Saturday, December 31, 2016

Album 2016

Harder than I was thinking with lots of worthies falling just off the mark.


1.  Blonde Frank Ocean
2. Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future Underworld
3. Three Phantogram
4. Goodness Hotelier
5. Fever Dream Ben Watt
6. 22, A Million Bon Iver
7. Thick as Thieves Temper Trap
8. Running Out of Love Radio Dept
9. A Seat at the Table Solange
10. Matter St. Lucia

Single 2016

Maybe no order.  but maybe still.


1.  Can't Stop the Feeling! JT
2.  Hand Clap Fitz and the Tantrum
3.  Burn the Witch Radiohead
4.  Cold to See Clear Nada Surf
5.  Famous Kanye
6.  Stranger Things Theme Dixon/Stein
7.  Sorry Bey
8.  The Noisy Days are Over Field Music
9.  Floridada Animal Collective
10. Gardenia Iggy Pop

Monday, July 25, 2016

i know it's going to happen someday

Diana Ross.  Treasure Island.  July 23rd, 2016.   

I didn't hear a symphony, and I could quibble a bit (venue and weird show closer especially), but I was still delighted.  Hell, she looks great (to say nothing of being 72), her four costume changes (4, not 5!) were a delight, she sang live, and she appeared to be having fun (or she's such a professional that appearing and being are indistinguishable  to the audience, and I'll take that any day)
 

One more off the bucket list and a great companion to the Cure,  Stevie Wonder and Fleetwood Mac who are all recent cross offs. 

Of course, that fabled bucket list sits rather amorphously in my head, adding/subtracting at will.  So, the caveat that I might change my mind at any moment, right here, right now are the ultimate acts I'd really like to see (and would even make travel considerations where warranted).  I'd put ABBA on the list, but impromptu reunion earlier this year, I don't think that's going to happen.  As for The Smiths (or at least Morrissey/johnny Marr...) think what you like.  I'll keep a light on in the window.

Kate Bush (whatever.  who's to say she won't do a residence in vegas?)
XTC (ya ya.  but you'd go in a heartbeat too)
Van Morrison
Strokes (yes, Julian is a bastard, but still)
John Cale
Annie Lennox/Eurythmics
New Order
Beck
Elvis Costello
Cock Robin
Sheena Easton
Donnie Iris
Dwight Twilley
Icicle Works
Icehouse
Julian Cope
Marshall Crenshaw
OMD (kicking myself)
Paul Weller
Prefab Sprout (one can hope, right?)
Radiohead (ya never know...I could just end up at some festival one of these days)
Ray Parker Jr
Toto (Oshkosh, Wisconsin, August 31 and September 1st.  just sayin')
Split Enz
The Fixx

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Becoming Sound Again (Redemption 11)

Someone great. Something lost.
Silenced.

Shock.  Realized.  
Troubled, hurting, uncertain.
Down.  

Sorrowed. 
Held, talked, teared.

Acknowledged.
Wounded. Not broken, but not whole.
Just.
Waiting.
Then.
Music.
Dependable. Faithful. Universal. Intimate. Selfless.
To solve, to center, to comfort, to remember, to repair, to reset, to return, to salve.

Recover
With


A phrase that resonates
A chord progression that lifts
A melody that warms
A hook that re-engages
A rhythm that rouses

 
The Cure "Pictures of You" (the churn and misery, the minor chords, the moments of light when the guitars kick in, "the pictures are all i can feel")
Yeasayer "I Remember"  ("you're stuck in my mind, all the time")
The Eels "Last Stop: This Town" (the keyboard hook.  the breakdown freakout.  "i'm gonna fly on down for the last stop in this town")
Bjork "Hyper-Ballad" (that voice.  that rhythm track.  that barely restrained madness "every morning i walk towards the edge and throw little things off.  I go through this before you wake up.")
Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush "Don't Give Up" ("you have friends.  you're not beaten yet.  i know you can make it good.")
Lyle Lovett "If I Had a Boat" (Well, kiss my ass I bought a boat, i'm going out to sea"  Why does a simple guitar riff always connect?) 
Bill Withers "Lean on me" (The opening piano chords, "lean on me, when you're not strong")
Waterboys "This is the Sea" ("These things you keep, you better throw them away."  Anthem it out, brother, anthem it out and sing yourself hoarse.)
The Beatles "Blackbird" ("Take these broken wings and learn to fly")
Jake Runstead (composer) "Let My Love be Heard" (the harmonies.  the sweeping voices.  hopeful.  hopeful.)
Mr. Mister "The Border"  ("We, we must go on now.  Wherever people go, go on together."  the pulsing beat.) 

Accept.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

For All to See

The heat wave has arrived.  Summer is here with emphasis so of course it's time to rock out.  What better to listen to, than "Big Red Letter Day" from Buffalo Tom.
 

Buffalo Tom, frequently derided as dinosaur jr clones (dinosaur jr jr?) had a lot more going for them than that.  Buffalo Tom's sound was/is a built on noisy guitar buzz for sure, but they had big guitar riffs, melodic and production hooks aplenty, and oblique enough lyrics to make it all seem important, for four minutes anyway (four what more could you ask?)   
 

Released in 1993 on Beggars Banquet, "Big Red Letter Day" was Buffalo Tom's fourth album and a high water commercial mark for the band, merging their fuzz rock with pop sensibilities.  The album became a (college) rock album hit with several singles, most notably "Sodajerk" and "Treehouse," seeing chart success.  Even though BRLD's sound can be fixed to certain time and place, and it certainly doesn't break new ground, it is a brilliant summer album. By turns, raucous and rowdy, boisterous and full of bravado, it has a surprisingly sensitive center and its lyrics are darker than one would expect for such a big sounding album.
 

The big guitar riffs that lead into "sodajerk's" opening lines "Watch an eyeball, take a freefall, at the mention of a name," waste no time getting down to business and working up a sweat, and although it might not make a whole lot of sense, it's impossible to listen to the "Jerk my fountain" line and not smile.  The band is giving it all they have, but they aren't taking it too seriously. 
 

Perhaps realizing they were soundtracking a generation x of bar-b-q's, the band pulls back from the sweatabyss welcome-to-the-party opening track.  "i'm allowed" arrives all uncertain and belligerent, looking for a beer and somebody to talk to.  "Came to the party, but I got my own signals crossed.  Thought I was welcome, but I felt like I should get lost."  Navigating a crowd, whether its friends or strangers requires great skill or utter fearlessness and this song has both.
"Seasons change" again with the uptempo rocker, "treehouse" and folks are getting settled in now.  The beer is flowing, the steaks are just about to go on the grill and the sun is still circular on the pool.  Folks are playing some volleyball off to the side of the house and everybody's making nice.  This is what summer is all about, working up a sweat and showing as much skin as possible.
 

The cool down doesn't take long to arrive again with "would not be denied."  Ordinarily, this fast, slow, fast, slow sequencing would be a bit of a schizophrenic listen, but on "Big Red Letter Day" it's a balancing act of rambunctious ball throwing and beer chugging, exchanged with quiet asides beside the pool, positioning the events later in the evening, if luck and lyric allow.  Having one of the best melodies of the album, as well as the best example of loud/soft dynamics, certainly doesn't hurt the sequencing either. 
 

"latest monkey" and "my responsibility" continue the up and down sequencing, but the highs aren't as high and the slows are just a little more more.  The food is ready and everybody is digging in as the sun starts to hit the trees.  The party has hit a pause. 
 

The evening shift starts with "dry land;" uptempo and melodic but nothing extreme.  Food has been eaten, folks are settling into chairs or standing behind them.  Roles are cast, lines are set and the act awaits the musical cue.  Something to sway to, something to nod your head to, but the only thing sweaty now is the beer clenched firmly in a hand.  The transition from the fade of "dry land" to the guitar strum opening of "torch singer" sets a damn near perfect mood.  "late at night" adds some late breaking drama to the mix.  Bracingly pungent and slightly unpleasant, the wind down isn't gonna be perfect and some hearts might be broken before the party is over.  "Suppose" closes down the conflict and gets everybody back in a good mood before heading off into the night.
 

"Anything that way" leaves the party hosts doing a little clean up, before giving up and promising the rest of it to tomorrow.  They are both wondering if they should have told their friends about their pregnancy or if it's too soon and if that might have been the last bbq in a while.  They upright a couple unsettled lawnchairs and watch the fireflies for awhile before heading into the house and off to bed.
 

Buffalo Tom's profile was never higher after the success of "Big Red Letter Day," but they were unable to capitalize, despite releasing a couple stellar post-BRD singles in "Summer" and "Tangerine."  Their moment and sound fell into fickle disfavor and after a couple more entertaining albums in the same vein with diminishing results, popularly and artistically the band called it a (temporary) day with "Smitten" in 1998.
 

How fertile was the songwriting period for Buffalo Tom?  Enough so that they could write and product 4 more tracks for b-sides and compilations that equal anything on the album proper.  In the never ending ultimate sequence quest, here's a "Bigger, Redder, Letter Day."  (and totally not a dig on the original album sequence, just trying to fit the bonus songs in the context of the album instead of pasting them at the end.  adding "the way back" after the "dry land/torch singer" couplet certainly extends a certain perfect mood just a little bit longer and I totally don't understand why "late at night" doesn't end the album)
 

Sodajerk
I'm allowed
Treehouse
Would not be denied
Witches broom (b side)
For all to see (no alternative)
Latest monkey
My responsibility
Butterscotch (b side)
Dry land
Torch singer
The way back (b side)
Suppose
Anything that way
Late at night
(reprise)
Anything that way (live)
Late at night (live)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Versions of You

Reduce, Reuse, recycle.  

The pop music industry already has these particular basics of economy down pat. (Putting responsibility and the music industry in the same sentence feels very strange.)   Every hit, near hit or just brilliantly written (but possibly unjustly ignored) song eventually rises phoenix like from the ashes of a generation’s dis-remembrance.  Hits will be covered (for better or worse), hits will be remixed (for airplay, for clubs, for someone’s ego power trip) and a plethora of acoustic versions (either heartrenderingly treacly or stunningly revealing) will repeatedly renew the shelf life of a song.  Even hooks and riffs, to say nothing of the blurred (lines) feel of a song can be reclaimed, partitioned and renewed for a second, third or however many chance(s) in some airplay shape or form.  All about the benjamins of course, but enough artistic success is engendered to make the most of attempts a worthwhile listen, in theory at least. 
But beyond the lazy artists covering a golden oldie as a follow-up to a one hit wonder, or the bloated cock rocker shooting one last wad on an acoustic cover of a song with no discernable melody, there are some true gems in the game of musical reuse.  These real experts of economy are artists who are brave enough to remake their own signature hits.  Here then, are a few artists and their songs, who, despite having considerable success the first time, were daring and talented enough to make lightning strike twice.

Frank Sinatra “Someone to Watch Over Me”
Frank’s vocal performance of “Someone” from 1945 sounds tentative and the strings overpower him at times. His hits all the notes perfectly of course, and his voice, so young here, is flawless, but there no passion in the performance, no connection to the lyrics in this performance.  Instead of a plea, Franks sings the lyrics almost as a boast.  Frank even does some dipping in his vocal, perhaps to add some drama to the all too careful rendition.   It’s such a great song, and Frank is such a vocal talent, that it would hardly be fair to call this version a disappointment, but it doesn’t connect as well as it could have.
Just nine years later, Frank recorded the song again, and it is astonishing to hear the difference.    The more sympathetic strings help, but from the first breath, Frank owns this song.  His vocal is much more measured, he’s reassuring, cajoling, and pleading in this version.  His voice is richer,and he uses it brilliantly, modulating volume, adjusting tone and adding shades to dramatic effect; all within a single phrase.  Frank’s phrasing here is beyond impeccable, the way he draws out the tension by breaking up following line into tiny phrases and  staggering the emphasis within each section , “ although I/ may not/ be the /man some /girls/ think of/, as handsome/, but to her heart/, I’ll /carry/ the key,/” is breathtaking.  Even his breathing becomes a part of the song, as during the “Won’t you tell her please, to put on some speed (breath), follow my lead (breath), oh how I need (breath), someone to watch over me.”  Nothing showy; sung strongly, but never loudly, perfectly in tune literally and figuratively; that’s a primer on how to sing the hell out of a song, holmes. 

Neil Sedaka “Breaking up is Hard to Do”
The Brill(iance) Building shine of the original “Breaking up is Hard to Do” cast a long shadow.  “Breaking “ was (and is) the archetype 60’s pop song, filled with every imaginable hook; a great vocal intro/chorus; “do do do, down doobie down, down come-a, come-a, down doobie down, down,” that kicks into an indelible melody, tight female harmonies mirroring Neil’s lead excellent vocal, and the perfectly placed key change at the bridge at baked into a breathless 2 minutes 30 seconds.  This song is undeniably joyous pop perfection and made breaking up sound like so much fun.
Which makes 1975’s remade “Breaking” all the more fascinating.  Starting with a nod to the vocal intro of the original, this remake smoothly breaks down into torch song territory with a piano driven, slowed down broken hearted version.  A measured, sympathetic adult vocal from Neil replaces the fun of the original with a dose of chagrin and hesitation.  Sure, there’s a little MOR balladry embedded in the paint by numbers arrangement, but it’s an interesting remake with a completely different dynamic than the original.   And it beats the nakedly incestuous “Should’ve Never let You Go” for best Neil ballad by a landslide. 

Aerosmith/Run DMC “Walk this Way”
“Walk” a top 10 hit from 1977, has one of the signature opening guitar hooks of the rock era courtesy of Joe Perry’s amazing guitar skills and the main guitar riff aint nothing to walk away from either.  Instantly identifiable and compulsively listenable, (your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for screechy lead vocals and juvenile lyrics) the song is a mainstay of rock album radio and understandable so.
A slightly different kind of remake/remodel brought Aerosmith back to the charts in the mid 80’s when Run DMC covered their signature song with the band guesting.  Let’s be clear here, it’s not like Aerosmith really did anything all that special with their part (one should be happy that they were still alive enough to even play at that point in their drug careers), they basically played it and sang it just like the original.  But they do deserve credit for having the vision (desperation) to allow their sound to be grafted onto a hip/hop track. But Run DMC did all the heavy lifting here.   And what an amazing success this version is, commercially and artistically.  It still has that propulsive drive, and not just because of the sampled drum kick intro combined with vinyl scratches, but seamlessly merging two disparate musical styles is pure genius.   Popular?  Visionary?  Influential? Revolutionary?  Yes, Yes, Yes and Yes.

Joni Mitchell “Both Sides Now”
When she first recorded “Both Sides Now” in 1969, Joni Mitchell was in her mid 20’s, and still somewhat girlish, where romantic notions of life and love still held sway.  With simple production and a straightforward guitar strumming against the melody, Joni’s pure singing promises perspective and understanding.  Her disillusions with love may have colored her performance then, but she’s optimistic her losses grant her wisdom and strength for the journey ahead.  The girl may not have known clouds that day, but it was just a momentary disappointment.  A cloud front across the sunny day that is just around the corner. 
However our experience defines the limit of our emotional understanding, all deceptions fail to time.  By the time she returned to the song in 2000, experience laid bare the essential truths of life.  Against a wash of strings and the occasional horn accents, an older wiser, wearier Joni has really seen all sides and she sings that awareness into this version.  Her voice is rougher around the edges and her voice can no longer straddle both sides of the sky, but her performance is still honest.   Remembrance, regret, and loss color this version of “Both Sides Now.”  There are no moons or junes or dizzy dancings ways to feel.  She really has seen all sides now and there are no more illusions.  While there may still be some hope, her vocal is all about understanding and acceptance.  When she sings that she really doesn’t know life at all, it’s her truest vocal moment, her barest moment as an artist.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Life Beyond The Top 40

Ambrosia vs. Pablo Cruise.  

Who was who and which hit belonged to which band?  It’s easy to be confused. This then, makes the case for telling them apart, and attempts to declare a victor in the age old conflict between Ambrosia and Pablo Cruise.  

Both bands were active from the early to mid 70’s to early 80’s and battled it out on the charts on several occasions.  

Both were southern California rock bands, and although their influences varied, they both had their greatest chart successes with self-penned, very middle of the road/album oriented rock (MOR AOR), state of the art-radio friendly songwriting and production approach.

Both had strong lead singers who were largely anonymous.  While Ambrosia’s David Pack had some small measure on name recognition, that might have been more attributed to his frequent studio credits and a big label push behind a largely ignored solo album.  Who was the lead singer of Pablo Cruise?  And both bands had instrumentalist, who, although very competent players, never ascended to stardom.  (The same could be said for Orleans, Firefall, America, Player, ARS and Toto too)

Hits
Pablo Cruise edges out Ambrosia when it comes to number of Top 40 hits, even including some iffy chart successes on both sides.  However Pablo Cruise charted three Top 10 hits “Whatcha Gonna Do?,” “Love Will Find a Way,” and “Don’t Want to Live Without it” and “Cool Love” peaked just outside the top ten , Ambrosia charted 2 Top 5 hits (“How Much I Feel” and “Biggest Part of Me” and had a near 10 ten hit (“You’re the Only Woman”) as well.  Both bands are still fixtures on retrospective radio and all their hits are still surprisingly listenable.

Pablo Cruise Hits:
A Place in the Sun
Whatcha Gonna Do?
Don’t Want to Live Without It
Love Will Find a Way
Cool Love
I Want You Tonight
I Go To Rio
Ambrosia Hits:
Holdin’ On to Yesterday
Nice, Nice, Very Nice
How Much I Feel
Biggest Part of Me
You’re the Only Woman (You and I)

Albums
Both acts were primarily known for their hit singles, but Pablo Cruise released 7 albums and Ambrosia released 5 over the course of their careers (not including label cash grab greatest hits and Christmas bonus live albums).  Pablo Cruises albums were somewhat hit or miss affairs, especially in the hit single years, with plenty of (generic almost unlistenable) filler and several of their albums (“Pablo Cruise,” “Lifeline” and not producing any hits at all.  Ambrosia albums were much more consistent and until the end (“Road Island”) sported at least a (minor) hit single or a memorable album track off each album.

Artistic
Ambrosia had a more interesting career arc, starting out as a progressive pop band for their first two albums, transforming into a mainstream pop juggernaut for their next two albums before finishing up with a straight ahead rock album.  The songwriting was structurally and melodically complex, they worked with a variety of styles and their lyrics were ambitious, at least for the first two albums.  Even when the band made a bit for mass acceptance and write love songs, they never mired down in happy three chord chorus structures, writing about regrets, compromises and loss in minor chords and varied time signatures.  Ambrosia had the chops and studio credits, playing on too many albums to credit (early Alan Parson Projects amongst their studio work).  The Bruce Hornsby connection is fascinating and Ambrosia bassist/singer Joe Puerta ended up being a part of the Range.  The band benefited from their studio connections as well, calling in favors far and wide for their albums as well (It only seemed like Michael McDonald sang back up on all of their hits). 
Pablo Cruise pretty much went into hit making formula from the start, only waiting for their songwriting chops to sufficiently develop.  Once that happened, and the radio market becoming more inviting to faceless corporate rock, listeners caught onto Pablo Cruises undemanding uncomplicated pop pretty quickly.  Which is not to say they didn’t become very good at what they did, producing some very ear worm worthy hits during their nice run of hits in the late 70’s.  They might not have been adventurous, but they knew their audience and they exploited it very successfully. 

Album Covers
This is hardly a fair criteria, but damn if both bands didn’t have great album design teams over the years.  The first Ambrosia album cover is pretty lame, and the second isn’t much better, but “Life Beyond LA,” is a pretty cool album photo that is better at conveying the theme of the alienation of the LA lifestyle than than the music on the album does.  And although “One Eighty” continues the band members self-absorption with placing themselves on their album covers (for all the fame it ever granted them individually) it’s a really great image with “Ambrosia” in the upper left corner and “One Eighty” in the right corner.  Although it sunk without a trace, the drawing and typeface from “Road Island” (influenced by Robert Crumb?) is visually striking. 
I’d similarly throw out the first two Pablo Cruise albums as well, with a generic jungle photo on the self titled debut, followed by a rather boring shot of the shirtless band on the cover of “Lifeline,” but by “A Place in the Sun,” much like the music, Pablo Cruise had found a visual style that they went back to for subsequent releases during their hit run.  “World’s Away” and “Reflector” typified the laid back, casual sound the band was pushing, lots of sun, palm trees, and water.  Even “Part of the Game” with it’s ping pong battling turtles, managed to fit in a palm tree and water onto a card table.  The red hands of “Out of Our Hands” was perhaps a little too literal, but by then the hits had dried up so maybe there wasn’t anything to nourish the palm trees.

Tale of the Tape
Pablo Cruise was undeniably more fun to catch on AM radio and had more hits with their bright sunny blast of pure pop pleasure.  Ambrosia’s more complicated adult themes were filled with memorable hooks and sounded great on the radio too, and they produced more consistent and ambitious albums.  It’s a close call, but Pablo Cruise just had a very more undeniably popular chart hits, and those album covers during their run of hits might just be the tie breaker that gives them the title. 
Winner: Pablo Cruise.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Songs in the Key of "S"



(I would have called this songs in the key of E, but someone would have pointed out that the songs weren’t in the key of E.  now someone might be pointing out that there is no key of S, but I’ll take the hit on that one.)


I haven’t had the best luck with mix tapes.  Sophomore year in high school, I made a recording for a girl I had a crush on.  It was her favorite song.  But yeah, it was from the radio.  And I recorded it on a portable cassette player.  And it sounded awful.  And she barely even knew who I was.  And I might have awkwardly played the cassette for her in the hallway between periods 3 and 4 while people (HER FRIENDS!) were streaming past.  So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when she hit STOP and walked away.
Never mind, she was not my kind.


Later on, I had a different kind of crush.  That was actually reciprocated.  So I tried again.  Being the Top 40 addict that I was, I scoured the handwritten listings that my friend Shelley had made of Casey’s Countdown and devised a plan.  I was going to tell a story.  About how I felt.  Through top 40 hits.  Week old top 40 hits, but still.  So I made a playlist with consideration to chart positions and progress.  I camped out in the barn with the radio on the right station.  I got the cassette recorder ready.  And my dad came in and had some chores for me to do.  So I missed the top 40 that week.  But nothing much changed chart position wise.  With a few judicious edits, I was ready to try again the next Saturday.  I’m sure my dad was completely puzzled as to why I was not to be disturbed for several hours on a perfectly fine Saturday afternoon when there was farming to be done. However, the fervor in my eyes, must have convinced him of my sincerity, or at least my temporary insanity and he left me alone.  I can only hope my older brother had more work to do because of me.  I can’t say the second recording went off without a hitch.  Although there hadn’t been a lot of change between the previous two weeks, for some reason, chart positions had changed a lot by the third week.  Half of the songs were in very different orders than I had expected, making my story a little (ok, a lot) less coherent than I’d have hoped.  If I was faster on me feet, I’d have told a different story, but I’m not and besides, I’d spent a ton of time working my playlist up.  Worse than the songs that were in different order, were the charts positions of some  songs that I had counted on HAD COMPLETELY FALLEN OFF THE CHARTS!  Unheard of.  Ridiculous.  Damnit.  Saving grace, however, was a long distance dedication (usually, my least favorite part of the countdown) that arrived at a pivotal spot in my playlist and made it all work.  At least in my mind.  Skip ahead to next Wednesday and I’m in the car before catechism.  My crush stops by, hops in the car, and I say, “hey, I’ve got something for you to listen to.  if you want, that is.”  I get a nod, and then I start the cassette.  A song plays, and I get puzzlement.  “Just wait for the next one, “ I insist, “it’ll make sense.”  Next song plays and I can see I’m not getting through, “What are you doing,” but I interrupt, and say, “oh Wait, let me play you the next song.” and I’m starting to panic and also realizing that I have 30 minutes of music and about 3 or 4 more minutes before we have to be in class.  So of course, I wasted a minute fast forwarding to the Long Distance Dedication song, thinking that will be the thing.  Of course, I catch too much of Casey Kasem talking, and I also happen to notice a cow mooing in the background (damn quality control), but whatever.  Here’s the song and it plays.  After it was over, my crush looks at me and he said, “I only like country music,” and got out of the car.


It did get better.  But I also quit making mix tapes.  Or at least I quit making them for the reasons I was making them.  For a long time, my mix tapes were just greatest hits, mostly chronological, but making sure I didn’t miss any of the lesser singles.  And that was good enough.


I broke my rule back in the late 90’s and made another mix tape (cd by this point).  Frankly, I think it was my best one ever (I still have a copy and play it regularly).  Probably don’t need to go into details, something about apology and miscommunication.  I can’t say definitively that we aren’t friends today because of a mix tape but I also can’t say it didn’t matter.


So there’s history.   I don’t make them very often anymore.  And I have some trepidation, knowing I’m going all “Man O Sea to Girl O Sand.” However, I think I’ll take the odds of us over the some random bad luck with mix tapes. 


Here ya go, boo, a little virtual birthday mix tape:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33o32C0ogVM
Favorite things (Julie Andrews)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiGQhMQCGZY
Purple People Eater-(Sheb Wooley)


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YK3ZP6frAMc


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjxNnqTcHhg&index=1&list=RDNjxNnqTcHhg
Popcorn


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FTQbiNvZqaY
Africa-Toto


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIb6AZdTr-A
Girls Just wanna Have fun Cyndi Lauper


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9prJXEhNhPA
Mambo Italiano Rosemary Clooney
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NYWJlOL_iY
The Man I Love (Ella)


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ImGP33hcc4
In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning (Frank)


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1bFr2SWP1I
Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Iz)


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKEuOO0lQPc
Come Away with Me (Norah Jones)


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkxgGbYqBwY
It Had to be You (Harry Connick Jr)


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCbQUdtHS4U
I’ve Got You Under My Skin (Milkle Buble)


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSZrzaTqaQg
My Funny Valentine (Bobby Darin)


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHfxMGEb9iE
You take my breath away (Eva Cassiday)


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xb4iDP_tuYk
The Wing and the Wheel (live) (Nanci Griffith)


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isAUOa50wdA


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8niyG-cPgs


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SaV-6qerkqI


Nobody Does it Better (Carly Simon)


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9tCBpCvCsE
Somebody To Watch over Me (Frank)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Condo


There are places I remember….

We drove through Uptown Friday night after a play.  As we stopped by the light at the Lagoon, I couldn’t help but look at the hole in the ground that was the Uptown Cheapo.  Made me think about all the great music stores in town and wonder what kids today will have to remember 30 years from now (ok, the Fetus will still be rockin’ it, I’m sure). 

Back in the 80's, a couple times a year, Joni would purchase music for the library.  First vinyl, later cds (there might have been some cassettes in that mix too, but I resolutely refuse to acknowledge their existence), once she got to know me (I’d say about a week) she’d ask me for suggestions, and I of course would inundate her with a list a mile long full of what I thought were willfully obscure acts, but were in fact fairly pedestrian selections (culled from my detailed examinations of Rolling Stone, Billboard and whatever music reviews I could scrounge up from newspapers).  She’d buy a lot of the stuff on my list, as well as a lot of stuff on her own, much more informed list, and she’d buy a bunch of stuff on other patrons’ lists too, which around campus became an ever changing rotation of players.  Because of this, odds were high that her buy lists were surprisingly broad and the libraries music collection surprisingly deep, and kept my tastes (and who knows how many other rangey college students’ tastes, but let’s just go with the fact that I was the favorite out of all the other SE library patrons) from getting to insular or circular. 

Once she started buying cds in the late 80’s and the buying methodology in the library system changed I was only too delighted to accompany her on her sorta semi-annual purchasing trips to the Electric Fetus.  I am not sure I had been in the Fetus before Joni started going there to buy library music.  Kid in a candy store event of course, I’m sure I killed hours going section to section adding last minute rare, unknown, ohmygodihavegottotrythis items to her box.  Being the great person she was, Joni patiently indulged me, even though I’m sure she just would have preferred to give the clerks a list, go outside and have a smoke and sign for it all once they were finished picking the music.  But she knew how much fun it was for me to basically have a blank check at a record store.  I can’t thank her enough for letting me do that and for all the joy and decades of listening pleasure it brought me (and hopefully anyone else who might have benefiting from my random music choices).   

The absolute hardest part of all of this, was the interminable wait for the library system to process the vinyl and cd purchases.  It took them MONTHS to receive the music, catalogue it and get it processed and out to the library branches.  Sadly, it’s been almost thirty years and the MPLS library system (ok, so it was devoured by the Hennepin County Library system, is still no more efficient and might even be slower.  (Can I just say delighted I am that one library system in the metro these days has it all going on….no endless waits, super huge hold lists and sometimes, even sometimes, the music is available PRIOR to it even going on sale in stores).  And then, to my eternal frustration, they didn’t do it all in one batch but in drips and drabs with no discernable rhyme nor reason.  Always the one album I just had to listen to was the one that was in the very last set of music to be shipped out to SE Library SIX MONTHS after it all had been purchased And of course, Joni, blessed her soul, always let me have first dibs, often times even before the music had been processed yet once again by the local branch.  Oh, but it was Christmas morning when I’d get the call to come on in cos the motherload had arrived.

My love for the go-betweens, xtc and the chills and a host of one hit wonders that have somehow stayed in my playing rotation all these years later are the direct result of all the great stuff I had access to at the library. To avoid perhaps too much self editing here, I should probably mention, the outfield and the rainmakers and quite a few other mainstream rock bands that I don’t put up my taste flag are from the same library source.

Needless to say, the library provided me with a pretty well curated primer on popular music, 1983 to 1991 (which is where my first tenure in the twins cities essentially ended).

But the library wasn’t my only source for music in those days.

For the life of me, I can not recall the name of the music shop in the basement of Coffman Union, but I’m sure that was the first music store I visited when I moved to the University in the fall of 1983.  I’m also pretty sure I only ever bought an album or two from the place.  As much as I loved all their amazing imports, and that store was the place where the concept of imported vinyl was introduced to me, their prices were far, far out of my feeble minimum wage combined with a modest Pell Grant could afford.  Even by my senior year, when I actually had some pocket change and could afford to splurge, I just never could pull the trigger.  But I always liked hanging out there.  The clerks were cool, the store played the best music (heard “Skylarking” playing over the speaker system there and pretty much spent an hour in the store just so I could hear all of it) and other shoppers were always up for a conversation.  I spent lots of wishing and a’hoping breaks between classes there.  The store was still there after my graduation, but by ’93 when I was back in Minnesota (briefly) and taking a few classes at the U in prep for grad school, it had long since been plastered over.  I think there was a coffee station there or a row of lockers.  Progress?  Cruel.

Something even better than an expensive vinyl store was also in the Coffman Union; they had an honest to god listening station.  I can’t quite remember all the logistics of the listening stations, and I’m not really sure how I heard about it (probably Alan, my year older college roommate, probably mentioned it sometime during my freshman year) but it was pretty cool.  I think it was on the second floor of the student union, on the side facing the Mississippi River.  You’d go up to what was practically a DJ booth (glass fronted office in reality),   select an album (from a binder maybe?) hand over your ID for a pair of headphones and a listening channel and make your way out into the spacious opium room where there were plenty of super uncomfortable space age circle chairs, couches, ledges and floor space for seating.  After hunting down an available channel jack and finding the correct channel, you’d plug your headphones in and just wait for the music to enfold.  Of course, the whole system was run by work study students, so sometimes you’d wait quite awhile for a student to remember to start up the music, but it was always a great way to kill some time between classes, especially in the winter and fall of 1984.  Although I never utilized the listening booth to it’s fullest, I clearly remember enjoying both The Fixx’s “Reach the Beach” and Mannfred Mann’s “Watch” albums at Coffman and I think it was here, based on a tip from one of the guys manning the headphone booth that I took a chance on John Cale’s “Paris 1919”.  And there was always that great view of the river out the back patio too.  I never noticed when it closed down.  Once, late junior year I went by there and it was gone. 

The Musicland on 14th avenue in Dinkytown was another regular haunt during the first couple of years and beyond,  in college.  A much more “proper” music store than the one in Coffman, it had a surprisingly good music selection and being just a few blocks away from our dorm provided a convenient excuse to browse (surprised they never kicked me out for how often I shopped but never bought.  I’m pretty sure other customers must have thought my name was “CanIhelpyou?”.  Musicland was not exactly inexpensive either (I feel like this was the era of the 8.98 list price, but I could be wrong, and when cds first came out there were insanely expensive there), but they had some regular sales, you could always find coupons in the Mn Daily or some other newspaper, and they actually had a ton of cutouts (and I’ve always been fine with the bargain bin).  I can’t say it was ever my store, and I don’t have any particular fondness for the place, or regret that it’s gone.    But I do have some good memories.

 I think during our sophomore year, my down the hall dorm neighbor, Arden and I gave plasma one Saturday afternoon (as broke as I frequently was, I could not do the plasma thing more the 3 or 4 times….of course it didn’t help that one of the times the needle went right through…..no wonder I’m squeamish about blood and needles) and then took our ill-gotten gains to Musicland for a bit of impulse buying.  I know I bought Slade’s “Keep Your Hands Off My Power Supply” and I feel like Arden bought some Motley Crue album, but I might be unintentionally insulting him with my lack of memory (but it definitely would have been something in the hard rock vein.)  I really dug that Slade album.  I still am delighted when I run across that album on cd when I am picking music (has always been a nice flip) and can’t help but put on the player to give it another run through.  Eventually, I found better (cheaper) sources for music than Musicland.  Didn’t we all?  And Musicland eventually folded.  But it was nice to have that store so handy during college and for awhile, shortly after I graduated in 1987 they had some super cheap cds on clearance (Hanoi rocks, double’s blue and about 100 copies of Kansas’s “Power” album that I would buy and then trade in for a buck at the Digital Only stores in favor of something else I wanted.)  I can’t even recall if I was still around for the store closing sales.  Probably not, or I’d like to think I’d have some memory of something I picked up (certainly remember some of the scores I made at the MediaPlay store down in Bloomington when they closed down…come to think of it, I think I even drove up 94 (maybe to St. Cloud) to dig through the closeout sales at that store too. 

I know this is sacrilege, but I never really hung out at Let it Be records.  Might have stopped in once or twice at the downtown (Nicollet?) location, but for some reason it never really fit me.  Once they moved to Loring Park, I went more (even bought my first cd there, 10,000 Maniacs’ “In My Tribe”) but although I did go there for a few in store band performances, it never really was my place.  I never really knew it well enough to miss it.

Likewise, Northern Lights off Hennepin only warranted a couple visits from me.  I sure did love all the imports they had, but either it was about going downtown, which I didn’t do all that much of in college (unless we were going out on the town, which isn’t really compatible with music shopping), or there was just something too intimidating about going into those kinds of college music stores.  Never had a bad experience at Northern Lights (or Let It Be….ok, one bad experience at Let it Be, but it was brief) but they never were my stores.

There were certainly plenty of college-ish music stores to choose from during my college years besides Let It Be and Northern Lights.  At various times, there was you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting an Oarfolk, a Garage d’Or or even a Platters in the back of the Tatters stores.  There was that super cool store in St. Paul right on the corner of St. Kate’s.  There was the Fetus, but despite Joni’s purchasing for the library (or because of) I never really went there.  There was/is Down in the Valley, although then and now, I’ve always been a little disappointed by that place.  There was Rockit Records, which deserves an entire story.  And there are probably a pile of places I have forgotten about that I visited and hated, liked or loved but all went by the wayside in my mind.  (And there is the story about that time when Banks up in Northeast had a whole pile of fire and water damaged cds, and, well, I don’t know how to even start that one, or if I even should say, but for sure that DEFINITELY is another entry)

But even though I hit most of them once or twice at least, during or shortly after my college career, there were really only three music stores (or chains really) that were part of my regular shopping rotation.

Positively Fourth Street was on 4th street on the northeast side of Dinkytown, just on the other side of 35W.  I’m sure of the three, Positively Fourth Street was the first local record store I heard about and visited.  I was not na├»ve enough to think Bob Dylan might be in town and hanging out there, but I’m sure some wishful thinking propelled me to wander over and check it out (that and it was only 4 or 5 blocks from our dorm).

I sure loved the place.  It was more than just a record store.  It was music.  Dimly lit, creaky wooden floors (think fine line without the over-serving and the threat of trampleation), lots of exposed beams with just the windows facing 4th Street for illumination (or so it always seemed at least) made P4S murky but surprisingly welcome.  There were two main areas when you walked into the door.  To your right, towards dinkytown, was a bigger room with taller racks and bins perpendicular to 4th Street running along the walls and a divider rack or two, running the same way, taking up the middle of the floor.  To the left was another, smaller room, with short bins along the front, middle and back running parallel to the street outside.  I seem to recall the counter being in front of the window in the bigger room, but the magic eight balls says “unclear, check back later.”  The place always had a great vibe; friendly clerks/owners, friendly shoppers and great music playing in the background.  I’d heard “Brass in Pocket” of course, but the first time I heard a Pretenders album (Pretenders II as it was) was at 4th Street.  They were also open until midnight which always provided an easy opportunity to go for a ramble when a study break (or otherwise) was needed.  Even better, in the summer of 1985, we lived in an apartment on University, a block away, so a visit through the vinyl after picking up a late night snack at Ralph and Jerry’s next door was always in order.

I have to admit that I never really bought all that much at 4th street and I’m not sure why.  They had a pile of cutout vinyl in the smaller room and I was endlessly fascinated by the wild vinyl versions I would find.  Una Historia de Velvet Underground, Una Historia de Procol Harum, flimsy British vinyl that would warp from the heat of your hands, but filled with tracks that I couldn’t find anywhere else (yes, I was a great collector of greatest hits in those days, especially for bands that I didn’t really know that well).  I was poor, sure, and I did buy a few things there, but never that much, never, apparently, enough to keep the place in business.  Not really sure when it closed and moved, probably after college, but could have been during my college years for all I know.  Just know that one day I was randomly driving by and my record shop was gone, nothing left but parking spaces and for the laundromat next door.  Packed up and moved to South Minneapolis under a new no name I done heard.

The Wax Museum was off Cedar in the West Bank area off the U of M.  It later moved to the heart of Dinkytown, just across the street from the Varsity Theatre.  There were other Wax Museums around town.  There was a great one halfway between the east bank of the UofM campus and Snelling Aveune in St. Paul that was bikeable from campus.  There was another one in Robbinsdale kind of where the Eagle’s Nest is today.  I recall there being one down in Richfield too, maybe south on Xerxes or Penn, but I can’t have hit that one that often because it was too far to bike and I didn’t have a car until my Junior year of college.  And maybe there was one in Wayzata, but that might have been a Down in the Valley and I am sure I only went that one time.  Off all the record stores in the cities, the Wax Museum contributed the most to my musical education and I certainly spent more of my per capita income (such as it was) there. 

And of all the Wax Museum locations, the West Bank location might just have been my favorite record store of all time.  There was a lot to love just about the look of the place.  The store was long and narrow with windows facing the street, but not a lick of natural light anywhere else in the place.  Vinyl bins ran parallel along the walls, with a double row of bins in the middle of the floor.   There was about 10 inches of space between the bins and it was practically impossible to get around someone with getting to second base.  There were layers upon layers of promotional poster shellacked to the walls of the place (and the ceiling for all I can remember).  Some day, some way, some business rehab HGTV crew is going to inherit the building and as they start to tear off the layers of paint and spackle, they are eventually going to find treasure; xeroed copies of a Replacements show at the Longhorn, a glamour shots Prince promo, Billy Joel posing for An Innocent Man (ok, they won’t find that one because I stole it).  You could spend all afternoon just reading the posters.  The check-out was in front, in the corner towards the 400 bar (towards Triple Rock for you damn millennials), basically blocking one of the windows.  Not that the windows, being covered with posters and poster paint themselves, were really providing that much light.  New vinyl was in the bins in the front half of the store.  Used vinyl was in a weird little nook at the back of the store.  The place had such a funky aroma; a little pot, a little b.o. (not mutually exclusive), ten year old nicotine (oh wait, maybe that wasn’t shellac holding the posters in place) a little incense, a little indian take out mixed in.  If you want to know what “Year of the Cat” smelled like, the West Bank Wax Museum was the place to sniff (and perhaps gag).  But I loved it. 

In that little hole in the wall, they had everything I could ever have wanted.  An album I had never heard of from Ali Thomson was just one section down from the album by Sneaker that had “More than Just to Two of Us.”  Did you know that Lindisarne had a LOT more albums than “Back and Fourth?”  And did I mention that the west bank Wax was where all the music critics dumped off their unwanted vinyl review copies (or at least it seemed like that).  It seemed I’d only have to wait a week after a new release to find a gently used copy of whatever mainstream rock album I was wanting to hear.  Before I really got the gravy train rolling with the library (and oftentimes in spite of) the Wax was my go to place to find cheap copies of recent releases.  Promo stamps?  Meh.  I built almost all my album collection from that place (as well as the St. Paul University one).  Even better, they had a super liberal return policy on Used stuff.  you could return anything within three days for an exchange.  I have to admit that I took full advantage of that policy in ways I might not want to admit, but I’m sure you can imagine.  A few clerks gave me some grief and accused me of taping, and there was a little taping going on, but mostly to fill in gaps in home-made greatest hits collections.  Regardless, I was always going to buying an album (3.75 and under) and it was a great way to pick up, say the latest Barry Manilow album I wanted to listen to for a couple of days (with headphones on natch), but didn’t want to be caught in the dorms with and then exchange it for the much more socially acceptable Bryan Adams “Cuts Like a Knife” release.  Mild bait and switch, but I prefer to think of it as two for the price of one. 

I think I might have told the story of my Billy Joel concert line experience in a previous.  It was at the West Bank Wax the next morning that I actually stood in line with PEOPLE and got tickets.  I think I bought tickets to a local show or two at that Wax Museum as well.  They had ticket selling down to a fine art.  I barely ever waited in line for tickets once I figured out where to go and when.

By Junior year, the Wax on West Bank closed and the stock had moved into a rehabbed location in Dinkytown.  I think it might have even changed to a Great American Music store.  You’d think being closer to me (by now we’d all moved out of the dorm and into housing in the Como neighborhood) I’d have been all in favor of the relocation, especially as I didn’t have any more classes on the West Bank campus.  But the new location never appealed to me. As much as I appreciated all the new foot traffic the store size and location had, something was missing and I’m not just talking about all the coincidental body contact I was getting at the West Bank store.  The walls were clean, the posters were new, the “used vinyl” in the spacious basement had tons more space for all the “new” used vinyl coming in, and there was way more selection from which to choose.  About the only thing the new location had was this super friendly downstairs clerk named Ann who always chatted pleasantly about my used music choices.  I very fondly remember her telling me about how I should be embarrassed about my ABBA anthology purchase, because their recordings were impeccably written and produced.  But I didn’t go as often to the Dinkytown or really any other location and I stopped buying vinyl pretty abruptly (and pretty much sold off all my vinyl by the time I took off on my hitch-hiking journey and 1989.  Even my cd shopping wasn’t happening at the traditional music stores, and more so at Best Buy which actually had prices on CDs I could afford.  Not sure what the last vinyl I bought was (could have either been Lions and Ghosts “Velvet Kiss, Lick of Lime” or Deacon Blue’s “Raintown”) but it wasn’t very long after I graduated college. 

Now that the 400 has closed, I really don’t make my way to West Bank much anymore.  But when I do, I still pour out a little of the 40 for my deeply, dearly departed (although for the life of me, I don’t even know what is in that spot these days.)  I haven’t thought about any of the other locations in years.  If I knew when they closed, I’ve long since forgotten it.

And then there were Cheapos; maybe too many Cheapos to mention or keep track of.  There was one in Uptown, off Hennepin, then down Lake Street around Lyndale, then back towards Hennepin and now over by Nicollet (although it isn’t nearly the same, and who needs another effing condo in Uptown).  There was a Cheapo in St. Paul off Snelling across from O’Gara’s then switching sides a few blocks south and then switching sides again right across the street.  There was a cheapo off Central that moved to Blaine.  Baby gets around.

And so did I.  Unlike my other favs, Cheapo was not a 10 minute walk away.  Uptown and St. Paul were both more like a 20 minute bike ride away, one way, uphill any which way I went, always against the wind, with a rusty chained bike that liked to slip exasperating me (but at least no one ever stole that bike, unlike the new Raleigh I bought as my first real job reward, which got stolen from a backyard chained up location 2 months after I bought it).  But as much exercise as it took (probably not that much for a healthy 20 year old in retrospect), I went to both locations pretty regularly.  If you’ve ever been to cheapo, you know the volume that is to be had.  Even the first location I went to, across from O’Gara’s, which was a smaller store, had more vinyl than I could ever get my head around.  And of course, being poor, especially the first two years, put a crimp on what I could buy as well (isn’t there a song about don’t look at what you can’t buy?).  So pretty quickly, I started gravitating towards the bargain bin vinyl.  Most of it was beat up and sounded kinda bad, but my ears weren’t that picky (not that they are so much more discriminating these days).  Those fifty cent albums were a great way to dig in past the greatest hits and explore some acts I’d only heard or read about.  I tried out a lot of classic rock in those days.  Some took, (Almost every Steve Miller and Steely Dan album I gave a listen), some did not (I will never understand the love for the Allman Brothers and only a little understanding for Lynyrd Skynyrd) but I had a lot of fun going deeper into albums.    If I liked it I kept it, if I didn’t I tossed it or gave it to someone else in the dorm.  When I sold most of my albums by 1989, I was a little outraged that no one wanted these old beat up, worn out, no inner sleeves, despoiled album jacketed vinyl albums, they had come to mean so much to me. 

It’s somewhat funny that for all the time (and money) I’ve spent in the various cheapos over the years, I’ve never really cottoned to the stores themselves.  They are very utilitarian in the most Spartan of ways.  Nothing much to all their stores, across all the time they have been in business, but bins and racks and media upon media. There used to be a music retail chain called cd warehouse that had stores in the twin cities, but they folded, probably because the business model changed and their business couldn’t (that and the fact that they overcharged for crappy used cds) but I like to think the real reason is that the REAL cd (and vinyl) warehouse has always been cheapo.  Despite my antipathy to the design and aesthetic of the place, and to say less about the generally unsupportive clerks at the place, cheapo has been my companion for most of these 30 odd (and some very odd) years.  I certainly go often enough, (and I have a ledger that tells me about all I’ve spent there, although I really hate to think about) there have been enough finds, but in the distant past, and some more recent holy grail items (that initial friend ep is still mind-blowing) that I just can’t quit cheapo yet. 

Faithless and wildly indifferent, but whatever, we have what we have, right? So I guess we’ve just decided upon mutual support and indifference and will go together to the bitter end? 

As much as anything on this list, though, it really does come down to people.  I had the most amazing time in college and shortly afterwards with so many great experiences and so many great people.  Pretty much everyone I knew (and liked) loved music and it was an inescapable soundtrack to our lives then.  So, I shouldn’t neglect to mention all the great music I got turned onto then.  Most of the music store trips were with friends.  And so much of the listening (other than the socially unacceptable musics of the day) were listened to in the company of friends, at parties, in the dorm rooms, just hanging out playing pool with U2 playing in the background.  We used to sit in one of the dorms rooms while a couple of the guys would do a big dance team routine to the opening of “Let’s Go Crazy.”  Everybody played air guitar to great facility.   Right up there with the library (and sometimes feeding each other), 7th floor of Sanford Hall (and later our house on 13th) was as much of an education (musical and otherwise) that I got in college.  Somebody always had something new to share, and freely share it they did.  Prince and Madonna in the Tom’s double on the other side of the floor, the triple down the hall from Al and I (they played everything under the sun man), the triple up the hall from us with Arden, Paul and Dave (Van Halen, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles), Nolan’s Jackson Browne obsession, Dave F’s habit of blasting George and Dire Strait’s at all hours and for every bbq at their house just down the street from ours on 13th Avenue, Tom S’s second year roommate who finally got me on board with U2 (via “The Unforgettable Fire”), Dan B’s brief stay in the dorm gave me Trio and an abiding appreciation of Yello, the Urban Guerillas and the Wallets at our spring dorm party, the cool upper classmen who introduced me to the Violent Femmes at a dorm meeting (and where I am pretty sure I first met Julie Tapper although it would be decades before I’d actually met her again), Tammy S. who kept up a steady stream of new music and concert tickets courtesy of her friend who worked for Warner Brothers Records.  And of course, Alan, my college roomie, who loved his Journey and Styx and Kansas, but was and is, always up for a good listen of anything.  I don’t see anyone from then nearly as often as I should, but it is fun to revisit the memories and appreciate them all the more as tides turn time. 

Of course, I really do miss all the stores.  They maybe weren’t just stores, but they were something cultural, social and even emotional.  I felt so very much at home there.  It wasn’t so much about buying something or even about finding something to buy.  It was maybe something already found as soon as you’d step into the door at Positively Fourth Street. How when the right songs came on over the speakers, you don’t just have a High Fidelty, buy this song moment, but you really feel communion with everybody else grooving to that very same song in that very same moment and even though none of you know each other and you’ll never meet each other again, for 3 minutes and 28 seconds you just maybe believe that we are all the same and everything is gonna be all right.  I know it is, of course, but it was just nice when there were all these great records stores to remind me of that now and again.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

One Thing Leads to Another (Redemption 10)

What makes an album work?  Songwriting, singing, playing, production, even album design all play an essential role in the success of an album as a (greater or lesser) work of art.  To that list, add one more critical element to the make-up of an album; sequencing.


What is sequencing?
Simply put; sequencing is the ordering of the songs on an album.  But, in practice, it is so much more. 


With consideration to the form, good sequencing insists upon different expressions.  What would be considered acceptable sequencing for a cd, with one long continuous run for the length of the album, might be too fragmented for two sides (much less FOUR sides) of vinyl.  Practically any Pink Floyd or Yes album (your listening mileage may vary depending on your tolerance) certainly works amazingly well on cd, even though they albums were sequenced for the two sides of vinyl, but both acts always considered the whole of the work, so the transition between sides is not distraction, in fact, even benefits from the form.  Even with power pop albums with barely a 30 minute runtime like the Ramones’ and Marshall Crenshaw’s debuts work better on cd because the compulsive rush of 2 to 3 minutes songs aren’t interrupted by a vinyl flip.


For an album like Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love” with song cycles on each of the vinyl sides, it is almost better to have the constraints of vinyl, listening to only one side at a time to allow the distinctive approaches on each side to build, wave upon wave, to a crescendo before moving on to the next movement.  Listening to the sides consecutively robs the music of some of the emotional impact as the tones and approach are very different between the two sides.   As annoying as the vinyl flip might be, for some albums, especially where there is a significant shift within the contiguous work, a break is a useful sequencing tool. 
Another function of the form that relates to sequencing concerns the available space on the media.  For cds, that equates to about 80 minutes per disc.   For vinyl, available space ranges from 20 to 24 minutes per side for a 33 1/3 record, depending on pressing quality and vinyl weight.  Theoretically, a stream length is unlimited, and cassettes, rarely produced these days, but as mass produced back in the day, typically had a slightly larger capacity than vinyl.  However, the cd and vinyl forms typically bore the most influence on album sequencing.  These different media run lengths potentially impact a host of sequencing parameters.  As cds increased in popularity (yes, this acutally happened), album run times increased and many more albums clocked in at over 50 minutes than didn’t, and plenty of acts made it their personal challenge to fill the cd to capacity, with the concurrent impact to sequencing.


More songs, longer songs, weird spoken bits, and perhaps even more stylistic diversity for all artists, (not just the acknowledged commercial and artistic geniuses) were just some of the sequencing parameters that were impacted by the advent of the cd. Statements became grander, chaff became more prevalent (especially spoken and musical intros and interludes and the dreaded “skit” tracks).  During vinyl times, even on albums, the 3 minute single was king, now it has become the album anomaly, and even the hit singles in their album form run to 5 minutes in far too many cases (requiring a hit single mix and edit).


The increased length of albums certainly had a detrimental impact to good sequencing; however, the increased run time of albums had some positive effects as well, allowing scope to expand, more ideas to be explored in more depth (longer musical suites and multiple longer running length songs) and more diversity of ideas allowing a broader expression of themes and ideas than could be contained within the limits of a 44 minutes vinyl album.  Even as vinyl makes its resurgence, it appears that the monkey is permanently out of the cage, and the sequencing of albums continues to follow the cd approach. 
So, for examples of good sequencing, those halcyon 60’s days of the Beatles and Stones certainly are a great place to start.  In fact, even the white albums with all its sound collages and experiments is a great example of using sequencing to brilliant effect (how else could a song like “Revolution 9” still resonate if not for how expertly placed it was in the context of that album?)  And as good as the songs on “Sgt. Pepper’s” are, it is really the sequencing of that album that makes it an all-time great, where even the run out groove adds to the brilliance of song cycle.  But good song sequencing didn’t stop in the sixties and it wasn’t only major artists who excelled at it.


The Fixx’s “Phantoms” album from 1984 has always been underappreciated, much like the band itself.  A much better than average new wave/rock band out of London, the Fixx had been together since the very late 70’s and started a run of hit albums in 1982 with the “Shuttered Room” release.  Cy Curnin’s distinctive vocals, Rupert Greenalls synth fills and Jamie West-Oram’s melodic guitar riffs were the trademarks of the band and although it would be hard to pigeonhole them to a particular “Fixx” sound, they certainly had a very strong band identity during the eighties.  A Fixx song was instantly identifiable.  “Phantoms” came out after the phenomenally successful “Reach the Beach” album from the year before and although it saw some respectable success on the album charts, neither the album, nor the singles released from it, fared as well as “Reach the Beach” nor even as well as the album after it, “Walkabout” containing one of the great rock singles in “Secret Separation.” 


At about 42 minutes spread out over 12 tracks, “Phantoms” is the quintessential length for an album in that pre-cd era, enough tracks to be more than a one hit pony, enough runtime to explore some ideas, but still tight enough to not suffer from cd era bloat. 
Album opener “Lose Face” is a great vision statement for Phantoms’ ever popular musical theme of human alienation in the face of constant change and modernization.  Bright, choppy new wave chords are undercut by a terse chorus and a sense of isolation haunting the lyrics, all completed in a perfect 3.30 (ok, 3.28 but why quibble).  Opening an album with a strong album cut, but by no means a potential single is a perfect bit of sequencing.  The should-have-been-a-minor-hit “Less Cities, More Moving People” with “more (great) chorus, less angular guitars” and a martial beat is a smooth musical segue.  Slight slower tempo, and more reserved, but the song still builds on the momentum of “Lose Face” and furthers the estrangement themes with an open hearted plea for more human contact.  Certainly the band is playing to their strengths here with melodic new wave pop and the sequencing is fairly straight forward.  Give the people what they want.  The next two tracks appear to follow suit, but actually begin to show a little more nuanced sequencing approach.  The short nervy minor hit “Sunshine in the Shade” and the sexy come on “Woman on a Train” are more aggressive with some great guitar hooks, catchy melodies and soaring choruses. What is particularly excellent from a sequencing standpoint here is the trainsition between “Sunshine” and “Woman.”  The fade out of “Sunshine” and then the rhythmic shuffle that starts “Woman” makes it hard to tell where one song ends and where the next song begins.  And that is even with a couple song gap between them.  It’s hard to imagine any other song other than “Woman” following “Sunshine.”


Although you can have great sequencing with a continuous set of same tempo songs, that’s asking a lot of the songwriters, so variation in pacing can be key to good sequencing.  “Wish” is a stunner, a beautiful song and a perfect change of tone and tempo for a band not particularly known for ballads.  It’s a nice variation in the dynamics of the opening salvo of upbeat songs, and although loneliness tinges the lyrics, it offers salvation through sacrifice.  It’s the longest song on the album and it is the beating heart of the entire work.


“Lost in Battle Overseas” is the one time the production fails the sequencing on this album.  As the last song on side one, it plays a bravado role, with fat synthesizer hooks, a slightly overdone guitar and a bit too big of a chorus.  “Lost” is the right song, and it is in the right place, but giving the song an arena ready production belies the themes of the album.  “Lost” is such a hopeless song, and it really wants to be something much more restrained.  It might have been a more effective side closer as a devastatingly haunted shell of a song.


“Question” which opens side two is a nicely played stylistic curveball.  Changing the key as well as utilizing a time signature outside of their typical work works within the rest of the “Phantoms” song sequence.  Although the songwriting is somewhat awkward with a melody that doesn’t quite work, and the recitation of letters is a bit problematic, it’s unlike anything on the album so far, furthers the questing theme of the album and traveled ground The Fixx rarely walked again.  Good sequencing should not be afraid to mix it up and, especially in the vinyl era, the second side of an album (much like b-sides of singles) always provided ample opportunity to take some chances.  “In Suspense” plays it more safe, but it does pick up the momentum of the album again.  It’s filler, but it’s competent, even slightly funky filler, and while it could be removed from the album with minimal impact to the feel of the album, makes the sequential step from “Question” to the haunting “Facing the Wind” much easier.  Who puts some of their best songs on the album on the back of the second side of the vinyl?  Apparently The Fixx does and it works.  Where a less thoughtfully (lazily) sequenced album might have front loaded all the best songs, “Phantoms” is very comfortable rewarding faithful listeners.    “Facing the Wind” is a lovely mid tempo ballad, with lots of ringing guitars,  a great melody line and a mid-song freakout thrown in just to make sure the listener is paying attention.  And then ten songs into the album, the hit is thrown in.  An extension of the theme of “Lose Face”, “Our We Ourselves” is paranoid, dubious and clunkily funky, but still firmly in the new wave zone.  It a fun little song and a shocking delight, hiding a hit so deep into the album.


 “I Will” is another stunner, gorgeously open and hopeful with a burbling baseline and too many guitar hooks to count (but count them I Will and love them all).  There’s a neat symmetry between the two sides here as “Wish” occupied the same location on the first side of the album and is nearly the equal as the album’s heart.


It is only at the album closer “Phantom Living” where it could be argued that The Fixx make their only real sequencing error. Much like the misstep with closing side one, The Fixx aren’t quite sure how to close down side two and the album as a whole.  While “Phantom Living” perfectly sums up the themes of “Phantoms” and is another nice stylistic curveball, it doesn’t really go anywhere and just fades off instead of actually saying anything.  It is a song similar to “Our We Ourselves” and should probably follow that song instead of closing the album.  Then the fade off from “Phantom Living” would sequence directly into the build-up of “I Will” serving as a much more satisfying conclusion musically and thematically to the album.


So what does the survey of Phantoms say about sequencing? 


Certainly song choice and production are hugely important to the success of a song sequence.  Sometimes the right song with the wrong production/arrangement makes a huge difference.  Sometimes the right song in the wrong place ruins everything.
Sequencing is not all about the right opening song and the right closing song but it’s close.  Openers and closers need not be the hits, but they need to establish artistic arc of the album, whatever that arc may be. 


Careful pacing of an album yields gold.  Cleverly spotting a ballad in a row of rockers spotlights the ballad and makes that first rocker after the ballad all that more impactful.  The change in tone can be illuminating, but it does require a couple songs to establish a pace or tone.  Going up tempo, down tempo, up tempo, down tempo from song to song is too schizophrenic and ultimately exhausting and not remotely rewarding, despite the brilliance of the individual songs. (Yes, I’m looking at you Belle and Sebastian and your Girls During Wartime).  And throwing in some changes in keys and time signatures are never a bad move.


Transitions between songs are hugely overlooked.  Lead in and lead outs can be as critical as the song itself.
Song dynamics, within the songs themselves and between adjacent songs are critical to a good album sequence create momentum from song to song.


Establishing some kind of artistic or narrative arc with the sequencing should not be overlooked. Storytelling is nice, but not essential and while the album doesn’t have to be “The Wall” or “The Crane Wife” type opuses, it should start somewhere and end up somewhere, even if the album is just going from home to the grocery store and back.
Particularly with historic vinyl song sequencing, symmetry between the two sides can create uniquely special moments and not only tie the two sides together, but ground the work as a whole.


Song length variation, although not a huge factor in “Phantoms” sequencing can still create tension and add interest within the song order.


Throwing a curveball or two into the song sequence is always a good idea.  A strike here and there won’t derail a strong album sequence and might just provide an unanticipated highlight.


Filler can be effective, as long as it adheres to the musical or conceptual theme, and isn’t godawful bad.
Concept albums have their places, but concepts can be confining.  Programming an album sequence thematically, even with a well-worn theme can be a good approach.  Multiple themes, either chained together individually , or woven together, are more challenging and not for the faint of heart listener.


Front loading the hits is lazy and boring, placing them where they best work in the song sequence is much more rewarding for the artist and the engaged listener. 
It’s a pity that “Phantoms” doesn’t get more love, then or now.   If it had included “Deeper and Deeper” from the “Streets of Fire” soundtrack, that might have increased the album’s commercial fortunes (certainly one of The Fixx’s more memorable tracks).  “Deeper and Deeper” could have easily slotted into the original album sequence right “Facing the Wind” and just before “Are We Ourselves.”  The difference in transition between “Facing” and “Deeper” compared to “Facing” and “Ourselves” would be minimal, and the long lead in to “Deeper” might even make the transition smoother.  And going from “Deeper” into “Ourselves” is practically seamless.  It might even be sequenced that way on a Fixx Greatest Hits collection or two.


The album was reissued by One Way Records with a bunch of bonus tracks (extended versions) at the end of the proper album sequence.  Clearly, extended versions (even the extended “Deeper and Deeper” which is great, btw) don’t belong anywhere within an album sequence. Song Sequencing is endlessly fascinating.  It is ridiculously fun, to reprogram classic albums, even adding era singles and lost b-sides and listening to the end result.  “The Joshua Tree” becomes a very different album with just a few judicious tweeks.


Sorry this took so long to post.  Hopefully it was worth the wait.  I was happy with the first draft I scribbled on notebook paper nearly a year ago, but I subsequently misplaced that before I ever got it typed.  Nothing I wrote about sequencing since (and I believe this is my third try since then), captured what I wanted to say.  This comes pretty close to saying what I meant to say.