Thursday, April 26, 2018

#RSD2018: Iris Blooms In Jersey City

When it comes to Record Store Day, I’m in it for the music not the promise of eBay resales or collecting some gussied up version of an old favorite just to pin it down like an asphyxiated butterfly. This is why I’m at least as excited about the used CD I tracked down this past Saturday during my observation of the 11th annual celebration of record store culture. 

Yes, I’ve heard all the complaints and read all the amusing think pieces (“The 10 Most Reprehensible People You’ll Meet On Record Store Day,” etc.), but for me it’s an opportunity to use the calendar to force me off my beaten path and check out a new spot. This year was similar to 2013, in that I had a few other hard-scheduled things I had to do, one of which involved using my car, which is why I ended up going out to Iris Records in Jersey City, which has been around off and on for about 20 years. 

I confess that I was also influenced by their canny Facebook advertising, which kept their existence front of mind for the last few months and also informed me that they would be opening at noon, just like any other Saturday. This would fit perfectly with my errand to Bay Ridge, even if it meant spending enough on tolls to fill a couple of potholes! Iris is run by Stephen Gritzen, with whom I have been acquainted for at least a couple of decades through our mutual friend, nightlife photographer extraordinaire, Catherine McGann. Steve is a such a stand-up guy that about 10 years ago when I mentioned to Cathy that I was desperate to find a copy of Basement 5 In Dub, he found it in his crates and had her pass it on at no charge. So, my visit would also be a chance to thank him in person for completing my collection of one of the most misunderstood bands of the 80’s. 
Lining Up For Goodies
I arrived a few minutes before noon and got on a line with about 30 other people. Besides the fact that I was adjacent to three smokers (including a cigar - yuck!), it was a congenial crowd, including at least a few people making Iris their second stop for RSD. I kept an ear out to hear what other people were looking for so I could help them if I spotted it first. Eventually the line started moving and I could see that Steve had two tables set up on the sidewalk with crates full of this year’s exclusive releases. I had already read though lists of what was coming out this year and had my antenna up for a couple of things. Due to budgetary concerns, it was important for me to stay focused and not get distracted by shiny objects that might not provide the musical satisfaction I needed. 

By the end of my perusal of the outdoor crates I had a small stack of items to sort through, including two items on my must-have list, Un Esercito Di 5 Uomini, one of three Ennio Morricone soundtracks out this year, and An Evening With Ornette Coleman Vol. 2. There was also an album of Laraaji remixes by the likes of Ras G, Dntl and others, a seminal punk album by The Lurkers recommended by Billboard’s Ron Hart, and a record of Mozart sonatas played by Florian Fricke of krautrock legends Popol Vuh. I decided to take a look around the rest of Iris before making my final cut. 

Located in an old apothecary shop, Iris has loads of atmosphere and plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, with almost an equal amount of used and new LP’s plus a solid supply of 45’s and CD’s. There are  also some videos, books and memorabilia scattered about and the back counter has been converted into a DJ booth. I flipped through quite a few sections and found things to be fairly priced and often in excellent condition. New arrivals are conveniently segregated and there are also bins of budget vinyl where you can take your chance on a ragged obscurity or two. 
Digging In The Crates
As far as I remember, all CD’s are $4, which is more than fair and led me to take a cursory look through what Steve had. Bingo - a copy of The Moon Looked Down And Laughed, the second (and last) album by Virgin Prunes, which came out in 1986 and was hard to find in the U.S. even then. As I am a huge fan of theirs and lead singer Gavin Friday, this was a real thrill. The Moon... is a gorgeously gloomy (and occasionally wayward) album that can be seen as the missing link between Friday’s art-goth provocations and the brilliant song craft and interpretive genius of his solo career, which started three years later with Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves. I now see that Mute Records did a whole Virgin Prunes reissue campaign in 2004 that I somehow missed - I'll have to get the rest!

Now it was time to decide and pay before my hunger for lunch interfered with my judgement. It turned out not to be all that difficult. The Fricke album was a beautiful package but in the end it was Mozart and that’s just not a priority for me right now. Since I wasn’t familiar with all the remixers, I worried that the Laraaji album could end up being hit and miss. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some or all of it on Spotify at some point. At that point, it was easy to relinquish The Lurkers to keep my costs down while sticking to my original Morricone and Coleman plans. I consider myself lucky to find two exclusives, which is more than I usually get on RSD. 

Now that I’ve had a chance to listen, I’m even happier with my decision. Un Esercito Di 5 Uomini (Five Man Army) is quintessential Morricone, with all the rich melancholy and unusual contrasts that implies. Side Two is particularly staggering and this reissue replicates the Italian cover perfectly while using translucent blue vinyl for extra pizzaz. The Ornette Coleman, recorded live in 1965 and briefly issued 10 years later, features a lineup that was unfamiliar to me, with David Izenzon on bass and the great Charles Moffett on drums. Coleman himself plays more violin and trumpet than usual, almost making it sound like a quintet. Side One is dense and filled with raging fury, while Side Two is spacious and filled with the joyful melody-making that is one of his greatest characteristics, especially on the song called Happy Fool. Lots to unpack and the clear vinyl was a nice touch. 
My RSD Finds
I enjoyed my visit to Iris and even had a chance to thank Steve for the Basement 5 EP. I plan to make a return visit soon and also wouldn’t mind going back to Skinner’s Loft, where I had a fine lunch. On my way there I saw a freshly coiffed rock & roll dude in a leopard print jacket come out of a hair salon, towing a guitar and amp on a luggage cart. Next thing I know, he’s playing classic rock covers in the middle of Newark Street, where a block party was taking place. Apparently he’s a regular fixture known for his Bowie covers. Maybe I’ll see him again on my next trip to Jersey City. 

Coda:  On my way back to the car, I noticed that the hair salon also sold records so I thought “why not” and went in. After flipping a bit I realized that Iris was supplying these records, too! I found a pristine copy of Be Bop Deluxe’s The Best Of And The Rest Of, which has never been reissued and has a few tracks not found elsewhere. Call me an axe victim, but I like Bill Nelson in most of his incarnations so I picked that up, too. It was that kind of day. 

If you went out on RSD, how did you fare?

Thursday, April 19, 2018

In Praise Of Classic Rock Retirement

It’s now become a thing, aging icons like Elton John, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon, Rush and Joan Baez announcing their retirement from touring or even renouncing their careers entirely. While they may cite different reasons, from Parkinson’s disease to young children at home, it all adds up to one of the biggest sea changes in the landscape of popular music since The Beatles broke up. 

Cue the hand-wringing: "It's extremely worrisome,” agent Marcia Vlasic told Rolling Stone, echoing the thoughts of several others in her field. “Once these artists really do retire, who will be the replacements?" 

Ron Delsener, who has been promoting concerts since the 60's and is now Live Nation’s New York Chairman, takes a more sanguine view: “We'll always have superstars,” he says in the same article, "Justin Timberlake and the National, they're the new guys coming up—they'll be the new U2 or the new whatever." Hope for a big-ticket arena-filling future also comes in the form of the usual Top 40 suspects: Taylor Swift, BeyoncĂ©, Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Lorde, etc. 

Except some of those acts are already proving soft at the box office. Taylor Swift, for one, riding the last gasp of poptimism and also pricing out her family audience; Lorde, for another, likely due to being more of a niche artist than initially suspected. 

So from a purely business angle, I can see reasonable arguments for both hope and despair. But from an artistic, soul-nourishing perspective, when it comes to classic rock retirements, I say: Bring it on!

By staying on the road so long and driving up prices far beyond inflation, these legendary acts selling the warm milk of nostalgia have turned concert-going into a sometime thing, a once-a-year special occasion, just at the time when musicians are coping with seismic changes that have forced them to secure most of their lifeblood from concert revenue. All the greatest-hits shows and complete-album residencies are cutting our younger artists off at the knees, which is where the true danger to the music itself lies. 

I see a couple of dozen concerts a year, with an average ticket price of $12, not only supporting local and touring artists near the start of the career, but also experiencing the intimate and spontaneous magic that may have led you to popular music in the first place. Sure, some of the bands I follow may lie at the more musically obtuse side of the equation, but plenty of others provide the sweet satisfaction of rock & roll at its best or deliver on the promise of the singer-songwriter model better than any arena-level star today. 

You have to ask yourself: Whose compass are you following? Are you following the received wisdom of radio stations with extremely limited playlists and just going with what’s comfortable and familiar? Or are you willing to put in a little bit of effort (and even less cash) to give something new a try and give a shot in the arm to young artists who were likely at least partly inspired by those hoary dinosaurs still roaming the arenas?

If you’re still reading, you may be wondering how you might go about getting out of the rut that has kept the concert business in a false state of security for far too long. You also want to avoid the path some of my bereft friends have followed, which is to turn to the increasing array of tribute bands. Even if some are astonishingly competent that’s still an investment in the past. 

So, here are some practical steps you can take - and ones that don’t involve my shoving my own taste down your throat. If you want to get an idea what I like, check out my Best Of lists from the last few years or follow my Of Note In 2018 playlists, all of which are linked below. 

  1. Download the following apps: Songkick, Bandsintown and Fans. Create accounts, turn on location sharing, and let them scan your music collection, whether on Spotify, Apple Music or any number of services. You can use these sites on a desktop as well but they really shine on a smartphone.
  2. Use the apps to see who’s playing closest to you in the near future. None of the artists you’re tracking may be on tour, but you can let the algorithm suggest things you might like. Bandsintown makes this easy with a slider on the Events tab that goes from “All Artists” to “Recommended” to “Tracking.” If you put it to Recommended, you will get an alphabetically arranged cloud of names with the artists you’re tracking in bold type and the rest in a lighter color. Songkick also has a Recommended tab where they explain the origin of the suggestion, i.e. “Tracked by people who track artist X,” which can give you an idea of what type of music it may be. Depending on where you live, you may also want to adjust the radius of your search to the maximum distance you’re willing to drive to see a show. 
  3. Start clicking some names. If a date and location seem feasible, use your preferred service (Spotify, YouTube, etc. - there’s also a lot of free listening on Bandcamp) to investigate the relevant music. If you subscribe to Apple Music, Bandsintown will let you click right through to some songs. If you like what you hear, buy tickets immediately (commitment!) and put it on your calendar. Invite an adventurous friend or two if that’s how you want to roll. 
  4. Go to the show. If it’s good, share about it on whatever social networks you use, inducing FOMO throughout your network. Also, say hi to the band - they may be at the merch table, which is certainly not going to happen at an arena concert. And buy something! Even a $1 pin or sticker will help them out. 
  5. Make sure to track your new favorite artist. Was the opening act good? Track them, too. That way you'll know when they're coming back while also giving the algorithm more information for new recommendations. Lather, rinse, repeat! After a few good experiences, you'll be completely disinterested when yet another Hall Of Fame act goes on their umpteenth retirement tour. You'll be living in the now.
The benefits to giving this a try are enormous, both for young artists and for your own listening life. The worst that can happen is that a band gets huge and you find yourself priced out (or sold out) of their next concert. But then you’ll be able to say you knew them when, which is always fun. Let me know how it goes!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Record Roundup: Hip Hop Hors d’Oeuvres

It’s just past the first quarter of 2018 and it feels like hip hop is in a fragmented place, with tons of variety but a lack of centralized power. It makes perfect sense that one of the most important albums in the genre this year, namely Black Panther: The Album, overseen by the mighty Kendrick Lamar, is a various-artists collection. But that just means that our table is set with a kaleidoscopic array of tasty bites. Here are some others that have me going back for seconds. 

Invasion Of Privacy - Cardi B. I have no problem admitting I was wrong when I called Cardi B. a flash in the pan. I thought the phenomenon of Bodak Yellow would lead to an over-wrought, overlong mess, a naked attempt for streaming dominance with no concern for musical quality (it’s happened before, right Fetty?). Instead what we have here is a concise, heat-seeking album that mostly shows her surprising versatility while not straying too far from her strengths. The opening cut, Get Up 10 is a perfect origin story with a brittle beat that’s supremely catchy. Next, she holds her own with Migos on Drip, injecting some welcome color into their trademark sound. Be Careful is another highlight, marrying her tough rhymes to a slinky groove that finds her comfortable enough to sing a little. 

Chance The Rapper threatens to take over Best Life with his sheer skill and exuberance but Cardi claws back her territory. Whether or not they were actually in the studio together, they make a great team, with his natural sunniness contrasting with her biting flow. I Like It adds some trap to familiar boogaloo for a killer party cut with a great guest spot from Bad Bunny, rapping in Spanish. This is the only explicit, if glancing, nod to part of her heritage (her father is Dominican, her mother is from Trinidad) but her inflections will be familiar to anyone who as spent time in one of NYC’s diverse neighborhoods. 

Further collaborations with Kehlani, YG and SZA could have led to an overload but they all feel in support of her rather than an attempt at propping up a limited talent. Besides the fact that Money Bag is a retread, my only real complaint about this impressive debut is including Bodak Yellow and Bartier Cardi, both old songs with multi-millions of streams, which smacks of either laziness or music-biz chicanery. It interrupts the listening experience to have these overly familiar singles in the track list. Take’em out and you still have a 40 minute album that makes this outsized personality the unlikely queen of hip hop. Well done. 

Fuerza Arara - Telmary If Cardi B. has a true affinity for Hispanic rap, she should invite this Cuban legend on her next project. Telmary Diaz has been pursuing her vision of Latin hip hop since the 90’s and shows no sign of losing her flair or intensity on this album. The grooves, drawing on a wealth of Afro-Caribbean and Yoruban flavors, are rich and beautifully produced, with the tuba-driven Como se Pone la Habana and the reggaefied Ibeyis being standouts. But really, the only knock on Fuerza Arara’ is that, at just over 30 minutes, it’s way too short. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a perfect place to start, however, and I envy you the journey through her past. Read up on some other exciting things happening in Cuban hip hip in this in-depth article from Topic.

Fever - Black Milk This Detroit-based producer and rapper, born Curtis Eugene Cross, has also been honing his craft for a while, gaining most of his reputation as a top-flight J Dilla disciple behind the boards. Through his own albums and many collaborations he’s continued to develop his rapping to the point where he’s now a true double-threat. Besides his conversational flow one thing that distinguishes him is his focus on storytelling and descriptions of an emotional landscape with a refreshing lack of braggadocio. Standout track Laugh Now, Cry Later (an inversion of Grace Jones’ advice) is a great place to start, but there’s not a bad track here. “They told me keep it pure, caught up in the allure, but, see, that’s not what I was looking for, wasn’t sure, I wanted more,” Black Milk raps on True Lies and throughout Fever he demonstrates the allure of keeping it pure. Catch it -and check him out live in the studio at New Sounds

The Brown Tape - Ghostface Killah & Apollo Brown One of the minor tragedies of our sensationalist moment is that Martin Shkreli’s adventure with that million-dollar Wu-Tang Clan album got way more attention than Ghostface’s last album. Sour Soul, from 2015, was an album length collaboration with Toronto-based jazz insurrectionaries Bad Bad Not Good - and it sounded like a million bucks, landing on my Top 20 for that year. Now that Shkreli is behind bars I hope people don’t make the same mistake and miss out on this latest from the greatest living Wu Tang rapper. The album is named after producer Brown, another luminary straight outta Michigan, like Black Milk, but might also refer to the thick, crackle-infused beats he’s cooked up here. It’s almost as if Ghostface challenged him to use the most unplayable vinyl in his crates to build the tracks. However it went down, it sounds fantastic. 

The Killah himself is in fine form, whether spitting furiously on Blood On The Cobblestones or waxing autobiographical on Rise Of The Ghostface Killah, which features his Clan brother RZA, who was probably looking greedily at Brown’s vinyl while recording his bars. Like Sour Soul, The Brown Tape is a short, sharp and shocking reminder of the strengths of one of the most venerable rappers still in the game, as well as a calling card for Brown’s grimy production skills. Don’t let pharma-bro Shkreli hog the spotlight again. 

Golden Chariots - Joey Gallo, Cole Hicks and J Clyde Full disclosure: Producer J Clyde is one of my fellow writers for Off Your Radar, the weekly newsletter covering forgotten or overlooked albums. But it's through that relationship that I've come to admire his deep musical knowledge, and not just about hip hop, but all things sonic. While I've checked out and enjoyed some of his own stuff in the past, this collaboration with two Virginia-based rappers has a new sense of assurance and command. His use of samples is always on point and the rhythms are funky and unpretentious. Gallo has the smooth flow of a veteran and Cole (short for Nicole) contrasts nicely whether rapping or singing. This EP is a great introduction to three talents - hope to hear more soon. 

Catch up with everything I’m tracking in this realm with this playlist: Of Note In 2018 (Hip Hop, R&B, and Reggae). What morsels am I missing?

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Friday, April 06, 2018

Jonathan Wilson Takes Flight

The last time I saw Jonathan Wilson he was hundreds of feet away from me, across the Barclay’s Center, playing the role of the “Resident Hippie” in Roger Waters’s band on a night of his excellent Us + Them tour. Now, he was close enough to touch on the stage of Music Hall Of Williamsburg, leading his own band in a rendition of Trafalgar Square, the lead track from his new album, Rare Birds. Mere seconds into the mini-epic, the blowing snow and howling winds outside felt like a distant memory, as did the Pink Floyd jukebox in which he so expertly participated last November. Well, not entirely, as there’s a touch of Floyd in Wilson’s new music, along with bits of Beatles, country rock, Avalon-era Roxy Music and even New Age textures. But it’s all turned to his own ends in what is his most personal and original collection to date.
Dan Horne, Wilson, Josh Adams and Jason Roberts
His all-new band could not have been more perfect both visually and musically. There was Dan Horne, the bassist, a refugee from The Stooges in denim and a graphic Tee, holding down the bottom with weighty finesse. Jason Roberts, the guitarist, stylish in a buttoned-up jacket, doing the George Harrison shuffle as he levitated the room with his precise and passionate lead and rhythm work. The drummer, Josh Adams, was equally at home in spirited dialogue with Wilson in an explosive version of Dear Friend from the last album, or keeping metronomic time on a drum pad for Over The Midnight from the new one. Brooding and bearded, keyboard player Peter Remm added sweep and scope with synthetic sounds or more naturalistic organ and piano. All of them were brave even to audition for this gig as Wilson can play circles around most professionals on all of their chosen instruments. The fact that they made it is further testament to their prowess.

Roberts sharing a moment with Peter Remm
At the center of it all was Wilson himself, who owned the room whether on guitar or piano, his confident presence a world away from the first time I saw him on an even smaller stage, the Mercury Lounge, back in 2012. A contributing factor to his increased assurance may be his voice, which has become more flexible and expressive since the slightly tentative vocals on 2011’s Gentle Spirit. That his songwriting has also grown was illustrated when he swung into Desert Raven from that album, so satisfying with that twin-lead riff, but also checking the “classic rock” boxes with high fidelity. New songs like Me or Sunset Blvd mix things up in ways that take more chances, confusing some of his fans who reject his turn toward a more richly textured sonic palette, with swaths of electronics and tracks deeply stacked with collage-like touches that only an intuitive genius would even think to add. 

Laraaji and Wilson entering a new age
One brilliant leap he makes on Rare Birds is the aforementioned embrace of new age textures and attitudes, picking up threads from collections like Light In The Attic’s I Am The Center and (The Microcosm), along with reissues of albums by StairwayAlice Coltrane and Laraaji. The latter is one of the most prominent guests on the album, lending his warm yet rough-hewn vocals and hypnotic zither to Loving You. Laraaji was a special guest at MHOW, too, and one of the reasons I trekked out in the nor’easter to see the show, having missed the last time they performed together in 2014. He took the stage almost as if he were on his way somewhere else - and maybe he was - wearing an orange jumpsuit and carrying a matching shoulder bag along with his zither. Taking a seat at stage right, he and Wilson exchanged a brief glance before starting the song.

Laraaji’s calm, centered presence lent a sense of occasion to the performance and harmonized with the loopy Eighties-digital ashram feeling of the rear-screen projections perhaps better than anything else. As mesmerized as I was by Laraaji, I was also left baffled by an electronic instrument Roberts played on Loving You, a small board with a zigzag of caution tape on the side facing us. I imagine the other side had some kind of touchpad, as he was using his thumbs to cause a wondrous array of squirrelly and squelchy sounds to emit from his amp. He never let us see that side, however, and was careful to carry the thing offstage with him at the end of the night. On his set list he notated “T” or “J” for the Fender Telecaster Deluxe or Jazzmaster guitars he used on most songs; for Loving You it was just an inscrutable “I.” Feel free to weigh in if you know what the heck that thing was!

Roberts with the mystery instrument
 In the case of the title track from Rare Birds, however, the concert rendition was like an X-Ray of the song, with Roberts breaking down the multiple guitar parts into a series of statements, using a multitude of pedals with precision to create the necessary sounds, from pretty, chorused strumming to ripping, distorted lead lines. It was his (and, presumably Wilson’s) ingenuity that solved the guitar part, but it was his wicked joy in playing it that gave it life. When I listen to the song now, one of my pleasures is peeling part the mix in my mind to appreciate those guitar parts again. 

Roberts, playing all his parts with precision (on a Jazzmaster)
Wilson has always been unafraid to go to some odd places lyrically, putting over lines like “Wait, can we really party today?” with a glazed sincerity that makes them work. On Rare Birds, maybe due to the influence of longtime collaborator Father John Misty, he takes even more chances than usual, with varying results. 49 Hairflips, for example, runs the gamut from the bonkers to the sublime. The opening lines had me questioning my sanity slightly and certainly qualify as the weirdest Bob Marley reference ever: “We were burning, we were looting, we were learning one or two things about life/We should fuck right in front of them, just to show them our light/We’ll be fucking, we’ll be sucking, while the rest of them are posting their lives/Ah, these kids will never rock again/Sign of the times.” Er, ok. The chorus is equally wacky: “49 hairflips! 49 hairflips on DayQuil” - say what, now? But then he gets to this devastating couplet: “I’m not leaving these walls without the prettiest song I can find/Miss your laugh most of all, really miss it tonight.” 

His delivery makes it go down easy, though, and turns the opening lines of Sunset Blvd into a true tour de force: “There’s a cherry on top tonight/For men who look like Jesus tonight/If you play your cards right/You can be the son of god, tonight.” The way he swallows the last repetition of the word “tonight” tells an entire story in novelistic detail through sheer emotion. Moments like that make it very easy to forgive any poetic infelicities that may crop up. And when he's direct and to the point, as on the ecstatic There Is A Light, the results are truly glorious. Having Lucius sing backing vocals on the album version doesn't hurt, either!

In any case, Wilson has always been about the full package of composing, playing, and production and on Rare Birds he has advanced by leaps and bounds across all metrics, delivering that elusive thrill of hearing an artist not only meet their potential but exceed it by a wide margin. And onstage at MHOW last month he proved that he could be generous enough to share his expanded vision with the other musicians and the audience to deliver a storming and dynamic show that defines what a rock concert can be in 2018. Miss him at your own risk.
Snapshots of The Shacks
Up-and-coming New York band The Shacks opened the show, presenting a polished set of their 60’s-psych and 70’s-R&B infused songs. The main drivers of their sound are Shannon Wise’s wispy, yet rhythmically acute vocals and Max Shrager’s sharp guitar, which can veer from psych solos to Nile Rodgers rhythms. They reminded me a little of The Clientele in their single-mindedness and there was a touch of Saint Etienne in the canny critique embedded in their pop art. If I didn’t hear that one killer song yet, there are more tunes to choose from on their debut album, Haze, which just came out. Between Wise’s star power (she was already in an Apple ad) and their assured sound, however, I would say they are well on their way. 

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