The Drive-By Truckers “English Oceans” ATO Records
I’ve been reading a lot about habits recently. How to develop new ones and change old ones into better ones. All of the conventional wisdom shows that you start small. Really small, then you build up in miniature increments over the course of a reasonable amount of time, then “voila!” You’ve got yourself a lifestyle that is built on bedrock, not shifting sands. Folks, the Drive-By Truckers live a lifestyle of rocking. No matter what. Lineup changes seem to be the most likely stumbles, but they’ve dealt with others. Crew members have passed on, gear has been stolen, and families have formed and maybe fallen apart. Through it all, this gang keeps on doing it. Well. English Oceans is just the latest example. I’ve heard it described as “a return to form.” Return from what? The habit is established. These boys have The Rock in their veins, and it’s been there for a while. I don’t think it’s going away.
The most obvious difference between English Oceans and former DBT works is that Mike Cooley contributes about half of the material on this one. And I’ll allow that Cooley may have been due a “return to form,” perhaps. I liked his tunes on Go-Go Boots, but they seemed to follow a formula almost, and none of them ranked on my extensive list of all-time Cooley favorites. But “Shit Shots Count” does. It starts Oceans off in fine Rock and Roll form with some Exile On Main Street-type production from Dave Barbe. And horns. Horns which were arranged by Jay Gonzalez according to the liners. Jay’s gone from handling keyboards to handling keyboards and more with the departure of John Neff. He’s slicker than owl dung no matter what instrument you put in his hand, apparently. He seems to achieve new levels of band integration with every release or era, and I think the Truckers are better off for it. The harmonies work, the horns rock, the keys are fluid and floaty and fun, and the solos are in line with the others. It goes without saying that Patterson Hood is present and accounted for too. I imagine he’s having a party looking back at what his baby has become. And forward towards the future. At this point, the Truckers have learned from legends like Spooner Oldham and Booker T. Jones. They’ve shared the stage with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. And they’ve done it their way from the starting line. Hood’s heart-rending tribute to Craig Lieske, “Grand Canyon,” bookends Oceans with Cooley’s rocker, and I can’t imagine a thing more fitting. Through it all, Barbe knows just which knobs to turn and which to leave off. The sludgy rockers play nice with the brighter acoustic based tunes, and the whole picture moves freely without fear or regret. That, as they say, is Rock and Roll.
I had to make a screaming run to my local retailer to pick up the “bootleg version” of this release after procuring my standard copy. They made 750 of the former, pressed them on blue vinyl, and didn’t do too much to get the word out. The standard version is also a three-sided affair, but is pressed on black heavy wax, housed in a gorgeous gatefold featuring Wes Freed’s artwork, includes a download coupon and copious liners. This is a lean line-up with a ton of muscle and a soft touch around the rim. And this one’s a slam.
The Beastie Boys “The Mix-Up” Capitol Records
I’d been blissfully cruising along through life thinking that I had every official Beastie Boys full-length release on vinyl. But I’d forgotten about The Mix-Up. Which is especially strange because the only time I saw the Beasties live was when they were touring in support of this album. Luckily, it’s still readily available seven long years after its initial release. In case you’d forgotten too, this one’s all made up of instrumentals. You may be thinking they’d done this already with The In Sound From Way Out! but you’d be mistaken as that was actually a compilation of older Beastie tunes sans vocals. The Mix-Up is a different animal altogether. And it’s groovy, baby. Far out. Way out!
I rarely get too worked up when a celebrity passes away. I think it’s challenging for friends and families when anyone transitions, whether they’re famous or not. But I felt like someone had kicked me in the gut when I heard the news about MCA. That one seemed unfair to me. I kept thinking about the man’s evolution and of the contributions he’d made to our world. I thought about the (really young) man he was when I used to hole up in my bedroom blasting Licensed To Ill and pretending to be MCA. Always MCA. I thought he had the best rhymes and the coolest voice. I still think he had the coolest voice. I think about his development from a beer swilling party boy into a card carrying Buddhist warrior who refused to allow food into his home for fear of having to kill an insect if he did. One thing that I’d not thought much about, however, was his abilities as a bassist and composer of songs. Real, live songs. His playing isn’t going to blow anyone out of the water in an Oteil Burbridge manner of speaking. The Mix-Up tunes are made for head bobbing. They’re perfect in almost any setting. Car time is especially valuable when you have access to these recordings. But there aren’t many record players in cars, and my digital version of this album doesn’t do any real justice to the recordings. The warmth is in the wax. This is by no means an audiophile recording or presentation, but it deserves more than a “1” or a “0” to carry its information. This isn’t Jam Band territory, but the jammers can do their “Get That Off Me” dance as readily to this as they can anything else, I’d say. The songs have an improvisational bent, but that’s tempered by the idea that they don’t seem to aspire towards overblown crescendos or musical “journeys.” Or whatever. These are fun little songs with some interesting textures and overall solid playing. Mike D, as it turns out, is indeed a Funky Drummer. Adrock’s guitar playing is serviceable for the songs. There aren’t any mind blowing solos. None of the proverbial “flights of fancy” that often make things so tedious for those of us that have achieved a certain age. Money Mark fleshes things out with some keyboard work that actually is quite accomplished while honorary Beastie Alfredo Ortiz handles the percussive bits that fall outside the kit’s parameters. Add it all up, and you’ve got yourself a go-to disc for when everything else fails to get you going. Glad I circled back for this one.
This single heavy record is a little noisy in spots. The pressing is not all that it could be. The artwork is cool, shows a bunch of analog recording equipment and instrumental effects. No digital copy is included. If you like unobtrusive, funky, fun music, I say get it. If you don’t, I can’t imagine why not.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
John Coltrane “Blue Train” Music Matters/Blue Note
A while back, we took a look at a few different Jazz reissues by various companies, and we looked for differences and similarities in timbre, tone, clarity, three dimensionality, and on and on like this. As luck would have it, or as a result of my poor planning, we actually have a couple of different titles for side by side comparisons this month. We can start with what I consider one of the best ever, John Coltrane’s Blue Train. You can’t really have a best ever Jazz record, the arena is too vast, but you can certainly have a Mount Rushmore of Jazz, and Coltrane would be represented on its face by his photo on the Blue Train cover. How much better can it get? This was his only Blue Note title, and he made it count. Years ago, I wrote down some thoughts of Classic Records’ take on this jewel. I didn’t know what I had to look forward to from the folks at Music Matters. Basically, I’ve never heard anything like it.
Recently, I noticed some online forums wherein folks complained about their noisy Classic Records titles. If I have that problem, I’m too dumb to notice. Granted, I’m pretty fastidious when it comes to cleaning my records before plays. Some would say “compulsive.” I say, “I’m doing what is required to hear these recordings with as little between me and them as I can.” Anyway, my Classic Records version of Blue Train is not noisy. It’s fine. It’s really, really good, in fact. I thought it was great, but now I know what a great version of Blue Train actually sounds like. It sounds like the Music Matters version. It’s insane. I’m hearing textures and tones for the first time. I hear what sounds like the players’ lips vibrating on their reeds. Curtis Fuller’s trombone is like a Slip ‘n Slide. It’s as much fun as a trombone should be. The trombone is kind of a smartass instrument anyway, and you get the full effect on the Music Matters take. Physically, the most obvious difference between the two discs is that Classic’s weighs 20 grams more than MM’s. I take that back. The most obvious physical difference is probably that MM’s is housed in a gatefold with additional photos. And the photos, especially the iconic front cover, are so much clearer on the Music Matters take that you’d think they were stolen from a museum. Really, it makes the Classic Records version look like it was printed on comic book paper. But the really important info is carried in the grooves, and my Music Matters version, in addition to being clearer and more life-like, is noticeably quieter. Their website describes the company’s logic behind using 180 gram versus 200 gram platters. The more intrepid amongst us can certainly find that info, if needed. I’m fine with having forgotten why. My ears tell me that the 180 gram version is superior. I’m not saying that the relationship is causal, I’m just saying that you can definitely make a superior audiophile Jazz record without benefit of the extra weight. It’s been done.
There’s no need to comment on the quality of the songs on Blue Train, right? We all know what happens when you drop the needle on this one. Folks get happy. Now, do what’s right and pick up the Music Matters version so that you can really hear it. This is a limited run in celebration of Blue Note’s 75th Anniversary so they pressed it on a single disc at 33 rpm rather than MM’s usual 45 rpm as a nod to the original. I can’t imagine that this record has ever sounded more present and accounted for. It’s a monster. And there are more titles in this series…
(This record was lovingly purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
Miles Davis “‘Round About Midnight” Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
Speaking of Mount Rushmore, I’m sure we can all agree that Miles Davis would occupy George Washington’s space in this theoretical hallucination. I mean, none of us are fools. But if we’re taking the musicians’ images from their album covers as a model for the mountain, then I have no idea which picture of Miles we’re going to utilize. The obvious choice would be Kind of Blue Miles. We’d probably be obligated to go with that one, in fact. But I’d take a good long look at ‘Round About Midnight Miles too. To me, Midnight sounds like Birth of the Cool should have based on that record’s title. By that, I mean that ‘Round About Midnight sounds exactly like what must have given birth to coolness, in general. Many moons ago, we took a look at Midnight as done by Speakers Corner. I don’t ever hear much about that label, but I love what they do. And, of course, I find Mobile Fidelity to be almost unimpeachable. So I got happy when I saw that they were going to take Midnight on as well. It’s one of a few Miles titles that they’ve released recently. And this one sounds about like what you would expect. That is to say… cool.
But I’m not sure that I prefer it to the Speakers Corner version. This feels like blasphemy issuing forth from my fingertips, into this machine, and out to the good readers of this website’s content. (You’d be surprised how much talk I hear about “content” walking around this town. Folks love it. Always want more, and on and on.) The astute observer might see that I gave myself an “out” in the preceding paragraph. I said MoFi is “almost” unimpeachable. I had to because of their take on REM’s Life’s Rich Pageant. I felt like they kind of neutered that one. The original was so much tougher and more rocking. Their version of Miles’ Midnight still has lots happening in the crotch, but the Speakers Corner take has a little more grit. It sounds a little more open and aggressive. This is totally a matter of personal preference. I mean, everything we look at here is, but this seems especially so because there’s absolutely nothing to complain about on the MoFi version. It’s as velvety and smooth as you’d expect. Super warm with at least three crisp, clear dimensions to lounge around in. And it’s quiet in all the right places. Still, the Speakers Corner record sounds closer to what I imagine this recording sounded like to listeners on March 18, 1957. Except the quality of the vinyl is better which is often what I think makes the difference between a mint condition original and a new reissue geared towards audiophiles. (Neil Young made the delineation in a recent speech he gave about his new Pono digital music player. He mentioned that us listeners have been robbed by MP3s, CDs, and “poorly made vinyl.” Or something along those lines. And he’s right…) poorly made vinyl is a drag, and a lot of my old records look great and sound not as great. This MoFi version of ‘Round About Midnight sounds really great. And so does the Speakers Corner version. I know I’m not speaking as technically as I perhaps should be, but I think it comes down to a simple set of criteria if you’re torn between replacing your Speakers Corner version with the newer MoFi version: if you like to get a little mud between your toes on occasion, I say go with the Speakers Corner. If cleanliness is your deal, go MoFi.
Speakers Corner leaves the original packaging intact too. That means you get the traditional Columbia Records “6-eye” logo on the center sticker rather than MoFi’s branding which is also all over the front cover, as usual. Further, my MoFi disc was a little dirtier than I’m used to out of the wrapper, but those folks make the best record cleaning solutions that I’ve ever found so I took care of that right away. Make sure you’re not getting robbed and that you have a good copy of this recording in your collection from somewhere. Miles didn’t wind up on that mountain’s face for no reason…
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings “Give the People What They Want” Daptone Records
I hate hearing about someone getting the cancer. Especially someone who is from my hometown. Especially someone from my hometown that makes her living traveling the world, spreading joy everywhere she goes, and rocking like she’s lived only half of the 57 years that her birth certificate indicates. But Sharon Jones is back. She won. I’d not bet against her from this point forward. I don’t know much about her as far as how she linked up with her band and all that. But I know that Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are making Real Life Rhythm and Blues music, boys. In 2014. We’re fortunate to be here to witness it. Or “hear” to witness it. They’re latest is called, appropriately, Give the People What They Want, and it had been in the can since before she announced her pending fight. Now that the fight is past, she’s back to giving it to us. Early and often. Fast and furious. Fierce and funkified. You get the picture.
Do you like the old time Soul music? If so, you love Sharon Jones. You’d have no choice. The Dap-Kings are tighter than a mouse’s ear, and she’s a frigging spark plug of energy and light. Give the People is not quite as high energy as some previous efforts, but it gives the band room to lie out. The horns are sneakier, the backing less busy. The bass more in the image and likeness of the fabled serpent that caused us humans so much havoc in the beginning. And I think that’s wonderful. I noticed something similar on Janelle Monae’s last record. Maybe it’s a coincidence. Or maybe modern Soul is sinking a little deeper into the Pocket. Regardless, songs like “You’ll Be Lonely” were made for performing at the Apollo. I think you can still do that. If I’m right, I hope Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings already have. And that they will again. As I understand it, Dap-King Bosco Mann produces these records. (I wonder if that’s his real name. Lord, I hope.) And I love the way he does it. He’s alleged to have spent more time positioning musicians than microphones. This makes perfect sense to me. If a trumpet is coming in too hot, ask the player to take a step back. Beats the hell out of moving a mic, then having to move all of the other ones. And these recordings bleed. They’re alive with the sounds of humans in a room making music together which is one of the only things in the world that I think matters. Now, get this: Give the People What They Want was produced for vinyl in two formats. There’s a stereo mix and a mono mix, and I, as a matter of course, went with the latter. So, all of that retro cool is even cooler than it could have been. The mono run was of the limited edition variety, the stereo should be around a while. Completists will want both. I am not one of those. Not in this instance.
Unfortunately, this may be what Neil Young was referring to when he mentioned that “poorly made vinyl.” It’s not, really, but he’d probably tell you otherwise. I mean, it’s not as bad as it could be, it’s not embarrassing. But it’s not audiophile either. Bosco Mann might think that an audiophile presentation would be out of place here. I’m not sure he’d be wrong. I’ve never heard anyone mention any acoustic treatments at the Apollo. I’ve heard plenty about how hot and funky it could get in there though. Given the choice, I’d say there’s no choice at all. Give the People What They Want.