Vinyl Minus Internet/Endless Dark Days
Christmas 2016 thru New Years and January 2017, I'm staying at a cabin in the mythical “North” Woods”—not even sure which state—political boundaries extend back centuries, where even non-cowboys carry guns, where “person of color” means someone with a lot of tattoos—the neighbors are Native Americans, French fur trappers, survivalist hipsters, paranoid off-the-gridders, ghosts. There are no neighbors. Most significantly, there is no internet—no phone service, even. No cable, no antenna, no TV, no radio, no phone, no pool, no pets (a lot of pets, and cigarettes. But I've quit smoking).
The only thing here besides some dried beans and salt pork (that's not true, there are plenty of provisions)—the only thing here besides guns and vintage pornography (just kidding, there's no guns, no pornography)—the only thing here is a cobbled together, vintage hi-fi and a lot of phonograph records of both the long playing, 33 and a third RPM variety, and the single song 45 RPM variety (many of which I've had to nail to the cabin exterior in an effort to patch the chinks where high Arctic winds blow through like gunshots. For these records, it's survival of the fittest).
Following are my observations on these vinyl records—the objects themselves, and the sound from the grooves—not so much “record reviews” as writing inspired by the records. Not having the internet to rely on, it recalled the days when you had to ask those more knowledgeable than yourself for info and insight—or, in the event of no one being around, reach deep into your own faulty memory and patchwork experience—which often leads to mistaken assumptions and comically bad attempts to connect the dots. Hopefully some of this reminds the reader of old zine writing, decades past, which I really miss sometimes.
—Randy Russell, February 2017
Townes Van Zandt – High, Low and In Between (1971)
At some point a decade and a computer or two ago I downloaded a metric ton of Towns Van Zandt records on my computer, and then for like a decade of playing random iTunes it seemed like the “shuffle” had some kind of TVZ preference—almost like it was a bug (these things MUST get built in by bored computer dudes, right?) So I'd get like about 25 percent TVZ, it seemed (I didn't actually keep track and calculate actual percentage—because I'm not crazy). It got to the point where it was making me hate TVZ and deleting these songs, when what I should have done is stop listening to shuffle and listen to more records. I knew that, but still have a bad taste in my mouth, so it was like eating spinach (assuming you don't like spinach) to put this record on. Naturally, listening to TVZ on vinyl is an entirely different experience, and I kind of feel like those people who eventually tried spinach and found it to be wonderful. But maybe this is just a good record, too—it seems to be a reissue of a 1971 album (if I'm reading my Roman numerals correctly) on Metamucil-colored vinyl, and the cover photo is presumably of TVZ (but it could be anyone) (snapped through the dirty window of a pickup truck with an Instamatic and no flashcubes)—asked to pose next to the back wall of a 7-Eleven while taking out the trash after second shift.
There is a liner note insert—though I'm not sure if that's technically correct (maybe liner notes have to be on the back album cover and be possible to read without a magnifying glass and a day off)—by Colin Escott, who, if he hasn't already, should write a book about Townes Van Zandt—he's got a good start, here. It looks like some interesting stuff, though, and I'll read it later. Right now I'm enjoying this record on a sunny Saturday morning, so cold out that they had to use the Kelvin scale. This is without a doubt my favorite TVZ record I've heard to date (though, I don't know if you can count the virus-infused stuff in my iTunes, anyway). Good songs, all written by TVZ—good playing on all—and his voice has a happy and carefree quality, but not without the undercurrent of sadness you always hear from him. For some reason there's something about the quality of his singing that always makes me think of him as a friend.
Leonard Cohen – Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
The album cover says “Songs of Leonard Cohen” but the label simply says “Leonard Cohen”—I believe this is his first album. It's the one with the back cover drawing of a naked, chained woman enveloped in flames and not so subliminal skulls. This is an old, scratchy copy of this record, constant scratchy record sound, which sounds very beautiful to me. Maybe it's just that it sounds so good, the record, as opposed to the digital version through my computer speakers. If you cannot appreciate the scratchy record, however, I have no use for you—go listen to your digital half-life version, and if you claim to have a superior digital system, well okay, I realize my computer speakers suck, and yours are good, but you could also be spending that money on a half-decent record player and it would sound great.
This record is so much Leonard Cohen upfront that I can imagine thousands or even millions of people who can't handle it, like oysters, or okra, and also some of these songs are amongst the most over-played songs ever, but if you are lucky enough to get hit by a low branch or something and your perception gets a bit realigned and you can hear the record a-new, you are very lucky indeed, because this is the most amazing collection of great songs on one record maybe ever. Any songwriter could call it a career with any ONE of these songs, and here they all are on this one record. The recording sounds at once very young and very old, like they were a little too much 20-something in their giddiness of recording (it was 1967, after all), but Leonard Cohen's voice overpowers all of the instrumentation, which is a good thing, and he's right there in your room. He was that odd person who seemed fully mature at a very young age and then just seemed to get younger from there (maybe we're all like that, but it's just not so much on display).
Bob Dylan – Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
This is apparently the soundtrack record for the movie Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) which was directed by Sam Peckinpah and written by Rudy Wurlitzer—a movie I'm sure I've seen, but don't remember too well (like, I didn't even remember that James Coburn was in it, but there are credits on the back album cover. I love James Coburn). There is a scene I remember from a movie—and I'm not sure if it is this one—so maybe someone can help me out. A guy gets shot, and before he dies, his last words are something like, “I wish... wish...” Not sure if those are the words, or this is the movie, but it's something that made a huge impression on me, that scene, and I hope to clear this up someday.
A lot of this is the usual kind of wanky western soundtrack stuff I can do without, with fiddles and “traditional instruments”—there is even something that sounds like the dreaded “pan-flute.” The first song, “Main Title Theme (Billy)” is the kind of music that sounds like it's celebrating the grandeur and mythology of “The West”—which just strikes me as so much bullshit. I guess I'm not much of a fan of the western genre, as the lies jump out like all political lies, and I don't believe there was anything good about the old west, just a lot of slaughter, rape, and pillaging, bullies and blowhards, and disgusting behavior all around. I'm guessing Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man gets about halfway closer than any other western. Anyway, “Knockin' on Heaven's Door” is a great, great song, and there's a couple more here with Dylan singing (“Billy 4” and “Billy 7”) that make this record almost worthwhile.
Bob Dylan – Self Portrait (1970)
This is a double album that—in the tradition of double albums—announces the celebration of an explosion of creativity that is unable to be contained on the traditional single LP format. Or maybe it's something else entirely, seeing how it's Bob Dylan, and who ever knows what he's thinking? There is a self-portrait painting of him on the cover with no words or frame. The album opens and there's a list of the songs, on four sides, and also a list of 50 names; on further inspection, this appears not to be a random list from the phonebook, but likely a list of musical collaborators. Quickly glancing through the alphabetical list I see: Charlie Daniels, Al Kooper, David Bromberg, all the members of “The Band,” and many more names I recognize, and many more that I don't.
I never heard this one before. It sounds like a Bob Dylan record, kind of, or maybe a parody of one, which you arguably could say about any Bob Dylan record. It's kind of amazing, I've been listening to this dude for 50 years and I keep hearing stuff I never heard—kind of like the original Star Trek broadcast. There's a few covers on this record, including: “I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know,” credited to a C.A. Null, who I don't know, but I know the song as sung by Skeeter Davis, one of my favorites (she has an album by that title). The lyric goes: “I forgot more than you'll ever know about him.” Which is a woman singing to another woman, a rival, about a man, I believe, and when you change the gender it doesn't quite work for some reason—but I also like to think of it as a general proclamation, to anyone, about anything.
It's interesting—I must have been aware of this record—not when it came out when I was ten—but in later years when I started listening to Dylan records—it would have been in the record store bins, maybe even in cut-out bins like Planet Waves always seemed to be—but I avoided this one like a perennial golden turd in the sun. But listening to it now, on my third or fourth time through, I realize I've never heard a lot of this stuff and it's some of the best Bob Dylan I've ever heard. It's kind of like BD's “Covers Record”—though a lot of the songs he covers are Dylan songs. (Idea: BD should do an entire record of Cat Power songs.) Here lies the best versions of both “Let It Be Me” and “Blue Moon” I've ever heard. A lot of this is BD singing in his “Jim Nabors” voice, which I've grown to love. Of course, this is the post-death-Dylan, or “second” Dylan, as the theory goes, and the future (1970 thru 2016) looks bright.
Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
I would have been too young to appreciate this record when it came out, I suppose, though I kind of wish my parents were Dylan fans and I would have heard all this. Or maybe not. This has to be a lot of people's favorite Dylan record, it's got some of his best songs and maybe a better overall early rock'n'roll sound than any of them. I've always just kind of ignored it, I don't know why. Just read the liner notes on back, written by Bob with minimal caps and punctuation—surreal and cryptic but pretty good. The cover photo is BD and a woman in a red dress holding a cigarette, sitting with a bunch of records and magazines in front of a fireplace. BD is holding a grey kitten. They're all staring right at the photographer with remarkably similar expressions. I wonder whatever happened to that cat. Or that woman. Or that fireplace.
I wouldn't want to have to say what my favorite Dylan songs are (or maybe I would like to, and I should make one of those favorite 100 songs lists—but I'll have to listen to them all, some rainy day)—but “Maggie's Farm” has to be one of my favorites. Is this the record that marked Dylan's shift to electric rock'n'roll and rejection of the folk scene? It does have “Mr. Tambourine Man” on it, but then ends with “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Who is playing on this record, anyway? There is no listing of musicians.
There is, folded up inside, a huge poster of that classic BD drawing (is it by Milton Glaser?—that's the name in the upper corner)—it's his head in profile, with big multicolored hair. The colors are lovely pastel shades. Did this come with this record, or just happen to get stuck in here? It's never been hung up—there are no holes or tape-damaged corners. I bet I could sell this for some serious bread on eBay, and the people who own this cabin would never notice. (I'd just have to remember to edit this before publishing it.) Does some cafe around here have wifi where I could run my sale? Could I make enough for gas money back to civilization? So many questions, today, and so few satisfactory answers.
The Band – Music from Big Pink (1968)
I can never keep track of the relationship of this record and The Basement Tapes—which came first, or why—which songs are on both records—I think exact same versions, right? It's way too tiring to look it up and read about it all, even if I did have use of the internet, but I believe this is their first record, and it's maybe their best—even though I think they were incredibly young at this time—in the pictures on the inside cover they look like teenagers (except for Garth Hudson, who was probably born looking old)—they sound like mature old-timers, which I think was kind of their thing—and they kind of are taking on that look, too—not quite pulling it off—which was kind of the hippie thing of the time.
Anyway, every single song on this record is so incredibly strong that it's kind of mind-blowing; could these guys possibly have come from another planet, or just Canada? The playing is pretty amazing, too, and the way it's recorded. It's one of my favorite records ever for the drum sound. The singing is otherworldly. What did people think when this album came out? Did they think it was put on Earth by angels? I bet it was not thought of highly enough... I bet decades had to pass for it to be fully appreciated. I bet it's still not fully appreciated. I bet it's terminally underrated. Not by me. On a list of the 10 best rock and roll records of all time, this one comes in at like number one.
Yet, in spite of having the most pretentious band name of all time, they are terminally under-appreciated—why? I have a few theories. One is: they forever have confused people; they are all from Canada, except for one guy, who is from the South. They are all songwriters, but you can't really guess which songs they wrote, because they're not necessarily the ones they're singing. Three of them are good enough singers to front their own band, but maybe the best songwriter, Robbie Robertson, can't sing (yet, there was an Andy Warhol 15 minutes there, at some point, where he was the coolest person on Earth). They are more known for being Dylan's backup band than they are for being “The Band” (but every time I see old Dylan footage, I'm always looking for the fleeting images of these guys). On one hand, it's a HUGE plus to have songs written and co-written by Dylan on your debut album (not to mention the cover painting)—but as well, they'll always be in the shadow of Dylan. I'll always be in the shadow of Dylan. You, reader, despite your lofty aspirations, will always be in the shadow of Dylan. That motherfucker casts a bigger shadow than Jesus and Godzilla combined.
Michael Hurley – Parsnip Snips (1996)
Normally I would never put on a record called Parsnip Snips, but seeing how this is a Michael Hurley record and I'm a big fan of Michael Hurley, I know that it will more likely be the naked, dirty, hippie with a sense of humor experience than the deadly serious, naked, dirty hippie experience, which pretty much sums up why I like some hippie shit and not others. A sense of humor is crucial, and that goes for all entertainers, as well as dentists, co-workers, friends, family, and countrymen. Not that Michael Hurley isn't serious sometimes, and that's when he's better, but humor is the foundation. It says these songs were recorded on a Wollensak between 1965 and 1972—that would have been a portable, open reel tape recorder. So, naturally, it sounds like he's over there on the other side of the room, right now. That's even before I started recording, at age 12. (This is how old I am: my first tape recorder was a portable, open reel recorder (pre-cassette)—not sure if it was a Wollensak.) Too bad this guy wasn't hanging around the neighborhood—he'd probably been a better mentor than the old guy who got us to shoplift for him. If I recall correctly, he's lived all over, East and West, out in the sticks, mostly. This LP is on Mississippi Records, which would sound Deep South except the address is 4007 N. Mississippi, Portland, Oregon, which, if I recall correctly, is Deep Hipster.
Michael Hurley used to play at the bar across the street from where I lived in Portland (he probably still does—I'm the one that moved away). By the time I realized I should go see him, I could no longer tolerate being in a bar, in the evening, at all. For me, nighttime is not the right time. You'd think I'd be able to deal with it, for a guy like this, who is the very opposite of the spectrum of BluesHammer, but no. Bars have evolved, but it's still drunks, just a younger generation drinking much better beer, which is also much stronger, and much sweeter—essentially the craft beer movement has given us a new generation of sweet wine alcoholics—it's just now, instead of Night Train and Thunderbird, it's Flying Raccoon Butternut Squash Porter. This album is really, really good by the way; don't mind my diatribes. I pretty much love Michael Hurley (except when he's cawing like a crow; I don't even like crows when they're cawing like crows; but I suppose that's his version of Bob Dylan's harmonica). I've gone semi-colon crazy in this review, the influence, perhaps, of the first song on the record, “You're a Dog; Don't Talk to Me”—maybe the only time I've seen a semi-colon in a song title, and it works!
Endless Boogie – Focus Level (2008)
Another double album, though there are only 11 long songs, some mostly instrumental, and some with singing that reminds me a little of the Chinese Electrical Band (my first band, not at all Chinese). I can't make out a single lyric to save my life. The cover opens up to reveal, inside, a huge painting of a party consisting of a bunch of young people in an era several centuries past; it actually looks to me like a computer generated photo collage treated to look like a painting, but I don't know, really, and honestly don't care; I kind of like it, but then there was always something annoying to me about albums that opened to reveal more art—you've got the front and back cover! And then there is one of those annoying one sheet inserts for the credits, but it's mostly more art and tells you very little, like who's in this band and playing what?
Or who is even in the band. I heard one of these guys—or was it two?—or is there only one?—on the WTF podcast and it was pretty interesting, but I don't remember any of the details. I'm not supposed to remember things, that's what the internet is for! Anyway, some of these songs make me think of an annoying roommate who you want to take the guitar away from. But then some of them remind me of the first few times I went to see punk bands in Cleveland (at the Drome) and some of them sounded more like hard rock than punk, but that was okay because it was pretty severe, and heavy, and it was live. And then some of the other songs make me think of high school, going to see a local hard rock cover band at the marina or the county fair; one of those bands who has a cobbled together, homemade “light show” and is playing stuff like that “Slow ride, take it easy,” song (Foghat?) and that “Now you're messin' with a... sonofabitch,” song (Nazareth?)—not that any of this is a bad thing, it's all about positive and visceral memories. In fact, those county fair bands made a much bigger impression on me than Blue Oyster Cult at a sports arena, capacity 12 billion. I thought BOC were pretty wanky, actually, though the bad pot didn't help, nor the fact that they followed Bob Seger and ZZ Top. Anyway, I really like a lot of this stuff. There's a fine line between wankiness and art, and if you take the chance to be wanky, sometimes, you might be able to make art you wouldn't have been able to come up with if you didn't venture into wankyville.
Bob Dylan – Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits (1967)
If you subscribe to the theory that BD died after Blonde on Blonde (1966) and was replaced with “Dylan 2,” then this record makes a lot more sense—the cover is a big, dark, head silhouette (which decades later would become a “thing”)—which makes you think of nothing so much as a statue, a monument to a legend, dead and gone, and the white lettering and song titles right over his head announce nothing so much as “this is a product.” The photo (BD in concert, blowing on that dreaded harmonica) looks oddly contemporary—even more so if you imagine he's looking closely at a smartphone, which is how I'd suspect kids these days would interpret it.
This is possibly the most unlistenable Dylan record for me, as it starts with the dreaded “Rainy Day Women” and is pretty much made up of the songs that have been played to death—which I don't even think are close to his best songs. About the only one here I can still stand to listen to is “Like a Rolling Stone,” and then only on Nostalgia Thursday, and then preferably with a frivolous drink. If I had the internet right now I'd look up how many times in articles over the years someone has said, “I wish at an early age someone had stuck that harmonica right up his ass,” or “He really puts the 'harm' in harmonica.” I suppose it's supposed to sound like a train whistle, but personally, any time someone tries to make a rock song sound like a train, I'm yawning like the Grand Canyon, and even a mention of a train has me nodding off. And I love trains.
Kinky Friedman – Kinky Friedman (1974)
This is a true story. I went through a Kinky Friedman phase when I was living in New York. I read one of his mystery novels, and liked it a lot, and then read some articles about him, some interviews—maybe there was some particular thing I read or watched that I can't remember now. Anyway, I didn't go as far as seeing a live show or buying a bunch of old records, but I did find his website and order a kind of gift set of Kinky Friedman cigars, coffee, and coffee mug. He's really into all that good stuff. So, one of the cigars was one of those big-ass killers, and I saved it for a particular evening, smoked it, and then had a horrible pain in my lower back, on one side, that lasted for like a year. I was too afraid to go to a doctor and admit I'd smoked a Kinky Friedman cigar and that's what brought it on. Can you die from smoking one cigar (that isn't an exploding assassination cigar, I mean)?
This record from way back in the gold year of 1974 (it may be his first, given the title) is pretty straightforward, like here's a guy with songs he wants you to hear. There's a picture of him on the cover either relighting a cigar or looking at a text on his flip-phone; neither option makes much sense, as I don't think he's a guy likely to let a cigar go out, unless of course he going on about some subject he's more passionate about than cigars, which, who knows? The back cover has him holding a cigarette. An unrepentant smoker, as of this writing Kinky Friedman is still alive (though there are still three days left in 2016, so I'm nervous saying that). The songs feature some fine musicians, but I think the lyrics are the thing, so I'm going to have to listen closely. A couple are too jokey—this was before the time people had discovered that humor isn't best underlined by goofy accompanying sounds.
Michael Hurley – Land of Lo-Fi (2013)
If I was in my 70s (I think that describes the relative age of Michael Hurley) and someone called “Mississippi Records” wanted to put out, on albums, my recordings, then hell yes. It makes me want to move back to Portland, actually (there are a lot of things, day to day, that make me want to move back to Portland—maybe my favorite place I've lived, aside from the lack of snow and thunderstorms). Also, on all Michael Hurley records you get cover art that's essentially his art, paintings, etc. (I'm assuming)—so that's twice the reason to buy these records. Some of the songs, however, I can do without, like the ones that feature instrumentation that consists of air blowing through a reed-type sound maker (well, one sounds like a pump organ, which is nice, though I'm not sure). His lyrics are always worth paying attention to, if you can make them out. I best like the songs where he plays guitar—he has a pretty nice sound and style. “Old Doc Gieger” is my favorite one here.
Dave Van Ronk – Dave Van Ronk Sings Ballads, Blues & a Spiritual (1959)
I never really listened to any Dave Van Ronk before, aware of him primarily as a name in the early Sixties (was it late-Fifties, as well?) NYC folk music scene—a time, place, and music I've pretty much ignored as not being my bag, exactly. But DVR had come to the forefront of my attention because of the movie, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), which was supposedly inspired primarily by Dave Van Ronk—though the main character, Llewyn Davis, doesn't seem to resemble DVR in appearance, sound, or biography—at least not too much, to my knowledge. Anyway, these are some pretty serious folk tunes, performed well and reverently, and this is a serious record, put out by the label DOXY, full title: “dave van ronk accompanying himself on guitar sings ballads, blues & a spiritual”—and includes liner notes by DVR and detailed track by track analysis on the inner sleeve by Kenneth S. Goldstein.
I just listened to the whole record and it's very good, surprisingly compelling. (I mean, for me, not a real cheerleader for traditionally played traditional music and seriousness, etc.) DVR's voice is pretty great—it's unique and expressive, and I especially like the more blues oriented stuff. Anyway, I'm not going to get too much into the history of this right now; there are lyrics and notes about each song on the inner sleeve, but I'm not taking a college course here! It's just nice to know that I feel like I've had a big, heaping, hot meal of Van Ronk, and next time he's on the radio I won't change the station.
Fleetwood Mac – Mystery to Me (1973)
This is a record that should be woefully familiar to record collectors because its heinous cover will at some point assault you during your journeys; it's a giant stoner drawing of some kind of baboon eating a cake, and it folds out to show him in conversation with an equally hideous, bald, bearded, scholarly man. I don't know what it all means, but being hungry, the cake with the candied red and green cherries actually looks pretty good. The inside photo is much nicer, of five hairy hippies in a pyramid huddle looking slightly upward at the camera. I recognize Christine and John McVie, the “Mac” part of the band, and Mick Fleetwood, who I believe is like eight feet tall; he's one of those guys who makes whatever drums he's playing look like a kids' drum-set, and like should probably be out slaying dragons instead. The other two are the guitarists, Bob Welch and Bob Weston (I wish they were called Bob W.1 and Bob W.2) who I don't recognize, even though I do remember a prominent Bob Welch solo record from, I think, the Seventies, with him on the cover with those big, graduated rose lens glasses, and an open shirt, generally reeking of coke. Like many people, I first came upon Fleetwood Mac with those two records with black and white covers (I think) around the time that Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham became prominent members (I think—it's been a few years since I've gone back to those records, though songs from them will be over-played into the unforeseeable future).
Actually, I'm kind of glad I'm in this cabin in the “North Woods” because I could easily go into a Fleetwood Mac rabbit hole if I had free use of the internet—and I could find the marijuana I know is around here somewhere. In fact, had they known when they formed the band, Rabbithole would have been a better name. Was this the band that had two couples that eventually broke up and dated each other? 1973 was a good year for music and movies, one of my favorite years, but there is not a lot on first listening to this record that's producing mental notes to go back for a second listening; it's already sounding like a chore, and choosing between this and doing the dishes... About half the songs are written by Bob Welch, and he is also singing on half or more—I'm assuming that's him. Even when Christine McVie sings there isn't much of a glimmer of the later Fleetwood Mac (to me, I'm sure purists would disagree). I wonder if someone has written a decent biography of the band—that might be kind of fascinating. Hey, here's a cover song, “For Your Love”—which I recognize, of course, from the Yardbirds; I'm afraid it's weak, especially the wanky guitar. Oh well, some paths in the woods circle right back to the cabin after about five minutes and you realize you'd rather just be making pancakes.
Silver Jews – American Water (1998)
There is more minimal packaging, I suppose, but not much—the cover looks like a computer drawing (or could be a painting, but as a reproduction it looks like computer art) of a Western landscape with a pink highway extending to a butte strewn grey horizon. All letters are in a font called “not my favorite font”—the same font on other Silver Jews records, I think. Fonts were never a big deal until there were choices, and then came the problems. This record, on Drag City records in Chicago, is from 1998 (I only know that later, when the one thing I'm later using the internet for is the dates, because inexplicably, a lot of records contain no date whatsoever, which really kind of drives me crazy). There is absolutely no information on this record except the name of the band, the name of the album, the song titles, and their times. Oh, wait, I just discovered a one page insert (I swear that it wasn't in there before—is someone fucking with me?) with lyrics, some drawings, copyright date, recording info, and five names of band members. There's David Berman, of course, and this incarnation of the band included Stephen Malkmus, who co-wrote a couple of songs. I'm not sure where this record sits in the Silver Jews timeline, but it's not the first and not the last.
This is a remarkably good record, and the only reason it's not my favorite is because I'm pretty sure I like that Bright Flight one more, but that could change the more I listen to this. David Berman's lyrics are so good it's worth your time listening for awhile (you can generally understand them when he sings) then going back to read along while listening, because it's probably going to increase the depth of your understanding. Try “Buckingham Rabbit”—holy shit. A couple of songs are co-written by Malkmus and you can tell, they sound like his kind of songs, and I think on those they sing together, like a duel lead vocal. I might be wrong, I wasn't there. My favorite is “Blue Arrangements”—listen to the first two verses, the lyrics with the sleepy singing, the guitar, and if you don't fall in love with that combination of words, images, sounds etc., you and I aren't going to be taking a cross-county car trip anytime soon.
John Prine – Diamonds in the Rough (1972)
This might be the first John Prine record I bought, many years ago, though I'm pretty sure I'd heard John Prine via some other source first, though I can't remember now, when or where. Anyway, I had bought a thrift-store copy of this one, with a water-damaged cover, and I didn't expect much, and by the time I got to the song “The Frying Pan” I was hooked and it became regular rotation listening, and I even learned to play some of the songs just because I liked them so much—or at least, “Yes I Guess They Oughta Name A Drink After You”—which has to be about the best simple tavern crowdpleaser I can imagine. There is some good stuff on this record, indeed diamonds—“Worth its weight in gold,” as Marilyn Monroe says in Some Like it Hot. The picture on the cover of, I guess, a fairly young John Prine, is during a live show bathed in that horrible red performance light, and he looks like someone else, though I'm not exactly sure who—another musician, an actor, or a friend, I can't place it, but I'm glad I got this record when I did, even though it was probably about 30 years after it came out, because it's made my life better.
Bob Dylan – Street Legal (1978)
I've never heard this record before and I'm guessing, but not sure, that when it came out in 1978—the year I graduated from high school and was avidly reading Rolling Stone magazine—it got a less than favorable review—or maybe I was just over Dylan by that time, temporarily—or maybe his previous album was too weird and inscrutable—who knows. Anyway, the first thing that's striking to me is that in the live performance, black and white, photo on the back, he looks just like Freddie Mercury—did people, when this record was released, talk or write excessively about about how he looks just like Freddie Mercury? It looks like a picture from the Renaldo and Clara/”Rolling Thunder Revue” era, but wasn't that years earlier? Anyway, it's just a bit of a mystery. On the front cover there's a picture of him standing in a doorway wearing some really awful jeans and a black leather vest, looking left, down the street like he's waiting for someone, or a bus.
“Baby Stop Crying” is a nice song, pretty soulful (though the sax break does sound a little St. Elmo's Fire (my shorthand for lameness). I just noticed the photos on inside sleeve, two out-of-focus, B&W photos of Bob and a dark skinned man (really wish I had the Big I to look this up) at what looks like a really great tea shop. Bob's wearing that polkadot shirt you see in a lot of photos (I'm assuming he had more than one, but who knows). It almost looks like a much earlier photo. Can you date Dylan pics by his shirts?
Link Wray – Link Wray (1971)
Maybe this is the first Link Wray record, as it doesn't have a title other than “Link Wray”—though, didn't he put out records in the 50s?—and this looks seriously 70s, but there's no date on it (the only thing I'm going to look up, once I'm reunited with the internet, is the dates each of these records came out). Anyway, here is another reminder to look more deeply into the early work of people you feel you have an idea of what they're about; I've always been a Link Wray fan based on the few songs I know, and his sound, but really know very few recordings or anything about him. This record is on Polydor so he must have been well known enough, plus the cover is unusual in that it's his head in profile, but die-cut along his face, and it opens that way. I thought the record companies reserved the fancy, die-cut covers for well-established gold sellers. Upon opening, a small photo is revealed—of a ramshackle structure, crudely painted with the sign, “Wray's Shack 3 Track”—which is, according to the credits, the studio where the record was recorded, in Accokeek, Maryland. It would have been interesting to have been a neighbor to Link Wray and “The Family”—the credited musicians, several of which have the last name Wray. One name, Steve Verroca, plays drums, and also has half the songwriting credits. It makes me wonder when, if, and how the decision was made to call the band “Link Wray” and not something more band-like, such as “The Family” or “The Accokeek Noise Ordinance.”
David Bromberg – Demon in Disguise (1972)
I probably would have ignored this one but I just heard a conversation with David Bromberg on WTF podcast—and I really liked him—so this was a good chance to get some background via a recording he did; I have no idea of his discography, but this record sounds remarkably confident and alive. Some of the songs are credited to him, some are traditional and arranged by him, and then there is Jerry Jeff Walker's “Mr. Bojangles”—a live version, with DB telling a story—in the middle of the song—about the origin of the song—which reminded me of another time I heard a recording with someone telling the story of that song—in a live version—was it possibly this one? Or am I just tripping?
Much of this record I really like, especially songs where he is singing. He has a kind of unlikely and unique singing voice. I don't like some of the more traditional stuff that feels more serious or reverent (not that that was the intention, it just comes off that way, to me). For some reason fiddle music just really bugs me—I guess maybe due to a long childhood of TV crap, and whenever you'd see someone playing fiddle music their eyes would be bugging out like some insane hillbilly, and it always seemed like someone would have to yell “Hoedown!”—like announcing it, as if you don't know. It's kind of like if someone is having sex and one person has to keep yelling, “We're fucking! We're fucking!” I suppose some people could be into that, but me, personally, I'm a little more reserved.
Fleetwood Mac – Tango in the Night (1987)
Now, I know better than to ever put the needle on ANY album released in 1987 (unless I already know it's one of the very few good ones), but I thought I'd take a chance and against all odds this would be the underrated Fleetwood Mac record of all time. And it is quite remarkable, but not in the way I'd hoped; it is maybe the worst thing I've ever heard. How can this even exist? It's the same lineup on those two classic F.Mac records—there is a picture of them on the back cover looking like they stepped out of the movie, St. Elmo's Fire (except for Mick Fleetwood, who seems to have grown another foot and is wearing a hat that looks like it's about to fly off to its home planet)—interesting, because the stoner cover painting of a tropical paradise also features a UFO, no bigger than half a Valium, indeed so small that the same pic reproduced on the CD cover would reduce the UFO to microscopic size.
After suffering through an eternity of songs—each one a punishing barrage of what I guess is the 1980s production style (which reminds me why I stopped listening to ANY popular music in the 1980s)—the last song was actually halfway catchy and kind of pretty, and so against my better judgment I'm putting it on again and taking a look at the lyrics sheet; after all, these are what must be interesting and decent people who wrote some great classic songs, and maybe there is something revealed in the lyrics about what they are going through here—whether it be insanity, drug impairment, or some kind of cultish trip we need to know about. Oh, no—that was a mistake. I won't get through a second listening. Any record that makes me get up from my chair and remove it from the turntable isn't likely to see daylight in this lifetime. Right now I'm regretting this brutal sound memory of the most horrible decade, culturally, I've yet endured.
Stephin Merritt – Obscurities (2011)
My name is Randolph (Randy) Russell, and more often than I can recall it's been misspelled—I've seen Rusell, Russel, Rousel (and more), and Randolf, Randi (etc.)—so I'm thinking, if your name is Stephin Merritt, you're pretty much resigned to never seeing your name spelled correctly. A sticker on the still- intact shrink-wrap says: “Rare & Unreleased tracks by The Magnetic Fields, The 6ths, and others”—which I assume are SM's bands. (I know, pretty well, that Magnetic Fields record, 69 Love Songs—which I was really into until I was, like, overnight, sick of it.) I think when someone has an unusual, highly distinctive, or some might say, annoying, singing voice, it's possible to very suddenly get sick of them. That's okay, I still really value those kinds of singing voices. The cover photo is a slightly blurry, almost abstract photo of what looks like an octopus invasion. The back cover is a nice, b&w photo of a guy I assume is Merritt with his head in his hand, looking like he has a migraine. (Is he a migraine sufferer like Jeff Tweedy?) You might get a migraine if you try to read the song credits on back, which are almost the same color as the background. Fortunately, the inner sleeve also has lyrics and credits, as well as a large photo of what looks like a pretty dreamy children's music room, c. late-nineties. My favorite song on the record, “When You're Young and In Love,” has a terrific rhyme (carousal and Hell) that ends: “Never even knowing you're in hell/When you're young and in love”—which is a great sentiment. It goes on to say, “When you're not (in love) it almost seems a crime not to go insane.” Which makes no sense, and therefore is, I guess, perfect.
Michael Hurley – Ida Con Snock (2009)
In the Michael Hurley world, the word “snock” means something pretty significant, but since I can't look it up on the internet I have no idea what—though I'm not even sure if the internet would help on this one (maybe the snock-net would help). (In the perfect “North Woods” world, I'd find, in this cabin, a dusty old volume of Complete Guide to Snock.) I'm going to guess it either means “drunk”—or it's the name of his cat. So I have no idea why this record is called Ida Con Snock, and then says: Ida, again, as if it's two records in one, though it's only one. Anyway, this is a really good record. It's pretty straightforward, kind of country folk songs, but very much Michael Hurly songs, and sounds like him, but with a full band, or at least drums and other instruments and other singers. The thing that really stands out right off is really good drums. Drums are often the first thing I'll hear on a record, and this drumming is fine, and credited as Ruth Keating. Who is this Ruth Keating? There is a picture of her among the musicians (and pictures of other musicians, I assume members of Ida?) I almost can't wait to get back to the city and that big, fast internet so I can do some research about the people playing on this record with Hurley. I'm guessing it's a collaboration of MH with a band called Ida, of which no individual member is named Ida, which is okay, I guess, there was no Jethro Tull or Lynyrd Skynyrd, either.
Another thing I'm going to do with the internet is put dates on each of these records, since the record companies often seem to think that's not important, or else maybe avoid it on purpose for some reason. But I'm not going to add notes or research; I figure anyone reading this can do that if they care to. The back cover of this record has photos of a bunch of musicians that look kind of like they'd be in 3-D if you had 3-D glasses. I'm guessing they are fairly young and hipsterish and Ida, though I have no idea where they are from, maybe Portland or Athens of the Twin Cites or Brooklyn or Richmond or whatever is the new place (Joliet? Covelo? Port Clinton?) This is another record I just keep playing over and over but kind of don't want to dig too deep into any individual song because I feel like it might detract from my overall pleasure; the songs are all great, and the instruments sound live and organic—there's a real immediacy to it. I even like the fiddle. Another good cover painting by Hurley. Maybe IDA is an acronym? (I'm Drunk Again.)
Bob Dylan – Nashville Skyline (1969)
There is the theory that there have been two Bob Dylan's, the Robert Zimmerman who made the music up through Blonde on Blonde, and then the one who “became” Bob Dylan after he was killed in the motorcycle accident (likely no motorcycle accident, but a more mundane or sordid death, and the motorcycle accident was an invented story for the time away, to recover, but there was no recovery, just death). The second Dylan is a guy, probably a talented but unsuccessful Nashville musician (who sings a lot like Jim Nabors) who looked like Dylan (a guy who fit the jacket, as in the Greg Brady fitting the jacket Brady Bunch episode) and could play, and saw this as a weird gig he'd be able step away from eventually with some cash, but later realized is was actually the Devil's Opportunity of the Century, and there was no escape until the escape of death, ultimately.
Which is a long way around of saying this record sounds like nothing that Dylan had done before, while sounding exactly like what he had done before—which is of course, keeping in line with what he's (both of him) has always done. (Actually, the multiple Dylans in Todd Haynes' movie, I'm Not There (2007) is a much better conspiracy theory, kind of like the Shakespeare being-a-collective theory—and I realize that movie is not a theory, it's an innovative and brilliant approach to Dylan—but often from art arises not just metaphorical but actual truth.) Anyway, I think I heard this way back when I was in high school and I didn't like it—the Jim Nabors voice freaked me out, and I didn't like country and western, yet, at that time—but now, this is one of my favorite BD records, and “Lay Lady Lay,” a song I once couldn't stand, is one of my favorites, as well as “Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You.”
Link Wray – Be What You Want To (1973)
In the half century that I've been alive and aware of appreciating awesome things, the fact that not one of my scores of friends and hundreds of acquaintances (not to mention all the rock critics and makers of the “best of all time” lists) had enthusiastically encouraged me to listen to this record points out a fundamental failure in my life. Or maybe I just don't listen to people. I guess there is the likelihood that the failure is all on me. Whatever the problem was, it's been resolved in regard to this Link Wray album from 1973. (Which I know I've said a hundred times is the most awesome year for culture in my life—though I haven't figured out yet if it's something about that year, exactly, or just my relationship to it—maybe because it's the year I started drinking?) All of these songs have huge, overblown arrangements, some of which might have swallowed up the immediacy, but Link Wray's singing has a way of not only cutting through all the instruments and production, but bringing it right back to the edge of a garage band. I might easily go on and on, but sometimes the less said the better—just heed my A+ and 5 Stars (of 5) and my rating of 11 on a scale of one to ten, and listen to the record, and if you don't agree with me then go fuck yourself!
Jimmy Buffett – A White Sport Coat and A Pink Crustacean (1973)
I haven't been able to listen to Jimmy Buffet since the first time I heard “Cheeseburger in Paradise” for the hundredth time, so I put this record on against my better judgement, but I had my reasons, including the fact that I used to be a huge JB fan, around the time the Changes in Latitudes record came out, which led me to an earlier record, Highway A1A, which inspired my imagination and sense of adventure at the time (once when I was 18, then again 19, and brings back memories of Bocador Rum, CocoRibe Liqueur, Passport Scotch), heading down to Florida on spring break and exploring the Atlantic coastline. He has written some really good songs and goes all out with the lyrics, even if sometimes he goes too all out. The worst thing about Jimmy Buffett, now, I guess, is that he sounds too much like Jimmy Buffett.
It's not his fault entirely that his name evokes all-you-can-eat crab legs on a cruise ship. A second reason for putting this on is that it's from 1973, the year I started drinking, and my appreciation of JB goes hand in hand with drinking, preferably rum drinks with a lot of either pineapple or coconut or both—and also, I've never heard this record, that I can recall. It occurred to me that a good name for crusty old white guy music might be “Pink Crustacean Music”—which would be inspired by this title. That is also the title of a short liner note on the back cover by Tom McGuane which, if I understand it correctly, is a criticism of the seriousness of the folk movement and an appreciation of JB's blender of country, fruit juice, show biz, and intoxicants. Plus, how bad can a record be that has songs titled “Peanut Butter Conspiracy” and “Death of an Unpopular Poet”? Also, included here, is the classic bar sing-a-long (credited to “Marvin Gardens”) “Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw.” Alas, I'm afraid, for me, the SS Jimmy Buffet has long since sailed.
Bob Dylan – New Morning (1970)
I'm not exactly sure where this record fits in the BD timeline—it seems to be one of his Nashville records, produced by Bob Johnston, there's studio musicians, and David Bromberg plays on it, and Al Kooper, and there's a lot of piano. This is a great record; I kind of wish it was the first Dylan record I ever heard and then based my whole BD experience on the foundation that experience. Somehow I've never heard much of it—though “If Dogs Run Free” somewhere came to me in a weirdness care package. I think it's pretty likely that this record was released well after BD's replacement with the new Dylan, but some of the songs here are from the original Dylan vault. That said, the new one is pulling off some pretty good replication of the old one, to the extent that I don't even feel confident offering my track by track guess on who is singing. Somehow I never heard the song “The Man in Me” until I heard it in the movie, The Big Lebowski—and it's a great song, and really important to that movie.
Silver Jews – The Natural Bridge (1996)
This record feels very contemporary, maybe because I just heard it, but it's 20 years old—I don't think I'll ever get used to the idea that 1996 is twenty years ago—by the time I get used to it, it will be 30 years ago. And by that time either I'll be dead or need ten more years to get used the idea that it's a third of a century ago. This could have been my favorite record any given year of my life, and had I heard it in 1996 maybe it would have inspired me to take musical direction in my life rather than a cinema direction; maybe it would have inspired me to take a poetry direction rather than just all work, work, work, making millions, what good does that do me now? I blame the invention of the CD with destroying my appreciation of music over the years. But it's not too late to get back to the magic.
This record is as sad as the saddest George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and as catchy as the Beatles at their catchiest, and as clever and twisted as the Reediest Lou Reed. Once you get the songs ingrained in your mind, at low-level, late-night, secretive, intimate liaisons (there is some music you don't want to play loud, it just seems too dangerous), you can put it on for cleaning, if you want to, or cooking, or before or after work, I suppose, but it might be best if you have a day for it once a month or so. Every song is good—some songs are better than others, but it plays best as an album. Eventually, if you're strong enough, you might want to listen to the lyrics, but watch out, they are kind of devastating. David Berman is as good of a song lyric writer as anyone who has ever written song lyrics.
Herbie Hancock – Headhunters (1973)
I've never been a huge Herbie Hancock fan, though I've always liked him more or less, but kind of a lukewarm love (Herbie Hancock fans don't want to hear this)—like, I've owned a few of his records over the years, but I'm not usually burning to put them on. But this one has such a weird cover that it kind of screamed out to me (not necessarily a good scream, but a loud and got my attention scream). Anyway, I think HH has done some soundtracks over the years (can't be entirely sure with no internet to reference) and I can really imagine a lot of this music as a soundtrack—but a really strong one, like, I'd watch that movie just to see a guy driving an early-Seventies LTD thru Harlem with this music playing. In fact, I'm guessing a 1973 LTD, gold with a green faux fabric top—a lot about this whole scenario says 1973 (I'll see if there's a date on the disk when it stops spinning...)
The cover is a kind of photo collage of HH at the keyboard with his band behind him in blue shadows, but it's not HH really—or it is HH, I guess, but instead of his head there's a huge orange circle that from a distance looks like an orange with eyes and a mouth and some kind of insect pincers on the top of the head—but upon closer examination it's evident that the eyes are knobs and the mouth is a VU meter. I can't tell if the pincers coming out of the tip of the head are like antennas, or grabbers, or if it's organic or mechanical—regardless, it's all kind of creepy. I'm listening to the record a few times through as I'm writing, and I'm actually liking it more and more—maybe this is the HH record for me. It's got some weird instrumentation and some pretty hardcore repetitious grooves (I mean as opposed to all the stopping and starting kind of stuff I don't like as well). I've been working at a grocery store where the muzak system plays such a bizarre mix of about a dozen or 20 songs (seems like less, but is probably actually more) that it could have only been selected by a computer algorithm. But what if they just played this record? I wouldn't be working, I'd be partying—couldn't have that.
Tangerine Dream – Stratosfear (1976)
I'm pretty sure I used to have this Tangerine Dream record and was not too crazy about it, so it's worth revisiting—perhaps I have grown mature, or electronic, or German, or mellow, or nostalgic. The front and back and inside images are some photo-collage nonsense that is embarrassingly dated. The first song, “Stratosfear” sounds really familiar, like maybe it was used in a movie soundtrack or maybe soundtrack music has been directly inspired by this. I can see some wintery, European landscape with an expensive car traveling over desolate roads that should be beautiful, but because of this music and the the exaggerated blue color temperature of the scene we understand that something tragic either just happened or is about to. It seems like half, or more, of the movies I see are incredibly, annoyingly blue—and my theory about this is that it's because of the current pharmaceutical landscape in which we live. I've thought about this while working in a new job where the workers (who don't get “laid off”) work with a seemingly speed-fueled intensity—in spite of their being NO coffee offered in the workplace—and very little coffee brought in from outside, even. Which led me to think about all the people who are diagnosed with ADHD, etc. and are prescribed Adderall, etc. and are essentially like speed freaks all the time. I don't know this, but it would explain a lot. So, likewise, I'm thinking, with so many people on anti-depressants, maybe this has caused an overall shift in the acceptable color temperature of commercial cinema—in order to just look “normal” it has to be very, very blue.
The first side is astoundingly under 15 minutes long (the second closer to 20, but still...) aren't these progressive rock guys famous for really long songs and albums? Maybe I'm just thinking of Genesis, whose records were always like 60 minutes long. But come on, it's not like anyone is working up a sweat here, it's just kind of programmed and then it trickles along like a 1970s movie (that you can't believe was allowed to take its time like that, and would never happen today). But come on, guys, a lot of trees died so this album cover could open up to reveal the letters “TD” 24 inches wide (and a photo-collaged, little, black and white, blond, German kid as big as your fingernail). Side two is so quiet and low-key I think it would only work on that original, really good LSD I've heard about—and playing through tube amplifiers the size of a VW, and Altec-Lansing “Voice of the Theater” speakers that would turn the 1812 Overture into a weapon of mass destruction, but here function to expose the subtlety that is necessary for this record to make any sense at all.
Rolly Gray and Sunfire – Be Somebody (1981)
I had to make a few rules for myself when embarking on the internet-less, extended, “north woods” cabin, vinyl exploration, just because there are so many records to choose from in crates and boxes and more crates: I'm ignoring the 45s, just because I don't have years here; and I'm ignoring 10 inch records, for much the same reason; and I'm also ignoring “EPs” and 12 inch singles. This record would probably fall under the EP category because there seems to be only four songs on it, but I couldn't resist it because the cover and back photos are so great, with band members posing on what looks like the porch of a stage set of a white house, the inside of which is illuminated totally in red. On the cover, alone, is who I'll assume is Rolly Gray, sitting in a wooden rocking chair with an electric guitar. What is striking is the photo is taken at knee-level so you really notice that he's wearing loafers (or slippers) and baggy dark red socks that match his large-sleeved shirt. The back cover is even better, with who I assume is the band with Rolly—just their pose, kind of leaning on the house, is kind of awesome, but would take too many words to describe it properly. One of the guys is particularly stylishly dressed with a kind of tropical jac-shirt, matching shirt and pants, in a kind of earthy pink.
I don't even know what kind of music this is, but next to each musician in parentheses it says “Trinidad and Tobago” so I'm going to assume that's where they are from, wherever that is, I think the Caribbean. The music is good, very driving, upbeat and happy sounding. The most striking thing to me is the bass, which is prominent, like a lead instrument, and really reminds me of some early punk band's bass, but I can't place it right now—I'll try again later. (Yeah, right, there is no “later.”)
Grateful Dead – Workingman's Dead (1970)
I know less about the Grateful Dead's discography than about fine wines—totally, exactly, nothing—but I'd like to know more, and I'd like to find a way to like them someday because I feel like they could be an acquired taste—that is acquired through listening to them—but putting in the time might pay some kind of dividends consisting of a pleasurable knowledge and of depth of appreciation. But for now, to me, they still sound like a bunch of annoyingly stoned commune hippies. What a great band name, though—who was around on band naming day? I can never get a handle on their sound—I can't pick out individual singers or musicians—its a large band but they usually sound like just a few people are playing. This record is another one like that—it all kind of blended together like a way too healthy smoothie—the exception being the last song which is that famous, “Ridin' that train, high on cocaine,” song, which is named, “Casey Jones”—I never knew that.
The first time I ever heard one of their songs, that I've been aware of, was on this early-seventies collection I bought—influenced by TV commercials—when I was like 11, and it had the song “Truckin'” on it, which pretty much fascinated me, the breezy style of playing and singing, but even more, the lyrics—something about a salt machine, and livin' on reds, vitamin C, and cocaine. The lyrics are all credited to someone named Robert Hunter, which fascinated me as he was not a musician in the band. I read somewhere (probably Rolling Stone magazine) that he was the Dead's lyricist, which seemed so bizarre to me... though, same thing with Elton John and Bernie Taupin, right? But this Robert Hunter, what was he like? I wanted to find out more, but we were a long way off from having the internet, not unlike me here in the “North Woods”—and in fact, it occurs to me that the perfect scenario would be for the Grateful Dead (I mean, in a perfect world where they were still together and all still alive) to join me here in this cabin and play for about 12 hours straight while I put this old turntable to rest for awhile. I suppose if that happened I'd become either a huge fan or the harshest critic, but I'm guessing they'd all be cool and we'd have a good time and I'd finally gain some crucial insight into this music.
John Prine – In Spite of Ourselves (1999)
This is a record I know well, since I made a cassette tape of it late in the last millennium, from the CD source—one of my favorite albums in recent years (last two decades)—but it's the first thing I put on up here in the cabin, as I noticed there is a sticker on the record that says, “First Time On Vinyl!”—so apparently it was only available on CD before, and it's reissued by OHBOY Records on 180 gram vinyl. If you thought your record collection was a bitch to move back in the old days, wait until everything is on 180 gram vinyl—your friends are gonna become scarce on moving day. One thing that bugs me sometimes when an album originates on CD and then is put out on vinyl, it retains the track numbers, like in this case, 1 thru 16, rather than side one, 1 thru 8, side two, 1 thru 8, etc. A small thing, but it's another reminder about another facet about CDs that sucked.
This is a record of all duets, a great tradition of country and western music, where a man and woman can do something together more intimate than sex and no one gets divorced or shot (at least we hope). It's also a covers record, with an incredible collection of great songs, some fairly familiar and some pretty obscure (at least to me, before this record). It makes sense that a great songwriter like John Prine would come up with an amazing group of songs to cover—and they are all songs that lend themselves to duets. One song by JP, “In Spite of Ourselves,” is maybe the best one on the record. My next favorite here is “Let's Invite Them Over,” by Onie Wheeler, which is fairly twisted—you've just got to listen to it. John Prine's distinctive singing voice really works well with these strong women singers, among them: Iris Dement, Connie Smith, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood, Melba Montgomery, Emmylou Harris, Dolores Keane, Patty Loveless, and Fiona Prine. The most and my favorite are with Iris Dement, not surprisingly, since she is my favorite living singer in this whole fragile world. My only complaint here at the cabin is there's not more Iris Dement records—I've spent more time searching for them than I have looking for hidden marijuana.
Jim Croce – You Don't Mess Around With Jim (1972)
It must have been a major milestone in Jim Croce's career when he felt that a critical mass knew how to pronounce his name, I mean, if he ever felt that was the case, because people probably kept mispronouncing it. But he was huge at one point, due to a couple of really big hit songs, on the radio all the time. The one on this record is “Time in a Bottle”—which is a song that tormented me, age 12 or so, I suppose, hearing it on the AM radio constantly, one of those songs I will forever associate with getting ready for school in the morning, since my parents always played the AM radio in the kitchen. It's funny, because it seems like there are two Jim Croces, the one I'm familiar with who had the hits like that “Bad Leroy Brown” song, and then all these songs I've never heard, a lot of which don't sound anything like the hits and are some pretty good songs. A lot of them seem to be about being poor, being on the road, being a poor guitar player and singer on the road. Once you can afford your “Time in a Bottle” Lear Jet or tour bus, what do you write about then? Or maybe he got screwed out of his hit record money like so many musicians.
He's looking out from a church window on the cover with a stogie in his mouth, and sitting on his guitar case, on the road, on the back cover, wearing some serious walking boots and a jean jacket with a CAT Diesel Power patch. He's also holding a stogie—again an album cover with a guy smoking on the front and back cover. Smoking was really important to a lot of people's identities back in the day, and I guess it might still be. One interesting note, this song, “New York's Not My Home” (about living in NYC for a year and not liking it)—I had never heard, and then while working on a Franke Latina movie he was considering it for the soundtrack, so I had my brother, Jeff, do a rendition of the song, which he did, a couple versions—great song! And he did a really great cover, nothing like the original-- and so for me, that song is always going to be his version, which I think is a lot better than JCs—but don't tell Croce I said that because you don't want to mess around with Jim.
Kayla Guthrie – Blue (2015)
Okay, I just noticed among the records here there were three with really similar covers—that look like photos of dark forms that resemble shadowy, out of focus, silhouetted heads, or faces, from the shoulders up——so I decided I have to listen to all three of these in succession to see if there is any connection, or if this is a “thing”—or what. The first is someone named Kayla Guthrie, who I have never heard of, but that sounds like a woman's name, and the head looks like it could be a woman. The record, called Blue, is on a really beautiful blue vinyl (make a note, if I ever press a record, to consider that color). It's kind of plodding, kind of industrial sounding music with a really depressed, drugged out singing style—can't make out the lyrics, or even tell if it's English. The cardboard inside—the inner wall of the album cover is also blue. What's the name of this record, again?
Oh—I went to turn it over and noticed that it's actually 45 RPM—it was printed small, I didn't see it. Okay, that makes sense, it sounds more normal now. I know this goes against my rule to not write about 45s or EPs—but this ship has already left the Earth's orbit. Four songs, definitely a woman's voice singing, not a zombie, like I first thought, and there are lyrics and notes. Some of this music might be described as “industrial”—it's really good—and some reminds me of that later Tom Waits stuff. Other songs sound like I'd imagine Nine Inch Nails to sound, though I've never heard NIN so I'm probably wrong—so I don't even know why I said that. Anyway, there are only four songs, but I like them. Further inspection reveals credits, lyrics, and an extended inner sleeve with notes by Kayla Guthrie, kind of a bio/artist's statement, and is a bit more than I want to know. It reminds me of why I hate the internet. But you love the internet. I go both ways.
Endless Boogie – Long Island (2013)
Uh oh, the next one is another Endless Boogie double album. That's okay, it's good... I'm listening now. This one has a cover image that looks like it could be a creepy landscape, like a huge hill, kind of a Lord of the Rings, unnatural, geological formation that is a hill and also a dude's head. The first thing I saw was the head, in silhouette, and a face, big nose, long hair, beard and mustache, and one white glowing eye. I only know the record is called Long Island because of a sticker on the front, on the plastic shrink-wrap which is still intact, which also keeps me from opening up the album cover to see what's on the inside. (Like song titles, credits, a poem, more stoner art?) I can't open it though, so I try to peer in the crack—it looks like it might be a treasure map or possibly pornography, but who will ever know with this shrink-warp? Goddamn record collectors. I shouldn't complain, since I'm a guest here at the cabin, and it's nice of the owners to let me listen to the stereo. But it does make me think about the kind of toy collectors who collect toys that are still in the packages, never opened. Something about that seems totally wrong. I think there is a special place in Hell for those kind of toy collectors, and that is: Commander and Chief of Hell.
At least it's possible to look at the label, which tells us that the band is Endless Boogie and the album is called Long Island (which makes me think of two things: one of sequels to Harriet the Spy, The Long Secret; and Long Island Iced Tea, a cocktail I first drank c.1986 in a sleazy Eighth Ave/42nd Street cocktail lounge with cockroaches crawling on the liquor bottles. (I think the New York Times might be in that spot now.) Also, the year the record is released, and an infinity symbol/two dimensional rendition of a Mobius Strip. And song titles, my favorites being: “Taking Out the Trash,” “The Artemus Ward,” and “The Montgomery Manuscript,” which aren't necessarily my favorite songs—I haven't matched them up yet—I haven't gone that deep—and I'm not going to, because I want to move on to the third big shadowy head record.
Palace Brothers – Palace Brothers (1994)
This one is definitely a person in shadows, head and shoulders—it looks like in a room, in front of a window, the background blurred out. This one also has a sticker on the shrink-wrap—it says “Palace.” The spine says, simply, “Palace Brothers.” There is no other info except for the list of ten songs on the back cover, white on black. On the label it says Palace Brothers, and the song titles, and the date—but the oddest thing is that there is the most vinyl space (i.e., without grooves, between the last song and the label) I've ever seen—you could plant crops there, there's so much room. Maybe it's all part of what seems to be a minimalist approach. The songs are pretty much all acoustic guitar and singing. Good songs, some of them pretty repetitious, and others with long, dense lyrics.
I am pretty sure I know this, that Palace and Palace Brothers is Will Oldham (though what I don't know is if and when there is someone else playing with him, like one of the “Brothers”—or if there even are brothers, or even band members. The first time I ever heard of Will Oldham is when someone who I just met (can't remember who, or the circumstances, exactly, except that I think it was in Seattle!) said that I was a dead ringer for Will Oldham. I had no idea who that was, but you can believe I looked him up later, since they were kind of adamant about it. I personally don't see the resemblance (for one thing, he's younger and better looking)—except to fall into that broad category: “Bald guy with a beard.” Anyway, it did lead me to listen to some of his music, which I have admired, though I haven't tracked down all of his output—seeing how I'm not, like, a millionaire with unlimited time.
One thing that occurred to me again, listening to this record (which is not meant to be a knock on WO, just happened to think of it)—in these songs that are like, or based on, traditional blues songs, where a line is repeated several times—what's up with that? You wouldn't write that way in prose. You wouldn't write that way in prose. At least you shouldn't. If you talk that way, you'll lose all your friends. How hard would it be to write another line? It's not like rhyming is real difficult, and lines don't need to rhyme, anyway. I realize this is a tradition, but so is (in order to achieve wealth and power) fucking those less fortunate than you in the ass. It doesn't make it right.
Jefferson Airplane – Volunteers (1969)
If you want to give some kid an introduction to 1969, this would be a good place to start. The album cover is modeled after an activist newspaper, and the foldout, insert lyric sheet is as well. There is that equal amount of humor, deadly seriousness, surrealism, practicality, insiderishness and outsiderishness in unequal but workable measures. The music, too, of course—that style of vocal harmony, everybody singing, and jamming, and pretty excessive lead guitar that is often impressive once you're in the mood. If I have time later, I'm going to go back and read some of this stuff, but I'm nearing the end of my time here (as we all are). I am actually pretty unfamiliar with Jefferson Airplane—I know the names, but not much about them. I probably have had more contact with the band through the movie Gimme Shelter (1970) than any other way. Oh, one really important thing is that this is one of the few records I know of that uses the inside album cover (it's one of those that fold open) to good use: there is a giant (as big as the album cover, X2) photo of peanut butter and jelly on bread (it looks like crunchy PB and straw-or-raspberry jelly-or-jam, with a liberal amount of butter.) So it's an open-faced, PB&J, and then when you close the album cover back up, it makes a sandwich. Get it?
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MORE RECORD REVIEWS WHILE CAT-SITTING DURING SUMMER DAYS
The Court & Spark “Bless You”
This pleasant, mellow, kind of country-sounding record is the first I've ever heard of The Court & Spark, and this was a case where I had to use the internet to determine the band name from the record name, "Bless You" - as well as figure out what that strange symbol on the cover is (it's "&" - with an odd, deco-ish font). The record company is Absolutely Kosher, from San Francisco, and the label is chocolate brown with simple grey lettering. The band name and title is written so small on the spine it could fit on a vitamin pill. The photo on the front and back is of the sun rising or setting over desert mountains - the back could be a corny poster with an uplifting message. The front has what looks like a woodcut depiction of a large bird, like an eagle - it's likely referring to something that I don't know - because in itself it's as meaningless as the album title, a phrase that I most associate with someone sneezing.
There is an insert with credits and the only place I can find the date: 2001. There are six listed members of the band, plus six other names with individual music credits. For all those people, the music is sparse and minimal, and the production pretty traditionalexcept for the drums and percussion which are really prominent and with a lot of personality. The band members are modestly without any instrumental or songwriting designation. Most of the singing seems to be by one guy (or it could be more than one) who has a kind of educated, boozy voice that sounds like he's from the Midwest and moved around a bit, picking up inflections here and there.
On the third song, a woman's voice comes in about halfway through (though she is subtly present on the first two songs) and for the first time I turn my head in the direction of the turntable to see if an otherworldly presence has been conjured. It has. Throughout the record, the acoustic guitars, the steel guitar, the silences and space, and the sometimes very familiar arrangements, the one thing that really stands out to me is this woman's singing on roughly half of the ten tracks. I'm not working hard enough to pick up any of the lyrics, but if I return, it will be for the singing, so I might give the words a spin.
Billy Bragg and Wilco “Mermaid Avenue Vol. II”
This record caught my attention because of the life-size photo of a tabby cat slightly out of focus in a crude, black and white photo-collage of some old cars and buildings, presumably depicting Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island. I was just there, and had I known, I might have made a pilgrimage, and had a little more focus rather than just being sad. But this is the first I've heard of this record, which is a project initiated by Woody Guthrie's daughter, Nora, to put music to some of Woody's tons of lyrics he left behind when he died. I imagine that any number of songwriters would have loved to get a chance to write music to these lyrics, but it was Billy Bragg and Wilco (including Jay Bennett)—and then they made some fine recordings, and albums and box sets were released, all too involved for me to go into, but anyway, this is Vol. II, with a huge cat on the cover.
There is so much variety here I can't even begin to mentally encapsulate it. I wonder what Woody Guthrie would think! On my first listen I felt a little annoyed, just because there is so much all over the place, and so much confident instrument playing that I thought, these are a bunch of guys you probably can't tell anything. And while that is probably true, I warmed up to it more on subsequent listens, like right now. Some I like way better than others, but some songs I'm liking a lot. There are a few songs that sound VERY familiar, so I must have heard them somewhere, and I'd imagine most likely in some coffee shop. Anyway, I feel like I'm committing the largest sin in not paying much attention to the lyrics, and that's where you could go very much deeper, of course. There's a lyric sheet, which is nice for those of us with hearing/making out words problems (if there's a word for that). And if you want to go deeper, there's Vol. One, of course, and then I guess there's a complete set with outtakes and other stuff, so you can really get emerged. And I suppose if you wanted to go even further, as a songwriter, you could contact Nora Guthrie about possibly making another record of more songs based on more of Woody's lyrics. I'm sure you won't be the first one to make such a request.
James McCandless “Faultline”
Again with the goofy fonts; I thought it said "Asscandles"—but closer examination clarifies: James McCandless, someone I've not heard of before now. This record is from 1985, which to me seems like yesterday, and I have to keep reminding myself it's over 30 years ago. Also, magic-markered on the front and back cover are the letters, WNKU, which sounds like a radio station to me, and research reveals it's on the Kentucky/Cincinnati border. Somehow this record escaped.
Further research turns up a James McCandless website. Apparently he died in 2013, nearing the age of 70. He lived most of his life in the Chicago area, playing all over the place, folk music, and this is his first record, on his own label, St. Christopher. There's a lyric sheet, which is nice, because the lyrics are worth checking out, even though you probably can understand them as his voice is clear as a bell. This is the good kind of folk music; it's plenty serious but doesn't take itself too seriously. Songs are funny and they are grim. Some just voice and acoustic guitar, and some with a full band and some fine musicians.
I could go on and on but I'm trying to keep things short, and many of you will see the word "folk music" and go no further. You're making a mistake. But go to your grave close-minded if you want to, there's plenty of eternity to come around to things. Anyway, I personally cannot resit a verse like this: "Last night after work we all went to a restaurant / I ordered my usual BLT and fries / and while I was hunched over my friend Jerry put on his sunglasses / he said the glare off my skull was hurting his eyes." It's from a song called "Kareem and Me" about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and going bald.
Nicholas Frank “Greatest Skips”
Not denying the irresistibility of a title such as "Greatest Skips"—my overwhelming hope was that inside this album cover with six pictures of people getting their picture taken (the inside sleeve is six corresponding pictures of people taking the pictures of the people on the cover, presumably) I would find a dozen well-crafted, personal, heart-wrenching songs performed by Nicholas Frank, perhaps with the help of additional musicians. For a moment, then, when immediately the familiar sound of a skipping record assaulted my ears, I thought PERHAPS this record has a skip right at the beginning, either coincidentally or as a kind of initiation joke, after which you'd move the needle onto the dozen well-crafted songs. But no. It's a an entire record consisting of a collection of record skips. After looking around for a Nicholas Frank substitute to throw through the wall, for awhile, I relaxed a little and soon found myself enjoying the sound for what it was, as well as thinking about a few things.
I've never really thought about it, but the length of a record skip should be exactly the time it takes for the needle to get around the record once, right? And the record is turning at 33 1/3 times per minute, or so we're led to believe. But when the needle gets down to the inside of the record, where it has less distance to travel to get around the record, shouldn't it take less time? So how does that work? Why don't records get progressively higher-pitched as they go along? It's bad enough I'll never REALLY understand what's going on in those grooves, now I'm even confused about the speed. Anyway, it then occurred to me that in that this is a collection of record skips, played in succession, Mr. Frank had to make a decision on just HOW MANY skips (normally, one hears the number of skips it takes for you to realize the record is skipping, pull yourself out of the beanbag chair, spill your beer, and get to the turntable) he was going to allow us to hear before moving on to the next one, as well as the order they are presented. One wonders if the skips are a collection he compiled over a period of time or if he was able to manufacture or re-create record skips at will. And if, upon repeated listenings, I would be able to discovers a narrative or a message, or even a deep, weird secret, or instructions to unearthing a treasure.
I have to admit, I have my own collection of record skips, on a cassette tape that I kept handy for many years, available to pop in the recorder any time a skip randomly happened. I never listen to it, of course, but wouldn't sell it for a million dollars. I also have a cassette tape I made from Lee Ranaldo's lock-groove experiment record, "From Here to Infinity." It would have been better to just buy the record, but cheapie that I am, I illegally home-taped it, but was then met with a decision to make on each track: how long to record the lock-groove? Now I'm thinking, how many people put lock-grooves on the end of their records, throughout history? There must be a list on the internet somewhere. And one more thing, it just occurred to me. What if THIS record gets an ACTUAL skip in it sometime? What exactly would that be like? I mean, besides annoying, would it blow your mind, if even for a few minutes? How does one create a skip in a record... peanut butter or something? But no, I won't do it, this is not my record. I'm cat-sitting. But I suppose I could pick up my own copy somewhere, and figure out how to make REAL skips. It could be a project for a rainy day.
The Band “Islands”
Even though I'm a HUGE fan of The Band I know very little about their records except "Music from Big Pink" which is my favorite, though I didn't listen to it until decades after it was released. It wasn't until the movie "The Last Waltz" that I really knew anything about The Band, but that movie is one of my favorite music documentaries ever; I've probably watched it a dozen times and will hopefully watch it a dozen more. Sometimes when I think about The Band I wish they had called themselves "The Honkies" (as Richard Manuel, in that movie, said they'd considered)—I don't know why, the name "The Band" always seemed kind of unfortunate to me, but then, I guess most band names seem a little silly for anyone over 12 years old. The Honkies, though, that would have been kind of amazing. Maybe I'll just call them that from now on, and anyone who knows me will know what I'm talking about.
It always impressed me how much these guys were ahead of their time, though in this case it's not necessarily a good thing; I can often predict the general date of a record by looking at the album art, and I was thinking this nailed the dreaded 80s, but no, it's 1977. If you didn't see the words on the cover you'd guess it's sunburned margarita sipping easy listening from the Miami Vice era, and in the picture on the back, the guys look like they all just had their hair styled. This very much sounds like a record recorded to fulfill a record company contract, especially the instrumental, "Islands." Still there are some really good songs here that you would not get confused with anyone but The Band. The thing I always liked about them is their three singers. I'm always happy hearing Levon Helm sing, even on not that great songs. I like Rick Danko even more, and just because of his singing and some nice accordion I was really enjoying the last song on the first side until I actually listened more closely to the lyrics. And I like Richard Manuel most of all—there's a special quality to his voice, and I hate to think it has anything to do with pain. Maybe it's just that he really loves singing. I love him in "The Last Waltz"—he seems like this grizzled old-timer, but he was what, like 33? What's really shocking is that he died when he was only 42. I'm kind of getting depressed. Time to move on to something else.
Silver Jews “Bright Flight”
I know something about this band Silver Jews, that it's mostly this guy David Berman, and there have been a lot of collaborators, including Stephen Malkmus (in the past, not here), and they put out a few records and then broke up, or stopped playing, or recording (though I suppose that a band or person can just record a record again at any time, if they are still alive, and want to, no matter how much they are retired, so what does that even mean). Six albums, I guess, between 1994 and 2008, and this one is somewhere in the middle, 2001. But I'm pretending I know nothing, like I just picked this up out of a pile of random records (which I did, essentially) not knowing anything (which I don't, essentially). The first song, the initial impression, is that this is country and western music (steel guitar, country piano, Nashville references, George Strait cover, picture on back cover wearing a too small western shirt with embroidered scorpions), that's what it is, but something that would be considered "alternative country" in that David Berman's singing has that quality that some people would call bad singing, but I call great singing—the closer you listen the more complex the person behind the voice gets. It also helps that the lyrics are at worst impossibly catchy and at best life changing poetry.
If one set out to create an uglier album cover than this one, just forget it, you've lost. It's a flat, flash photograph of a nasty old couch with a tattered spiral bound notebook sitting on it, and there's what looks like some colored stickers on the notebook creating an abstract design, and also what looks like the number "4" on the notebook. It occurs to me that it's the 4th Silver Jews album and the cover photo and number 4 could be a reference to Led Zeppelin IV (if you squint, you can see a similarity between the two covers) (also, "Bright Flight"/"Stairway to Heaven"—get it?)—and now it occurs to me that IV is not just "4" it also means intravenous, and most likely "Stairway to Heaven" is about heroin. (If you ever find yourself on Jeopardy and the category is "popular song meanings"—just keep hitting the buzzer and saying, "What is heroin," and you'll probably come out ahead.) In fact, seeing how every other song on this record has a reference to horses, I have to assume either Berman is an avid equestrian or else it's a lot about heroin.
All of my nonsense here is an attempt to not try and fail to express just how good these lyrics are, and how catchy these songs are, and how lovely it all is. I think this is my new favorite record of all time, no exaggeration. I think I just joined the club of nerdy, pathetic music fans who have "Silver Jews" tattooed on an important part of their brain. Now I know how people felt about JD Salinger. (Oh, wait, I was one of those people, too.) And it's even worse with the internet. Look, I consider myself a songwriter, or former songwriter. I feel like there is no worse feeling in the world than to know you've come up with some kind of wonderful song, seemingly out of nowhere, and then not be able to do it again. It's a wonder that any songwriter survives past the age of thirty. I guess the only thing to do, sometimes, is reinvent yourself. But then you probably already know all this. But if you don't believe me, find a couple of these songs, like "Slow Education" or "I Remember Me" or "Tennessee"—and if they aren't the best songs you've ever heard, go get yourself a new set of friends.
Lee Hazlewood “The LHI Years: Singles, Nudes and Backsides (1968-71)”
I don't want to get into an entire bio of Lee Hazlewood but I do have to include this legal disclaimer that he's like my all-time hero, at least based on his style, singing, songwriting, and legend, and also the fact that he did the tile song (sung by Dusty Springfield) for my all time favorite movie (The Sweet Ride) as well as having a cameo part in that movie. If there are stains on his reputation or tales of bizarre behavior, there are other forums for that, but here I'm discovering this odd double LP with a much too specific title and questionable album art. Not because there are naked women or they are kneeling, looking up at him (you can only think about this humorously, right?) but because the women are all sporting fake LH-esque moustaches, and I'm sorry, but that's where I draw the line.
This album is dated 2012, about 5 years after he died, and LHI stands for Lee Hazlewood Industries (his own record label in the late 60s) and it's got a booklet with extensive notes which I unfortunately don't have time to read, and it's on this super heavy vinyl that someday is going to be cursed by the aching back survivors of record collectors (at least until they start selling the stuff off). Two records, 11 of the 17 songs written by LH, but they all sound like his songs. He sure knows how to pick songs to cover. He is joined singing, on a few songs, by Suzi Jane Hokom, Ann-Margret, and Nina Lizell. All the songs are good, most are weird, and several have those crazy kind of spoken introductions. Because of this modern packaging, it's hard to remember that these were records that came out at about the time when I first started buying 45s. It would be cool to find the old versions. Pretty much, if you ever see a Lee Hazlewood record, no matter how dusty and scratchy it is, it's worth picking up because it's like a an artifact from a parallel pop music universe.