Monday, December 29, 2014

End of the Year Vibration Roundup

So goes another year – I can't believe my last post was back in September. Well, I have to say 2014 held a lot of challenges and blessings for my family, so writing time has been more compromised. Yet, I've managed to keep up the commitment to listening a little every day. And despite my usual diet of “old music” I did manage to hear more “new” music this year. I took some risks with new albums and had a pretty great time. Maybe my adventures were not the most adventurous, but I feel more connected to newer music than I have in ages. I can confidently say there is a lot of great music being composed, recorded and performed today. And for those who are interested in older music, there is a wealth at our disposal to plunder a few lifetimes over. Especially on vinyl. I've said it before and the sentiment still holds true – music lovers have never had it so good. 

Well, maybe the one thing we are missing are those enormous record stores of old like in this (now classic) video of Tower Records in 1970. This is the video of “the good old days” and rightly so. Even in the waning days of Tower Records, it was still a cool place. Had the store survived into the current times, there would no doubt have been a return to stocking vinyl. But it was not to be. 

Though the big stores are no more, there are record shows where pretty sizeable amounts of platters change hands like here:
Pretty exciting stuff! I can attest to the fact that many of the new releases I bought this year were on LP – I got swept away in the vinyl bug, contrary to my initial intentions to purchase more downloads. More on that later......

To balance out the vinyl mania that's been sweeping the globe for the last few years, I submit this highly amusing amateur video taken in the Record World in the old Orange Mall in Middletown, New York circa 1984. This video is fascinating since it pre-dates the wide acceptance of the Compact Disc. And, oddly enough the bins look unusually empty compared to what I remember. And I do remember since this store was a semi-frequent destination for me in those same years. More about that in a second.....take a look at these excited store clerks – ha! (Oh well, you will have to click the link to see this on youtube - can't get it to embed here.........)

Well, there you have it kids – those pre-digital days were not all fun and groovy. However dismal this store looks in the video I remember it being pretty thriving the times I was there. In fact, about a year or so before this video was taken I remember finding a “holy-grail” import LP in this shop: The Yardbirds a/k/a “Roger the Engineer”.
This was in the early-80s when import LPs were plentiful. Stuff I saw at this Record World now routinely sells for three figures on ebay. Crazy.

So how did I connect with some new music this year? The three avenues I explored were Spotify, recommendations from a music discussion forum I contribute to and also the old word of mouth / local connections approach. First up is “Find a Way” by Living Laser - a band brought to my attention courtesy of the latter option:
This album is one of several releases this group has done specifically for vinyl and I have to say it is a winner both in terms of the package – check that cool lime-green vinyl – and the music itself. To be fair, I am not in a position to critique the musical content beyond what my ears tell me. I reckon there is a genre this band belongs to, but I am reluctant to attempt identifying what that genre might be. Which is not a big concern because the music is really good – even to an older person like me. In fact, listening to Living Laser, I was reminded of the time when I was just getting into harder-edged new music in high school and brought this Husker Du album home:
Like the Living Laser album, the Husker Du album was cut at 45RPM and the propulsion of the drumming and power-chording guitars took me by surprise. It all seemed too fast! Yet, music of this tempo and energy is not as confounding to me now. So, I will be looking forward to checking out more Living Laser albums in the new year. See their website for more details and a live show schedule here:

On the music discussion forum I hang around, there is a section devoted to whatever vinyl people are spinning that particular evening. Pictures are uploaded and conversations emerge. Folks literally from all over the world share images, stories and info about their favorite music – which runs the gamut from pop, country, jazz, rock, blues and even old Walt Disney kids records! Two records that received a lot of attention on that forum (which inspired me to purchase them) were the two latest from Beck and Real Estate:

Now, of course I had this whole other entry about Real Estate earlier in the year where I viewed an online concert of them performing the Atlas album from start to finish. Hearing the album live was interesting, but left me wondering how the material sounded on the record. As it happens, the record smooths out some of the rough edges I heard on the live show, but in a tasteful way that supports the music overall. So I have to say I found a new band I like who I would go to hear live as well as purchase whatever other releases they have.
I also approached the new Beck album – Morning Phase – from the same standpoint – blind purchase. At first listen I thought it was too downbeat and atmospheric for me. With some return spins my appreciation grew – there are some great melodies here and although I'm not the biggest Beck fan in the world, I'd say Morning Phase has the potential to reach a new audience without selling out. Now, considering that the first I heard of Beck was 22 years ago let's consider what his status might look like if we apply the same time shift to a different era and different musical personality.....
Here's a Frank Sinatra record that I picked up over the summer which combines the contents of two separate 10” releases from approximately 1954. These, I think, were the first releases for what many consider to be Frank Sinatra's true golden era – the Capitol years (coincidentally Beck's new album rings in a new contract with Capitol Records also!). I have been slowly getting into more Sinatra albums over the past few years and never heard this one before. Really enjoyable and good sound, despite all the tracks crammed onto each side. This record also illustrates the mysterious difference between the Capitol records of the era stamped with the “D” in the deadwax as opposed to “N” in the deadwax. For reasons still a bit unknown, the “D” stamped LPs sound significantly better than the “N” counterparts of the same title. I was psyched to see the “D” on both sides of this Sinatra LP – score!

Now, let's adjust Sinatra like we did for Beck – adding 22 years to 1954 brings us to 1976. Here's what a Sinatra record from approximately 1976 looks like:
He's an old man! Blue eyes is BACK! From what? Retirement? Actually this record is from 1973 – only a 19 year difference from when Swing Easy was released. So , in the grand scheme Beck should be to current audiences what Sinatra was to audiences in 1976. Feelin' old yet?

Ah, it doesn't matter. Sinatra made great music in his later years and Beck is doing the same thing. But it does put some perspective on the whole “new music” concept for me. The odd juxtaposition is now we have a resurgent interest in vinyl records with all sorts of new bands and artists releasing the music on this format, yet music has not moved entirely beyond what has been happening since the 80s and 90s – with either the rap / hip-hop world or the hard rock / metal world (if we use those two genres as examples – there are others, of course).

What I find lacking in either of those genres (and others) is any connection to American roots music – especially the blues. I did find it interesting the last time I went with the Mrs. to see Rascal Flatts, their guitar player did a tribute of sorts to Stevie Ray Vaughan and played “Pride and Joy”. So, say what you will about contemporary country music, but at least there was some acknowledgment of blues there. This leads me to another word-of-mouth acquisition – The Levee by Petey Hop. 
As far as I know there is no vinyl release of The Levee yet, but this CD sounds great – which it should considering it was produced by the great Duke Robillard. What I like most about The Levee is how the blues is the foundation – and given the due respect it commands as a form – yet, Petey Hop takes the music to the next level – the modern times. Modern audiences, regardless of how familiar they are with the classic blues music of the 20th century, will feel at home with The Levee. Pete Hop is one of the current performers who knows all about the traditions, yet is ready to carry those vibrations down the road to new places. The Levee is accessible for country, rock, blues and everywhere in between fans. And I think the album cover is great too – kind of like a cross between the classic Parliament-Funkadelic album cover illustrations by the great Pedro Bell and the 70s-era Neil Young album covers like Zuma. 
Pete Hop is a world-traveling musician worth seeing for his adventurous blend of blues and American modern roots music. Check out his website for a schedule of personal appearances, access to The Levee and more:

Well, as much as I promised to find a way to make downloads interesting this year I still haven't managed to hit that mark – even when there were some pretty crazy cool download-only releases like the Beach Boys and Beatles copyright-oriented releases like this:

So the vinyl bug kept biting and I even made a few Record Store Day purchases. I was especially happy to bag a limited-edition grey vinyl Hawklords EP with the unique mix of (Only the Dead Dreams of the) Cold War Kid on it! This mix is very different from the one found on the Hawklord's 25 Years On album. Can't say which is the better mix, but I like the one on the EP. Yay!
      This all leads to the fact that, if anything, 2014 ended up as the Year of the Vinyl LP for me. Aside from the above, I also designed a little photo-study project where I took pictures of every single album I played this year which can be downloaded as a big file and used as a screen-saver or a slide-show or however you like. Some folks like keeping a fish tank to chill out in front of. This is a lot cheaper and you don't have to suction up fish poop every month. So, for the 2014 Vinyl Slide-Show, download here, unzip and extract (note - this is a big file, even compressed so keep that in mind) :  
As usual, thanks for reading and I look forward to more vibrations and new sonic vistas in the New Year!