The White Stripes “Elephant” Third Man Records
Big Jack White was ambassador for this year’s Record Store Day. I don’t know what that means except that he had a video of some sort that I never watched on the official RSD website. I think the word’s pretty much out about this guy by now. He likes analog. In fact, there’s a note in the Elephant liners explaining that “No computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing or mastering of this record.” And Elephant is why we’re here. The White Stripes classic was reissued for RSD on double vinyl. Double crazy super vinyl, that is. I’ll try my best to explain…
This limited release is a prelude to the forthcoming expanded release which I believe is due sometime later this year. The expanded release will reportedly be on standard black vinyl. The RSD version is not. There’s nothing standard about this vinyl at all. Disc one is half black and half red while the second disc is sheet white. And it sounds pretty amazing just as all of Third Man’s White Stripes reissues have. Part of that is undoubtedly due to the band’s ability to take the simplest riffs and ideas and turn them into arena ready anthems. You’d almost have to go out of your way to mess up putting a mic in front of two distinct performers in a decent sounding room, but people seem to be more than willing to go out of their way to mess that up all the time. Elephant sounds gloriously ragged in just the right way. This is what we refer to in the business as “Rock and Roll.” The songs get loud and the guitars distort, but the sound never gets muddy. I’m especially enamored of Big Jack’s piano playing which is displayed quite nicely on “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart.” (Big Jack isn’t into the whole brevity thing.) That song has the most distinct soundstage on the record perhaps because it has more instruments to make a soundstage with. Everyone will recognize “Seven Nation Army” as the juggernaut that it became, but I’ve never heard it sound this good. And I seem to remember seeing that Big Jack played “Ball and Biscuit” a few years back while sitting in with Dylan and his band. Chew on that for a second: Big Jack sat in with Dylan who opted to cover Big Jack’s song. There’s something to hang your red, black, and white hat on, huh? I can’t say that Elephant is my favorite White Stripes record because that would be like trying to choose a favorite child. But I can say that it holds its own up next to the others, and that the Third Man reissues are amongst the warmest sounding Rock records in my collection. Don’t miss the coming reissue if you missed out on RSD. Just my advice…
I don’t know when Third Man is going to get around to putting out Get Behind Me, Satan, but it can’t happen soon enough to satisfy me. That, you see, will complete my Stripes collection. Big Jack just gives and gives, man. It seems like everything he does is spot on. Some folks might argue with you about his singing voice, but I think it has as much character as any in Rock and Roll over the last quarter century. And he can play a guitar too. Ask Dylan if you don’t believe me.
The Allman Brothers Band “The Allman Brothers Band” Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
I have a strange syndrome that sometimes causes me to forget about some of my favorite bands. It seems to be directly proportional to the band’s popularity. The Beatles, therefore, are the primary example. I love their music. Absolutely love their music, and I rarely think to listen to them. Other examples include Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers Band. And it’s that last band’s catalogue that Mobile Fidelity is currently working on. It’s been slow going, but their self-titled debut was released a while back with the promise of more on the way. Someday. With the addition of The Allman Brothers Band, I now have high quality reissues of their first two long players which is where the meat of the matter resides for ABB studio work as far as I’m concerned. I also have a pristine original of their classic live At Fillmore East which hasn’t felt the needle in about a year now. Their debut is a muscular reminder of what I’ve been missing. It’s enough to put me off on a full-on Allman Brothers bender. I’ve had worse problems, I can assure you.
I imagine I’d have fallen sideways off my beanbag if I’d been around to enjoy this record when it debuted in 1969. It is so entirely different than anything else from that joyfully noisy era. This is the same year that gave us Abbey Road and Let It Bleed so I guess there’s a chance that the Allmans could have slid through the cracks. I doubt it. I’d have been the hippest hippy available. My bell bottoms would have more likely resembled gongs and the fresh cut flowers in my ass length hair would have been delivered to my dojo door daily. So I like to imagine I’d have been spreading the Allman gospel far and wide upon first listen. “Dreams” would have been enough to land this band in the Classics bin forever if it were a standalone track or if it were filler on an otherwise mediocre album. As it is, it’s only one in a long line of intricate jazzy forays that the group made into the smoky stratosphere. It’s inconceivable to me that Gregg Allman wrote the tune at such a strikingly early age, but then he also gave us “Whipping Post” on the same album side. The maturity of his playing, songwriting, and especially his singing are virtually unmatched for his age and his place in history. The power that comes through the speakers from the first notes of “Don’t Want You Know More” never lets up until “Whipping Post” closes the set leaving the listener exhausted, shocked, and scarred (but smarter). Duane Allman’s slide playing and punctuation, of course, is what makes him a legend, one of the finest players of electric guitar in an era full of guitar samurai. And that doesn’t even account for Dick Betts’ six string contributions. How could I not think to get a dose of this daily?
I sometimes feel like the MoFi sound is too clean to take on grittier material. I felt like they sapped the power from R.E.M.’s Life’s Rich Pageant, for instance, but that’s not an issue here. The sound is crisp, but still warm, and the power has not been diluted by one iota. I can’t wait to see what they do with Brothers and Sisters as that is a cleaner recording that will fit well with what MoFi does already. Until then, I’ll thank them for this reintroduction, and I’ll go back to wearing out the Fillmore record. I’ve been healed.
Sonny Rollins “Saxophone Colossus” Analogue Productions
I’d wanted to check out a Sonny Rollins record for a long, long, lonely, lonely time. I call myself a Jazz fan, and I can speak with some authority about its origins and primary purveyors, but my knowledge has gaps and there are lots of folks that could eat my lunch in a historical discussion of the genre. And they’d smell blood right quick like if it came out that someone at the table was basically unfamiliar with Sonny freaking Rollins. I kind of had it rattling around in my head that I should patch this hole when I went to see the Rolling Stones last month. I think it was during “It’s Only Rock And Roll” that they were projecting images of some of popular music’s biggest historical names. Somewhere in the collage, Rollins reared his distinct head. I took that as a sign. Because it was a sign. Right? It was a big, electronic sign projected onstage behind the Stones advising me that they think Sonny Rollins is a badass. The Stones have drawn my ire as a consumer of late (see overpriced, defective Record Store Day releases for clarification), but I can thank them for spurring me to action on the Sonny Rollins front. I could thank them for a pretty tight 50th Anniversary show too, but I thanked them in advance for that with my wallet. So let’s talk about Sonny, shall we?
Deciding to get into Sonny Rollins was easy. That’s like deciding to put your pants on before heading to the office. It’s just common decency. The hard part was deciding where to start. The most obvious criteria was that the record should come from a respectable era. 1956 should do. Also, there are a couple of Jazz labels that you can look to for a pretty consistently rocking good time. Prestige is one of those. And I like the way Max Roach played drums, and I like what Analogue Productions is doing with their reissues. Add it all up, and you get yourself a plate full of Saxophone Colossus. Had I done a little research beforehand, I’d have known that this is supposed to be one of the greatest Jazz albums “of all tiiiiiiime!” (Imagine Muhammad Ali saying that last bit for the full effect.) And, man, it is. “St. Thomas” kicks things off with some fire, but things get really hot for me on “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” That’s when Rollins gets blue and slows down enough for the listener to really dig in. Tommy Flanagan’s piano solo will tickle you almost to the point of laughter, and Rollins’ own playing is so sympathetic that it might make you cry. It’s as emotional an experience as I’ve had listening to Jazz in a while. It took me a second to recognize “Moritat.” It’s just a different take on “Mack The Knife,” which has never held a prominent place in my heart. But it would have if I’d come to Rollins’ version first. That would have cleared things up considerably. “Blue 7” closes the set and contains a fierce Roach solo amongst a bunch of other fierce solos by the other players. It’s a perfect ending to a landmark collection of Jazz recordings.
If you’re collecting new vinyl and you have an ear for quality, you already know what an Analogue Productions release entails. This heavy single disc is flawless. The musicians’ spacing is perfect and the warmth in these grooves is amazing. It’s just so good. I don’t know how else to say it. Sorry for being late to dinner, Mr. Rollins. I’m with you now.
Son Volt “Honky Tonk” Rounder Records
When I first heard Trace by Son Volt way back in the mid-’90’s, I thought I’d found the Holy Grail of what Rock and Roll was to become. To this day, that album takes me back to my college Hell House festivities faster and with more detailed imagery than probably any other record I can think of. We were all blown away by it, thought Jay Farrar had won the Uncle Tupelo’s Offspring Band Competition over Wilco hands down. Son Volt released a couple more records in that era, but none that lived up to the promise of Trace. At least as far as I was concerned. But I can’t overemphasize the greatness of that record. Holding someone’s feet to the fire while waiting for a follow up of similar strength could result in third degree scarring. Better to let the artist chase his own muse and wind up where he will. Flash forward to 2013 and it looks like that muse steered Farrar into Bakersfield on the back of a pack mule loaded down with Country heartache and pedal steel licks. I’m glad he made room for that steel in his saddle bag, and I hope the heartache didn’t break him, but the pain was certainly in the service of some pretty good songs. We have to suffer for our art, after all. It’s the Honky Tonk way.
I don’t know if Farrar began Son Volt as a legitimate ensemble or if he always intended to rotate line-ups along the way. Regardless, nary a one of his original cohorts are within a country mile of this recording. In fact, it looks like he’s only carrying two of the players that he’d hired for the band’s last album. Of the most recent players, I miss Andrew Duplantis the most. He was a solid enough bassist, but to my ears his primary strength was as a harmony vocalist. Goodness gracious, that guy could hit some notes. And he’d have really provided the songs on Honky Tonk with some extra pizzazz. But that might be exactly the point. There’s nothing on Honky Tonk designed to grab you by the lapels. The album seems eager to be heard as a complete work rather than as a collection of free standing tunes. The Country sound washes over you, then the album ends. You may want to give it another spin right away, but it probably won’t be because any one song jumped out at you. The last Son Volt album that had tunes that really got stuck in my grill was On Chant And Strum from 2007. It would more likely be because you like Country music in general. The fiddles on Honky Tonk are not a departure for Son Volt. They were a prominent part of the Trace sound, after all. The novelty is in hearing Farrar’s take on what is more or less traditional Country fare. It’s not a stretch and it suits his voice well. If you’re unfamiliar with that voice, Honky Tonk would serve as a fine point of entry. The man’s got his thing down, at this point. I think you’ll agree.
Nothing particularly exceptional about this release as far as the physical product is concerned. Just one quiet record with a bunch of good songs pressed into it. The strength is in the respect that Farrar brings to the craft of Country music making. From that angle, Honky Tonk is Herculean.
Patsy Cline “Greatest Hits” Analogue Productions
My Country music collection could use some help. We’ve checked out a couple of Willie records here, as well as Loretta’s “Van Lear Rose.” I have a killer Mono reissue of the International Submarine Band record from Record Store Days past. I’ve got a couple by Cash and Merle and ol’ “No Show” George (R.I.P.), and then you have to start stretching a bit to find anything that you could really call “Country.” So I was stoked to hear that Analogue Productions was taking on Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits. What a voice! I could listen to “Walking After Midnight” on repeat to infinity and beyond if it weren’t for all the other great tunes on this collection. Cline’s hits were spread out over the course of about six short years, then we lost her to a plane crash which was thankfully much more in vogue then than it is now when we finally have a high quality reissue of her work to remember her by. I’ve retired that crappy CD I’ve been carrying around with me all these years, and I have what I consider to be the definitive version now. (Full disclosure: I’ve never heard an original copy. I’d like to.)
I can’t quite remember when I decided it was okay to get into Patsy. Like I said, I’ve had a CD compilation of her hits for the better part of at least fifteen years so I got in the pool a while back. But I’d never heard her sound like this. The disparity between my digital version and the AP vinyl is as pronounced as any that I can recall. I had a similar experience with Exile On Main Street (my original, not the reissue of more recent vintage). I was able to hear whole parts on the Stones record that I never even knew were there after growing up on the CD. And I’m still bitter about how much I’d missed and for how long. The Patsy record isn’t quite that extreme (probably because there are much fewer layers on this record), but you can certainly get a better appreciation of the timber in her voice when it breaks during “Strange” than you could by listening to a CD. The AP version catches every nuance, and puts you right in the studio next to her during the recording session. The soundstage is a little whacky in my opinion. But that’s just a byproduct of early Stereo technology. I don’t see the point of having background vocals so far over into the right channel with the drums so hard left. I also don’t see the point of making Stereo reissues if Mono versions are available. But I’m clearly in the minority there. If enough people clamored for Mono, we’d get Mono. So, stereo it is. Her voice is perfectly centered and right out front where it belongs, and that’s why we came to the dance in the first place. It would be a better world if Country music were still as pure as Patsy’s voice.
Analogue Productions is approaching unimpeachability at this point. Their reissues are always top shelf sonically, and now they’ve spruced up their packaging to include sturdier covers, gatefold in this case, with additional photos, etc. Of course, the disc itself is heavy and deeply silent. You know all these songs already. Now, grab a copy of this version so you can really hear what makes these tunes so special. You’ll be glad you did.
D’Angelo “Voodoo” Light In The Attic
The liner notes for the recent reissue of D’Angelo’s Voodoo say that the record was originally released on January 25, 2000. Which explains why I was totally oblivious to it. That was at the height of my Widespread Panic fanaticism and I remember Panic having a Gospel choir sit in with them during the New Year’s Eve show that year. I through my hands in the air and waved them as if I had no concerns, I feel certain. I’d not heard a lick of what was on the radio for probably five years at that point. Unless it was on a “Living the Vida Loca” level which I guess old D’Angelo was not. But Ricky Martin’s not been heard from for a minute (that I’m aware of) and this D’Angelo reissue has made some waves. The record, apparently, is still relevant. And I can totally see why. Sometimes it pays to know what the kids are listening to, but the pain is just not worth it to me. I’d rather come to it thirteen years after the fact with my ears and my dignity intact. And so here we are…
The thing about Voodoo is that it reminds me of Sly’s There’s A Riot Going On. And that means that it calls to mind one of my favorite records by anyone ever. The songs don’t really remind me of anything specific on Riot as far as structure or performance is concerned, but the vibe is there. D’Angelo’s vocals are a little further back in the mix than one might expect, and it sounds like there were enough sonic layers to wear the recording tape out which is right in line with what Sly did way back when. (I don’t know if Voodoo was recorded to tape or not. I think ProTools had crashed the party by then.) D’Angelo kind of sings/talks his lyrics in a lazy way that floats over the subdued tracks perfectly. There’s cutting and scratching and horn flourishes and samples (and that’s just on “Devil’s Pie”). None of it detracts from the mellow mood seeping from your speakers and none of it clutters the scene. It’s really pretty perfect. I guess D’Angelo pushed the release date back on multiple occasions in the interest of polishing this diamond. Whatever it takes, I say. The guy won in the end. If D’Angelo ever looks back on Voodoo with anything other than unmitigated pride, then he’s a little off center. And I think he may be. It seems to come with the territory, and he did disappear for a few years there, right? Didn’t he just reappear on the scene a couple of years back at Bonnaroo as a surprise performer? Didn’t he not record any new music or give any interviews for the better part of a decade? Sounds like Sly to me, man. It would be hard to comment on this record without noticing some similarities to Prince (“Send It On”) as well which means that Voodoo conjures some serious sound sculptures in the style of the masters.
Light In The Attic picked a winner when they got the rights to reissue this one. And they gave it the care it deserves too. The two heavy discs are superbly quiet with great clarity and depth all around. There are tons of liners that I still haven’t dug into, lyrics, photos, the whole shebang. Get this one while you can. This guy is prone to vanish any second now.