got the better of him about seven years ago and he died unexpectedly. My cousin never married or had kids. He maintained few friendships. Although he was a kind of a hermit in his last years, he remained an important person in my life. I think about him often, especially in the context of our once shared music obsession. It took me a long time to even deal with the fact that he’d died. Folks with clinical depression are seriously fragile beings. His unexpected death was not an inevitability, but can be a very real possibility under similar circumstances. So, the loss for me was compounded. Not only do I miss my cousin, but I feel badly about all the exciting music he never got to appreciate. At the time of his death, among the more serious and appropriate thoughts, I couldn’t help thinking, “I can’t believe he missed out on the Moby Grape reissues!” This might sound crass, but in the context of what he liked – and how we related to each other – it made perfect sense.

So, as can be the case for those who are left behind, holidays can be challenging. And especially when holidays were such fun times for us. In some ways, this blog is an outlet for me – a way to cope with my grief. But it is also a way to continue the good vibrations that always happened when two music and record freaks met for a big pow-wow. So in the spirit of that friendship, here is a list of albums I would have loaned to my cousin had we met this Thanksgiving of 2013:

Donovan – Wear Your Love Like Heaven & Hurdy Gurdy Man – Sundazed mono reissues

These albums were released this year by Sundazed and are just beautiful pressings of great material in ultra-rare mono. The differences to the mono mixes are subtle though still engaging – perfect for close listening. Sundazed has always been a great reissue label, but they’ve really stepped up their game in recent years especially re-releasing rare mono LPs. Not to mention improved mastering and pressing quality for their vinyl. Music lovers have never it had it so good with this company!                        

Here's a direct link to the Sundazed site:


John Martyn - Solid Air

            I “discovered” John Martyn this year. This album is a known classic for good reasons. Creative, exciting – falling somewhere between acoustic folk, rock and jazz. Of course, Martyn himself was a scoundrel of a person. There are some whose antics drive me away from the art. Although his conduct was truly foul, the music is fascinating and compelling. A classic case study of “How can people like THAT make music like THIS?”

Bunky and Jake – s/t

         I got hipped to Bunky and Jake this year as well. An internet friend sent me a copy of their second album. I recently found this, their first LP, at the WFMU Record Fair. One online review claimed the string section accompaniment on some tracks to be in questionable taste. Bull! It’s a beautiful record from start to finish. Period. A lost folk-rock classic. Should have been a hit! Jake Jacobs is still rockin’ and I seriously need to get a copy of his new album which you can also find here:

Kathi McDonald – Insane Asylum

    This was another WFMU score. Kathi McDonald was Janis Joplin’s replacement (one of the better ones) in Big Brother and the Holding Company. In some ways, I like Kathi’s voice better! This was her only solo album from those days (in this case 1974). Lots of great guest musicians. Interesting arrangements too. I think she’d put out some newer CDs in recent years, but for the longest time this album was her only solo offering. She did have one hit in 1980, although that was a duet and only a hit in Australia. She certainly deserved more and of course she passed away last year. I had been listening to the Quicksilver Messenger Service album “Solid Silver” and she sings all over that thing making it from a merely good to great album in my opinion.

Joe Walsh – Barnstorm

      This past year I developed a deeper appreciation for all things Joe Walsh. Even though he’s had commercial success, somehow he gets overlooked when it comes to those contemplating the seriously talented artists of the rock era. His classic core albums from the James Gang days and beyond are all really good. This one could be the best. I’ve played it a lot this year and it rates quite a few notches above even the best of his output during this time. Joe Walsh is a straight up no BS talent who can keep company with the best of ‘em and yes I do mean the Paul McCartney’s and Brian Wilsons of our time. There, I said it! Deal with it! Ha!

John Fahey - America (2LP reissue version)

Tim Buckley – Blue Afternoon

      Now John Fahey merits a whole entry to himself here (which will be forthcoming in the new year). Suffice to say I caught the Fahey bug too. This America double LP comes from the somewhat inconsistent 4 Men With Beards reissue label. Luckily my copy of this record is nice and sounds great. Of course, the more-obsessed-than-me have pointed out the reissue differs from the original release (some music cut out – way more included – the original was a single LP). I don’t have an original yet, but someday I’m sure. John Fahey played steel-string solo acoustic guitar, made up a lot of stories, didn’t sing and sometimes dabbled in electronic music and avant garde stuff too. He called himself American Primitive (to differentiate himself from those on the “folk” music circuit with whom he was lumped for live festivals and such). But he did a lot more than that, even. Check out the great new film about Fahey. See here:  http://www.johnfaheyfilm.com/

        Tim Buckley is a controversial guitarist who also didn’t want to be lumped in the “folk” bag. He sang a lot and sounded like an “Irish Tenor” of sorts. But he had lots of different phases. Most of which I have yet to hear. This isn’t the only album of his I have, but it’s the one I’ve played more – and with surprising frequency too! It just has a groove of its own. Like getting pulled down the rabbit hole of some strange world, but in a good way. But you gotta like acoustic music otherwise you’re out of luck. Buckley led a tragically short life which was sadly repeated with his son Jeff years later in the 90s. I can’t say I know much about Jeff Buckley, but he certainly was a big deal before his also early death in the 90s. I’m sure I’ll get to his music down the line…….

Little Feat – Dixie Chicken
Little Feat – Feats Don’t Fail Me Now 

    I’ve had these albums for awhile. For some reason they both really clicked with me this year and I couldn’t stop playing them. I have other Little Feat records that I like, but these two are just so good to hear one after the other. There is a real lonesome quality to this music, not unlike the lonesome Americana sound of the first two albums by The Band. Lowell George was quite a talent – great singer, songwriter, guitar player, producer, bandleader……the works! These albums cover an interesting artistic ground that ranges from the roots of American music right through the times in which they were created straight into the future (or the projected future). I don’t know what it was – I just had a real emotional reaction to hearing this music to the point where I couldn’t deny the genius behind the art.

The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made the Radio

Beach Boys – Surfin’ Safari – mono Capitol green-label reissue LP
Okay you nitpickers - I couldn't find a picture of the green-label reissue so here's my original copy. Of course it has the EQ roll-off funk that is totally missing from the green-label reissue so in this case the original is not the best sounding copy but you already would have guessed that......
 The most recent new Beach Boys release and the first! The new album is actually very enjoyable – it might not be Pet Sounds, but what is? It certainly sounds miles better than the last time The Beach Boys had Brian Wilson’s full involvement on a whole LP record. That was in 1985 for the self-titled release “The Beach Boys”. The biggest offender on that ill-fated album was the production which was all 80s gated drums and synth effects – totally inappropriate for who The Beach Boys are.  While the songs there were decent enough, the over-zapped 80s production really ruined the whole thing.

    Although, as a fan I really miss the presence of Carl Wilson on the new album it really does hold its own and is easily the best thing the core members have done together since, what…..Sunflower maybe? That’s Why God Made the Radio is a wholly enjoyable record with no cringe-inducing moments, not even from Mike Love!

    Contrasting the new one with the FIRST Beach Boys album – it took me a long time to find this green-label Captiol reissue of the “Surfin’ Safari” LP! What makes this issue worthwhile to seek out is the fact that it is only the second time it was ever issued in TRUE MONO sound. The first pressings were mono, of course. Then, every other reissue Capitol put out from the late 60s to the early 80s featured the crappy Duophonic (fake stereo) mix. I even got hoodwinked into buying one of those 70s orange-label Capitol reissues thinking it contained the mono mix. Nope. The downside to the green-label issue is that it is missing two tracks from the original release. The Beach Boys core catalog reissues from this time shaved off a few tracks per release – I think there was some weird contractual thing going on here – many of which appeared on a standalone release from this time titled “Be True to Your School”. I really don’t get the logic behind this wacky butchering of the original Beach Boys catalog at this point, but it sure is confusing!

    Adding to the confusion is that this arrangement only seemed to effect the US reissues. I have a Canadian green-label reissue LP of the “Little Deuce Coupe” album which, according to the cover notes is missing a few tracks as per my description above. The record however features ALL the tracks that appeared on the original release. So Canadian copies of this batch of reissues are worth seeking out to get all the tracks where they belong. Of course now I want to find a Canadian green-label reissue of the mono “Surfin’ Safari” album. (Which, by the way, is primitive as hell with goofy songs like “Cukoo Clock” and “You’re My Miss America” – really silly stuff, but it reflects the presumed innocence of pre-JFK assassination America in a way you can’t hear anywhere else. These guys were really BOYS when they cut this album!)

    Didja get all that? See – this is the kind of stuff Steve and I would spend many fascinating hours talking about. The inner workings of the various issues of classic albums that we loved. I'll be posting more of the research we both did over the years here in the future. In the meantime, keep spinning those platters and, above all, lets all enjoy the music while we're still here. Keep a light in the window for those we'll be missing these holidays. Thanks for stopping by as usual and here's to bright moments in the new year for us all! Amen!

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