Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Bronx Cheer For RSD

My approach to Record Store Day is both serendipitous and practical. If I'm going to a favorite store like Other Music, I know there will be many people with more burning desire for particular special releases than I have, so I prefer to see what I see. That way, I feel lucky with whatever I end up buying. In 2011 I picked up an awesome Fela 7" and a limited edition cassette from Numero Group, along with a couple of other goodies. Last year, I had an event at a Knights Of Columbus near Westwood, NJ (all in a day's work) and let my GPS do the driving to Music Merchant, which turned out to be an excellent store run by dedicated fans. I scored a beautiful Lee Perry vinyl box and a number of used albums at great prices.
This year I was seriously pressed for time so I plotted a course to the nearest RSD participating store, which turned out to be Harmony Records in the Parkchester section of the Bronx. My daughter and I headed out there in the morning, planning to arrive when they opened at 10:30. It's a good thing we weren't completely on schedule because it turned out to be more like 11-ish when the owner, Glenn Velger, came and rolled up the gate. Harmony has been operating since 1956 and if it's not the oldest record store in NYC still at its original location, I'd like to know what is. The small narrow space is decorated by accretion, like a cave that has been transformed by millennia of drips, floods and geologic events. Dion's fingerprints are probably somewhere under the grime and accumulated stuff.
Quick observation made it clear that Harmony was not stocking any RSD special editions so I didn't even ask. I asked Glenn how long he'd been there and learned that he bought the store from the original owner in the 90's and that they still talk a couple of times a month. Before giving me the lay of the land, Glenn delivered a practiced spiel about how downloading was ruining the music business, the kids today don't want to pay for records, etc. Moving on...

Besides a few new release CD's, most of the stock at Harmony consists of well worn LP's and 45's, with a strong concentration in soul, disco and hip hop. Some of the inventory has come from DJ's liquidating their collections and it shows in the number of promo copies and white labels. Serious crate diggers might find some long-sought items here, but they best have deep pockets - I discovered that the base price for LP's and 12" singles is $14.99, even in rough condition.

It was entertaining to flip through the albums - my daughter was incredulous that anyone would want to dress like Don Johnson on the cover of the Miami Vice soundtrack - but some other would-be patrons weren't so happy when they found out there were no limited editions in stock. One dude, in expensive head-to-toe black, came in with his phone to his ear saying "I'm building the house mainly for my records," and asked for the McCartney single.
He looked like he was sucking a lemon when Glenn said he didn't carry any of those things, after all who wants a bunch of kids lined up to fight over a copy of something and downloading is ruining the music business and the kids don't want to pay for music... Expensive Black was clearly not interested in debating the contradictions inherent in Glenn's rap and repaired to his car - a BMW so new I've never even seen it before (license plate FAB4LP) - to try to track down the Sir Paul 7". Between the car, the house full of records, and the attire, I had to ask him if he was in the music biz. "Used to be," he replied, telling me he was a DJ in California - but that's all he wanted to say.

After the sticker shock, I ended up making a few token purchases in the spirit of the day. I took a chance on George McCrae's 1976 album Diamond Touch, partly because I've always like the TK sound and partly because he looked so sad on the album cover. He might have been depressed because the record wasn't recorded at TK HQ in Miami, home of Rock Your Baby, Rock The Boat, Rocking' Chair (by George's wife Gwen), and a dozen hits by KC & The Sunshine Band. Diamond Touch was instead made in NYC under the supervision of Gregg Diamond, known for taking More More More by former porn star Andrea True to the top of the charts.
Diamond Touch is a gleaming edifice of high disco style that surely got them on the floor at 54 but leaves little space for George's sweet vocal stylings. I'm sure it will spice up a mix tape or two, once I rip it to digital, as will the frankly amazing Disco Mix of the South Shore Commission's Free Man. It's a Tom Moulton Mix of a Bunny Sigler production - need I say more? Finally, Don't Take My My Kindness For Weakness Is a sentiment I can get behind, and I'm always a sucker for Stax, so I threw the single by The Soul Children on the pile.

I'm glad we made the trip as our little adventure took us to a part of NYC I'd never seen before, although I've lived here all my life. While I may never go back to Harmony it's definitely a spot any record store aficionado should visit at least once, although maybe not on Record Store Day.

The Replacements: Daring For Slim


In 1984, about three years after their first record, news of The Replacements rippled out from Minneapolis. Let It Be was their third album and I read enough about it somewhere that I was convinced to buy it sound unheard. The magnificent I Will Dare is the first cut and before it was over I was hooked. Let It Be occupied the turntable for a whole semester, only occasionally replaced by This Is Spinal Tap. In fact, my roommate Andy played Let It Be so much when I went on vacation that the vinyl didn't sound right anymore and he had to get me another copy. We had never heard anything like it - shambolic yet delicate, punk yet pretty, perfectly crafted songs alternating with pure chaos. This was diamond in the rough stuff and there were some heavy carats waiting to be exposed for all the world to hear.

With each new record I was ever more convinced that The Replacements were going to be HUGE, like REM big. That never quite happened - excessive drinking tends to get in the way of world domination. Nevertheless, they released many good records before imploding in 1990. Chief songwriter Paul Westerberg has carried on, as iconoclastic as ever and constantly taking a stand against too much roughness being polished away. One of my favorite things by him was from a few years ago and called 49:00 - 49 minutes of cheap cover songs, balls out rockers and beautiful ballads, all running into and over each other in an aural collage. It's a work of art and he sold it on Amazon for 49 cents for about a month.

In February 2012, Slim Dunlap, the lead guitarist from the band's second phase, suffered a massive stroke that left him in need of round the clock care for the rest of his life. So Westerberg did what you do in rock & roll when a situation like this crops up: you get the band back together (sort of) and raise some money. It's a testament to the legendary status of The Replacements that an eBay auction of the initial release from the Songs For Slim project raised over $100,000 for Slim and his family.

I did my part to drive up the auction bids but couldn't go the distance and ended up buying it from Amazon. Consisting of five songs, the EP is a bit of a hodgepodge and doesn't quite represent a reconciliation of the surviving and active members of the band. Westerberg appears on four of the songs, along with original bassist Tommy Stinson (who's been all over the map, including a time in Guns N' Roses), while drummer Chris Mars ( now a successful painter) only shows up on a solo track, a cover of one of Slim's own songs.

Overall it's never less then a heartfelt affair and there's a lot of fun to be had. The opening cut, a delightful take on Slim's own Busted Up, is the most fully realized and Westerberg sounds in fine form presiding over the louche Bo Diddley beat. He and Stinson also bash through Gordon Lightfoot's I'm Not Sayin', Leon Payne's Lost Highway (made famous by Hank Williams), and Everything's Coming Up Roses from the musical Gypsy. Slim's Radio Hook Word Hit is catchy and streamlined in Mars's hands and, along with Busted Up, has renewed my interest in Slim's solo work.

The love and affection come through loud and clear and one can only imagine how all this sounded to Slim and his family in his time of need. The project is continuing with further auctions and exclusive recordings - get in on it.

Here's Unsatisfied, a stunner from Let It Be, and Busted Up.



Saturday, April 13, 2013

Napoleon's Legion

I first heard the band Napoleon when they played with Mystical Weapons at Santos's Party House earlier this year. I ended up befriending Julian Anderson (vocals, bass) and Julien O'neill (guitar, vocals) and was eager to hear more of their tight, rhythmically sharp and impassioned songs, so when they invited me to their show at Legion Bar I made my way out to a gritty end of Williamsburg last Saturday night. Even though Julian had told me they were going on after 11, I was curious about the four other bands on the lineup so I got out there early.

The back room at Legion is about the size of an average living room and it was completely empty when I arrived, with no sign of any music about to be made. I had a fine time waiting with my drink, especially when the bartender put on Let It Be by The Replacements and just let it play. Eventually, I heard something coming out of the other room and headed back there just in time to catch the last song of Rob Karpay's set. That was all I needed to hear of a guy shouting over pre-programmed tracks from his tiny keyboard. I will say that he has guts, and that can go a long way in rock & roll.

The next band was billed as Jizzmoppers, either the best or worst band name of all time, and my expectations were low. I perked up momentarily when I realized was Julien from Napoleon, further proof that everyone has a side-project. They turned out to have a good (but not slavish) driving psych-power-pop sound and well-crafted songs, holding my interest with growing enthusiasm for the length of their set. One odd note: I wouldn't expect a drummer under these circumstances to be wearing headphones - click track? line-in from the PA? - and it gave them a slightly provisional look. Are we witnessing a rehearsal, sound check or demo session? The rhythm section was locked in, though, with the drummer driving everyone on, so whatever works, I suppose. They would do well to fill out their songs with some harmony vocals on the choruses, but they are otherwise well on their way.
They're actually called Spires
Before Jizzmoppers left the stage, the vocalist muttered something about their manager and said they were actually called Spires - much better! Get a free sample of their sound here, and keep an ear out for more.

Spires broke down their equipment, the next band set up, and suddenly the room was packed. "That's our friend," the guy next to me crowed at his girlfriend, gesturing toward Sam Cooper, who was leading the trio. The first song was like three songs in one, but in a jumbled way that didn't appeal to me. I tried one or two more but the focus improved only slightly and his nasal voice failed to become more charming. Since I had been standing for a while, I cut out back to the barroom where I found a full-blown sweaty dance party in progress. There was more joy in that room for me as there is never a bad time to hear Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough. Sam Cooper must have a good network, though, as I saw a group of folks leaving the back room when his set was over.

Visuals were up next, a twosome of Marshall Ryan (drums/electronics) and Andrew Fox (guitar/vocals). I had checked out their cool song Levitation in advance and was intrigued. They got off to a rocky start, the perils of no sound check evident in their difficulties in getting the balance of instruments right. Things improved when a helpful member of the audience told the drummer to turn up the electronics - if he hadn't, I would have. Things got better once again when the guitarist broke his cheap instrument, which was tuned only in theory, and borrowed a beautiful axe from Napoleon. The last three songs went off without a hitch, giving a clearer impression of their tense post-punk sonic landscape. No shame if Visuals is more suited to the studio for now, and I'd like to hear what emanates next from their quirky world.
Napoleon had to work fast
Visuals vanished and Napoleon began squeezing their five pieces onto the tiny stage. They worked in a hurry, as it was nearly 12:30 and they only had until 1:00am. Nice guys not only finish last, but they also get the shortest set! Napoleon has bigger stages in their future, but they sounded great in the tiny room, whipping off album-opener Sarafan with polish and passion. Their new keyboard player cut a striking figure, even if they're still figuring out where her instrument figures into the expert two-guitar dialog. Five songs, including at least one new one, and they were done - way too short, but I have no doubt that I'll get to see them again. They packed up so fast you would've thought the wolf was actually at the door.
Napoleon gave their all in their short set
I said my goodbyes and began the long trek back to my bed. It was an invigorating night but I was ready for sleep. The blue and silver exes on the back of my hand would remind me in the morning of all I had heard and seen one long night at Legion.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Wire Not Withered

A short while ago, I posted a review of Parquet Courts in concert and called it "Buzz Buzz In Your Eardrum," after the Wire song Eardrum Buzz from 1989. Anyone catch the reference? After all, it was (I just learned) their highest charting single and Wire gets a mention in nearly every Parquet Courts review, mainly thanks to the extremely short songs on each band's debut album. However, even after over 35 years of music and their continuously fascinating travels just under the radar, no one really sounds like Wire.

As with Bowie, Dylan, and other artists with legendary careers, when presented with new output I prefer to deal with the matter at hand and avoid delving too deeply into history and comparisons. Suffice it to say, if Wire had never recovered from the spectacular flameout which followed on the heels of being dropped by EMI after the release of their third album, 154, in 1979, they would still be considered one of the most significant bands of the post-punk era.

But the fact is that they did regroup - twice, first in 1985 and again in 1999 - and now show no signs of slowing down. Even the loss of founding guitarist Bruce Gilbert in 2004 was merely a bump in the road for the band, which now consists of Colin Newman (vocals, guitars, keys), Graham Lewis (bass, vocals, most lyrics), Robert Grey (drums), and Matthew Simms (guitars).

Change Becomes Us is their new record and I snapped up one of the 1,000 copies of the special edition, which comes in a book form including essays by the band and Mike Barnes, as well as photos, lyrics and complete credits. It's a beautiful object, though not excessively precious, and is well-served by the band's overall intelligence and awareness of their process. Though it is not required reading, anyone who loves the sounds on the record will find them enhanced by the words in the book - the first sentence of which forces me to break my rule slightly, as it makes clear that their history is deeply intertwined with this new release.

"The first question any knowledgeable Wire fan might ask about Change Becomes Us is whether it's a new album or a 'project,'" they write, and the short answer is both. Several of the songs arose out of revisiting material that was essentially unfinished (or at least undercooked) when they first broke up in 1979. So in a way, they are completing a circle, but there's a tail on the circle, a way out and forward, like on the letter Q. An appropriate image as Q must be one of their favorite letters, encompassing such words as quirky, questing, questioning, and querulous, all of which can be used to describe Wire.

Other words often used are chilly, disconnected, cerebral, which are certainly apt as well, but some of the songs on Change Becomes Us have me thinking that they are often describing those states rather than necessarily embodying them - which is a long way of saying that there is emotional content on this album and I connect to it. I think it's always been there, but it's just been getting more and more accessible. That's not due to any kind of softening, as they can still spray chords and drill rhythms like few other bands, but more the result of continuous honing and artistic (and possibly personal) growth. Change becomes them, indeed.

Graham Lewis can be an incisive lyricist or a conceptual one, and sometimes both simultaenously as on one of the album's best songs, Re-Invent Your Second Wheel: "Your outer skin it will not peel," he sings, "Give me a hint of how you feel/Please raise your face, put down your shield/Then re-invent your second wheel." It's hard to imagine a more direct plea for rejuvenating a relationship, but then the chorus, sung in a croon both seductive and arch, is, "VBFC HOQP TMNY JUXD/UASU RYLI VBFC HOQP." You'll want to join in even if you didn't know that "The basis of the refrain is still an attempt to use all the letters in the alphabet and make it sound good. I kept the letters because it reminded me of R&B and Tamla Motown, like the Jackson Five's 'ABC'."

Wire are a music critic's dream and I could go on like that ad infinitum. But I won't. Change Becomes Us is just too good a record and I wouldn't want my prattle to stand in the way of the experience. I will simply say that every song perfectly combines craft and refinement with the energy and immediacy of live performance. You'll catch some of the words, but they are worth reading (and look great on the page), and close listening will reveal the immersive depths of the layers of guitars and keyboards. This is as good as rock music gets in 2013 and the fact that it represents only the latest example of Wire's long tradition of excellence is merely a dewdrop on the petal (I could've said "icing on the cake" but Lewis's lyrics inspired me to reach beyond cliché). Wire will be touring the U.S. extensively in July - I will be catching them at Bowery Ballroom on July 16th.