15 November 2006

Vinyl blowout II

If my lengthy travelogue didn't bore you the other day, this post is the concluding episode of my record-buying spree. I've listened to all of the records I got, and I've decided to write some quick comments on each of them. I should preface by saying that most of my choices were informed by two books I read recently. The first was a history of post-punk by Simon Reynolds. Post-punk refers to the (mostly British) music from the late 70's after the very first wave of punk had run its course, and it's a progenitor of the American alternative scene in the 80's. The other book was a history of Impulse! Records, which was a jazz label best known in the 60's for being the home of John Coltrane. A lot of the music Impulse released at the time was strongly influenced by Coltrane, both because the musicians were influenced by his style and also because he had a lot of sway in terms of which artists got signed.

Ornette Coleman - The Great London Concert
Ornette Coleman was one of the originators of avant-garde jazz in the late 50's, and I've wanted to have something by him for a while. Anne and I saw him in concert a couple years ago, and the show was incredible, especially considering he's an septuagenarian. The proprietor of The Groove Yard pointed me toward this double-live album as a good example of him at his mid-60's peak. The first side of record 1 is an atonal suite played by woodwinds, which is as weird as it sounds, but not quite as bad, and the rest of the album is him and his band blowing away. It's pretty out there, but worth a listen.

Keith Jarrett - Fort Yawuh
I picked this one up on a whim after reading a little about it in the Impulse! Records book. It's a live recording of a five-piece band fronted by pianist Keith Jarrett. It's a good mix of experimental improvisation with some pleasant, mellow moments on the piano. It seemed pretty refined after listening to the Coleman record.

The New Wave in Jazz
I was hoping to find something by Albert Ayler after hearing him on an internet radio station. There wasn't anything at the record store, but the owner did find me this compilation of "new black music" (again on Impulse) that included a track by him, as well as one by Coltrane and another by the equally experimental Archie Shepp. It's a pretty good record, with some experimental moments that don't really lose sight of the underlying song. Also, Bobby Hutcherson plays the vibes on a couple tracks, which is really cool.

Herbie Hancock - Headhunters
I'm not really sure what it would mean for a record collection to be "complete," but I know mine got a little closer after buying this record.

John Coltrane - Kulu Sé Mama
I told myself I wouldn't get anything by Coltrane when I went into the store because we already own a lot of stuff by him. This trip was all about expanding my musical horizons. But who was I kidding? I couldn't resist the dozens of Trane records on display at Groove Yard. I was interested in exploring some of his more experimental music after he disbanded his "classic" quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones, and the owner of the store pointed me toward this one. The title track is a slightly jarring, 17-minute epic with his quartet plus about five other musicians, including Pharaoh Sanders. The interplay between Trane and Sanders along with the spoken word bits lend it a "this is experimental jazz" air. What's interesting is how the other musicians push things in directions you don't hear on some of his other records, but the sound of Coltrane's horn remains distinctive. The other side is two good tracks that he recorded with his quartet that sounds similar to the other stuff he was recording around the time of A Love Supreme.

The Grateful Dead - Live Dead
This one caught my eye right as I walked into the store. It's a double-live album from 1969 when the Dead were at their trippingest peak. A classic.

Johnny Cash - American V
If you haven't heard any of the records that Johnny Cash did with Rick Rubin just before before he died, you should definitely check them out. This is the latest and it's full of songs about impending death. Kind of a downer, but Johnny Cash's gravelly voice is captivating.

The Cure - The Head on the Door
To say the Cure have been prolific would be an understatement. Although I was looking for "Boys Don't Cry," I was content to find this one. It's the predecessor to my favorite Cure album, "Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me," and is, like most of their 80's output, very good. I find whenever I buy records/CDs that were released before I started collecting music, I stumble on songs that I recognize ("Oh, that song!") but had no idea what they were called. "In Between Days" and "Close to Me" fit that description on this one.

David Bowie - Low
The Simon Reynolds book I read kept referring to this album as a touchstone for a lot of the post-punk bands, so I felt I had to get a copy. It's an interesting mix, with side one consisting of short rock songs that sound a lot like early-seventies Bowie, but with a quirkier edge. The second side is all synthesizer-driven instrumentals, which isn't as bad as it sounds, and clearly shows Brian Eno's influence.

David Bowie - Station to Station
I hadn't planned on buying two Bowie albums, but when I saw this in the $1 clearance rack at Amoeba, I had to get it. My tolerance for disco rock must be increasing, because I kind of like this record.

R.E.M. - Life's Rich Pageant
We had a conversation with Dan and Kristina the other day about who brought which music into our relationship, and Anne got credit for most of the R.E.M. I must say, though, that I really like their early stuff, before Peter Buck learned to play the mandolin. This is one of the last records the band did for IRS, and it's got a lot of peppy songs; it sounds like they're actually having fun playing them. "Oh, that song!" moments: "Just a Touch" and "Superman."

Sleater-Kinney - All Hands on the Bad One
It's a shame I didn't discover how great this band is until a few months before they broke up. Ah well, at least they recorded a lot. This is a great record, and it has one of the coolest song titles in punk rock: "You're No Rock & Roll Fun." If you, like me, waited a decade too long to start listening to these guys, drop whatever you're doing right now (no, I mean it) and go out and buy this or another or all of their albums.

Killing Joke - What's THIS for...!
These guys put out a couple of great proto-industrial rock albums in the early 80's, then turned into a crap, industrial-dance band. This is one of their good ones, which I remember fondly from the KUPS record archives.

The Talking Heads - More Songs About Buildings and Food
Another Brian Eno-connected record. This is the first Talking Heads record I've ever bought, but I'm happy I got it.

Gang of Four - entertainment
This band is one of the post-punk heavyweights, so I was eager to get something by them. They sort of set the stage for the discordant, white-boy funk that bands like the Talking Heads perfected. Also, they were unapologetic Marxists, which of course earns them points from me. After listening to their first album, I can see why it's considered a classic. It's one of those records that sounds vaguely like a lot of other records you might know (Interpol springs to mind), only a lot less polished.

Echo and the Bunnymen - Heaven Up Here
I've heard these guys were briefly considered the other U2, before U2 became, well ... U2. It's no surprise after listening to this record, which sounds remarkably like U2's first album. Luckily, "Boy" is one of my favorite U2 records, and this one is equally likeable, if not quite as distinctive.

The Velvet Underground - White Light/White Heat
I had a feeling my first Velvet Underground record would be full of "Oh, that song!" moments. I also thought it would be full of laconic songs about heroin. Neither of those turned out to be the case. There's as much screeching feedback on this record as anything Hendrix put out, with Lou Reed's (laconic) vocals drolly rolling over the top. I like it, although it's not quite what I expected. On a related note, we just rented the first series of the British sketch comedy Little Britain this weekend. One of the sketches features two guys named Lou and Andy. Lou is a guy with shaggy hair and buck teeth who is constantly looking after and being frustrated by his overweight, wheelchair-bound friend, Andy. Andy doesn't actually need the wheelchair and constantly exploits Lou's good nature. It's a recurring sketch, and the gag gets old after the second or third time you see it, but I still chuckled every time it came on after learning from the commentary that the characters were modeled on Lou Reed and Andy Warhol.


09 November 2006

Why you haven't heard from me lately (among other reasons)

Although I haven't been blogging very much lately, I have had some spare moments to lurk on my friends' blogs. And although I've tried to adhere to proper blog etiquette by leaving a periodic comment, I've been thwarted by MSN Spaces' recent makeover. Since Windows Live launched, I've had some technical difficulties with posting a comment on any MSN-hosted blog while using Firefox on either a Windows PC or a Mac. (And for those of you whose blogs aren't hosted by MSN, I really have no excuse.)

I find this a little annoying. So annoying, in fact, that I contacted Microsoft to see if they could resolve the problem. Astonishingly, within 48 hours of submitting my complaint, I got a reply from MS tech support. "Nadia" clearly felt my pain:
I am Nadia and I understand that nothing happens when you click on the "Add" button to add a comment to your friend's Blog entry. I know how inconvenient this may be for you.

She then proceeded to give step-by-step instructions for how to optimize my browser. I diligently followed the steps, but sadly to no avail. Although my browser was now "optimized," clicking the "Add" button to add a comment still had no effect. Within a day, I got another email from Microsoft asking my opinion of my technical support experience. I tried to register my displeasure at not having my problem resolved while also making every effort to show that I appreciated "Nadia's" efforts.

Unfortunately, dark inertia set in after that, and I never bothered to follow up. Now I can't seem to remember where I found the form for submitting a complaint to tech support. The other day I tried to track it down, but couldn't find it. So if any of you have any ideas for how to work around this problem, I'd love to hear it. (The comment posting problem; the problem of not finding the form is just abject laziness on my part.)

For the record, the post that started me down this path was one that Roger wrote about a month ago. It was about hair metal (in fact he wrote two in a row!) so how could I resist? For what it's worth, I merely wanted to point out that if you're going to go to the trouble of tattooing a picture of Randy Rhoads on your back, you might want to make sure his name is spelled right.

As an unrelated postscript, I'm sure you've already heard one of the first pieces of fallout from yesterday's elections was the canning of Donald Rumsfeld. Although I won't miss the way he's bumbled through our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, I will miss his unique manner with the media. This afternoon NPR compiled some of his finer moments that are definitely worth a listen.

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06 November 2006

Vinyl blowout

I finally finished all of my lab work and fellowship applications, so I was able to relax this weekend. Anne and I went to the movies yesterday for the first time in what seems like months (we saw Borat, which was awkwardly hilarious) and then I went to the Cal game (we beat UCLA 38-24, Go Bears!). This morning we went to Oakland's Dia de los Muertos festival in the Fruitvale. The only thing that's mitigated my enjoyment of this weekend is the sheer ineptitude with which the Vikings are currently playing against the sheerly inept 49ers. [Update: Since I wrote that last sentence, the Vikings have been utterly embarrassed by the pathetic 49ers and are probably slinking back to the Twin Cities as I upload this to my blog.] Otherwise it's been a great weekend. But all of this pales in comparison to the time I had on Thursday when I rewarded myself for finishing all of my lab work by going on a record-shopping spree. I've been saving some money I got as an award at a conference last winter just for this occasion. I took the entire day off on Thursday to travel to a couple record shops in the East Bay and the city to spend it.

Luckily, none of the local record stores open before 11:00, so I was able to have a leisurely morning. I had a big breakfast and then studied a little Swedish before heading to Saturn Records. This store is a small, musty, used record store in Rockridge about a 5 minute bus ride from my apartment. In many ways it's the platonic ideal of the used record store -- frumpy and old, like it's merchandise. There's just one problem. If a store can be said to have an attitude, this one does. As just one example of the "too cool for school" attitude that permeates the store, on my only previous visit I was disappointed to see that all of the heavy metal was filed under Spinal Tap. Well, I wasn't disappointed on this trip. I was greeted by a diffident clerk who was listening to Carole King at an ear-splitting volume. It took me a few moments of hovering in front of her counter for her to look up from her computer and acknowledge me so that I could check my bag. It's not like she was overrun with customers on a rainy Thursday morning. I was there for about 20 minutes, and only one other person came in. But, in spite of our rarity, we customers were treated with jaded detachment. It almost seems too easy to draw a comparison to the record shop in "High Fidelity," but put Jack Black behind that counter and you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

At this point I should confess that I dislike virtually all forms of shopping. One of the very few exceptions is shopping for used records, which I think is one of consumerism's greatest pleasures. Because a store's stock is constantly changing, you never know exactly what you'll find. It's like a treasure hunt for music. Since I don't DJ, my main goal is just to plug holes in my music collection. I always have a mental list of things I'd like to get, but the best part can be the surprises. Although I rarely have the patience to rummage through a disorganized rack of shirts to find the ideal, if slightly irregular, dress shirt for under $20, happening upon that rare Iron Maiden bootleg can make my week.

Because of that, I'll put up with a lot of crap when on a record hunt because the shopping itself is inherently rewarding. And here is where Saturn Records really let me down. They didn't have a lot of things I was looking for, and the few things I might have considered buying weren't particularly economical -- most prices started around $10. After a bit of hemming and hawing, I decided I'd have better pickings later in the day, so I retrieved my backpack from the indifferent clerk and headed out into the rain.

My next stop was Groove Yard, a store that I pass every day on my bike ride to work but have never been to. It specializes in jazz, blues, and soul, mostly jazz. Our jazz collection was in need of some new material, so I was excited to check this place out. Also, it has a sweet name. It did not disappoint. It had a ton of records to choose from, with at least a couple dozen records each in the sections for jazz giants like Coltrane and Miles, and even a record or two from some pretty obscure artists like Archie Shepp. The clerk/owner was very helpful and knowledgeably answered all of my questions like "What's the best first album to buy from artist X," or "I like artist Y, who else should I listen to?" And the best part is he answered them without the least bit of condescension. I left the store happily with five new records, and I could have easily bought half a dozen more if I hadn't been trying to stick to a budget.

It was lunchtime, so I headed toward the Rockridge BART and looked for somewhere to eat. I settled on Ben and Nick's, which is the sister restaurant to Cato's, the world's greatest bar. As I settled in with my beer, looking at my stack of new records, I decided this was shaping up to be a very excellent day indeed.

The next stop was Mod Lang, which is a small, independent music shop. It has a good selection of new CD's, mostly indie rock, and a respectable selection of used records, too. It used to be on University Ave., just a few blocks from my office. Sadly, it moved to El Cerrito about six months ago, and I hadn't been to it's new location until Thursday. It was a little disconcerting getting off the BART at El Cerrito Plaza because I felt like I'd been transported to the suburbs. The first stores that greeted me were a Starbucks and a Jamba Juice, and it took some poking around to find the record shop tucked away in a back alley. The store itself was relatively unchanged, although the interior is a little more sterile than it was in the century-old building in downtown Berkeley. The selection was just as good, though, and I came away with five more records.

I decided that I should cap the day with a trip to the Mecca of used music stores: Amoeba in the Haight. I probably could have gone up to Telegraph to go to Rasputin's and the original Amoeba, but it was a special day, so I made the trip into the city. The store in the Haight is a converted bowling alley, making it one of the biggest music stores I've ever seen. The selection, however, isn't quite what I remember from my last trip there. The front room that used to be devoted to jazz, blues, and world music is now a used DVD showroom, so everything else has been compressed into the remaining area. Also, although Amoeba's reputation as a used CD store remains unchallenged, I think the fact that everyone shops there means the vinyl section is pretty picked over.

While shopping at Amoeba, I did come to a realization about shopping for used records that confirmed a growing suspicion of mine. When I started collecting records after discovering Recycled Records in Reno, a lot of people still listened to music on vinyl. As a consequence, I think that records weren't all that rare, and basic principles of supply and demand kept prices down. (Most of the records at Recycled Records were $3.50.) Nowadays, it seems that the only people who listen to / buy records are collectors and DJs. This drives up prices, especially in the Bay Area where a lot of people are into music (and it seems like every tenth person is a DJ.) (Another Bay Area factor is obviously the higher rents.) While I was able to find some good used options after a bit of digging, what was most striking about Amoeba's record section was how much of their vinyl was new, still in the shrink wrap, and obviously aimed at collectors. There were reissues of classic albums (I actually got a couple) and a lot of bootlegs and rarities. As one example, the only thing in the Smiths section was six copies of a collection of b-sides and demos called "Boyfriend in a Coma." Pink Floyd had a huge section, but most of this consisted of multiple copies of four different live bootlegs, all of which seemed pretty shady in terms of production values.

In spite of this, I was able to find a half dozen records I liked and could afford after poking around the recent arrivals and clearance sections, bringing my total haul to 16 new additions to my vinyl collection. Overall, it was a great way to spend my first day off in ages. Once I've had a chance to listen to them all, I plan on regaling you with reviews of all of my new finds.