The Flaming Lips “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” Warner Bros.
Like a lot of folks, I first became aware of the Flaming Lips by watching “Beavis and Butt-head.” Seems like I remember that duo critiquing the Lips’ video for their song about Vaseline or something. That’s a hazy one as are most memories from that era. They’re more like hunches at this point. One thing is for certain though, today’s Flaming Lips have nothing much in common with the group from Butt-head’s heyday. Not musically, at least. Not that I can tell. As I understand it, the first album to unleash the band’s new ethos, the one we think of now when we think of the Flaming Lips, was “The Soft Bulletin” from 1999. And proud we are of that one, right? It’s a classic. If you don’t have it, fix that. And I think it’s probably a good thing that the group changed course as “Bulletin” followed up an album comprised of four discs that were meant to be played simultaneously on four separate stereos. Not sure how many listening parties were held in fans’ living rooms for that one. Maybe more than I’d imagine, but it doesn’t seem very efficient to me. Anyway, after “Bulletin,” the Lips turned “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” loose on us, and the world is a better place for it. The vinyl version of this one had been out of print for some time before the Lips released a box set for Record Store Day last year which included it and four of their other albums that preceded it. Now, you can get each of the five discs individually. I probably won’t, but I might. I’m pretty into the whole thing right now. (I didn’t get into it in time as the band played “The Soft Bulletin” in its entirety last night at a small club in the town where I live. I missed it. That sucks.)
A quick little online perusal of info on “Yoshimi” shows that none other than Cat Stevens himself won a lawsuit against the Lips over the album’s lead song, “Fight Test.” Seems like it was a little too similar to Cat’s “Father and Son” for his comfort. And he was right. Same chord progression, similar melody, completely different vibe. I prefer the Lips’ version of “Father and Son” if that’s how it’s gonna be. I wish they’d won. From there, things get a little murky for me with regards to Yoshimi and her battle against these rosy automatons. Barring the title track, many of the songs bleed together, roll into one another, and wash over you in a glorious symphonic wave of electronic sounds and digital heartbeats. Woe be unto you if you hear that title track and don’t like it because, once it gets in your ear, it ain’t going nowhere. I mean that song got stuck in my head from the time I decided to order the record online and still resides there three weeks later. I hadn’t heard the song in probably three years or more. It’s a catchy little number, that one. Be careful with it. If there’s a storyline here, I can’t really follow it. I probably could if I felt like sitting down and studying it, but that’s not really how I hear music. It does seem like there’s some kind of concept floating around beneath the surface there, but I prefer to absorb its energy more so than analyzing its content. By band leader Wayne Coyne’s own admission, the Lips’ songs and his singing are sometimes incidental to the sounds that are being made. You can certainly hear that in some of the more lucid passages on “Yoshimi’s” instrumentals especially. They’ve won Grammy Awards on the strength of such efforts, though I’m unsure of whether or not they won anything for “Yoshimi.” It probably goes without saying that I’d rather dive headlong into a pool of broken glass than to sit through a presentation of the Grammy Awards, but winning would probably bring a band like the Lips a little more income and maybe even longevity so I’ll try to see it from that angle. The band deserves all the positive attention they can garner after years of toiling away in relative obscurity. From all outward appearances, they’ve done it their way from start to finish without compromise, and there aren’t many bands that spring to mind (besides R.E.M. and the White Stripes) that can say that. Not ones that have enjoyed commercial success on this level, anyway. If you like moody, atmospheric pop music with a lot of electronics and drum loops, or if you think you might, I’d say start with “Yoshimi” and work backwards to “The Soft Bulletin.” Those two records alone make up an entire genre to themselves. I can’t recommend either one enough.
The original vinyl version of “Yoshimi” was on colored vinyl and released as a limited edition. That was before everything under the sun was released as a “limited edition.” The more recent reissue is on standard black vinyl. No 180 gram treatment, but the pressing is pretty fine. The record is silent when it should be which is especially important for some of the quieter content contained here. No extras in the way of digital copies or anything like that, and one strange twist that I’ll never understand to tie the whole package together. The record comes with an inner sleeve containing artwork and song lyrics (some of which are listed as “Strange Talking and Screaming”). But the record itself is housed in a separate inner sleeve entirely. Which would be cool except that it’s a plain white paper inner which is just as damaging to the vinyl as the slick printed inner would have been. Not sure where Warner Bros. was going with that one any more than you can be sure where the Flaming Lips are headed next. Based on past history, they should be due for another one any day now so hopefully we won’t have to wait long to find out. Maybe an album full of unaccredited Cat Stevens rip-offs? That’d be fun.
Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power, and the Amorphous Strums “Dark Developments” Orange Twin Records
As mentioned previously, I had to do a little extra searching in February to find something to write about. Something I haven’t written too much about already. Something that I liked, I mean. Ultimately, I had to dig deep and explore a couple of things I’d been meeting to get to for a while. One of these is called “Dark Developments.” It’s got a few years on it, but it’s still readily available so it’s fair game for what we’re trying to do here. When I say “readily available,” please don’t take that to mean that you can pop into your closest Wal-Mart and pick up a copy. You can’t. Unless things have changed drastically since I last visited a Wal-Mart. I suspect they have not. Anyway, “Dark Developments” was released in 2008, and it’s a collaboration between some Athens, Georgia icons. One of them is a band called Elf Power which I was wholly unfamiliar with until I picked this one up, and the other is Vic Chesnutt who passed away on Christmas day in 2009. He was a brilliant and prolific artist. I can’t imagine that there is a ton of unreleased material in some magical vault somewhere so I’m trying to gather up all of his vinyl I can find while I can. I’d had my eye on this one for a while. I wish I’d gotten it the first time I saw it because I’ve been missing out. We all have unless you have it already. And, if that’s the case, I salute your taste in music. It’s pretty great. Here’s why…
…It involves Vic Chesnutt singing songs he wrote. There’s not much better in the world than a good Vic song, and this album is full of them. His songs are often funny, sad, cerebral, beautiful, downers, and groovy at once. It’s one of my favorites of Vic’s, and now I’m wondering if I’ve been missing it all this time by not checking out Elf Power. It seems like they add a lot to “Dark Developments.” I’ve never heard another Vic album like it. Elf Power is or was part of the Elephant Six collective from Athens which involved other heavyweights from the world stage with names like Of Montreal, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Olivia Tremor Control. I’ve never paid much attention to any of them, but I’ve liked most of what I’ve heard from all of them. How perverse is that? Of Montreal has gone to great heights and they don’t need any press from the likes of me. Neutral Milk Hotel are full-on legends in many hipster circles, and their main guy seems to have recently risen from the dead, and begun playing sold out shows everywhere you look. I don’t know what happened to the Olivia Tremor Control, but they were making big waves for a while there. Chesnutt has collaborated with a bunch of pretty cool bands over the years including Widespread Panic, and I’ll put “Developments” up against any of his other joint ventures. The liners state that this album was recorded in his attic studio. I’d be curious to know what that studio looked like and how he got his wheelchair into it. This is not a big budget, studio polished production to be certain, but you can hear all the instruments and voices with great clarity. I mean, it’s not like it was recorded on an iPhone or anything although that may have been just as cool. For me, the standout track from a sonic standpoint is called “We Are Mean.” It’s a classic Chesnutt jam with a cool call and response presumably featuring the guys in Elf Power. It’s one that will get in your head and lay eggs if you let it. You might not want to let it, but you might not have a choice. The other stand out stands out for a quirkier reason which is that it’s called “Little F*cker.” Ol’ Vic wasn’t afraid to express himself and he must have known that you have to break a few eggs to make a good omelet. He might not have made many albums you could play in front of your grandma all the way through, but that song sure is funny. “Little f*cker needs a wide berth / Little f*cker’s more trouble than he’s worth.” I never knew Chesnutt personally, but I know a bunch of folks that did, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to hear them say just such a thing about Vic, himself. And I’d guess he wouldn’t have had it any other way. Don’t come to this party looking for radio shimmer or glamour of any kind. Unless, of course, you think songs about bilocating terriers are glamorous. Most folks don’t so I would suggest coming to this record, or any of Vic’s others, with an open mind and a desire to witness an artist being nothing but true to his vision. If you can handle that, then “Dark Developments” might be for you. If you can’t, buy it for someone who can. This is an album that needs to be heard and you can get it at OrangeTwin.com (the label’s site) where you can also hear a couple of song clips as well as most of the other bands mentioned in this article. I’m gonna spend a little time there as soon as I make some extra time to spend. Party on.
The vinyl version of this record comes with some crazy cover art, a lyrics sheet which is worth the whole thing, and a single disc that’s very well made especially from the true “indie” arena. There’s also a digital download coupon so you can take this one around to all your friends and turn them on to this loony guy that you just discovered who made a killer album in 2008 with Elf Power. Vic was, by all accounts, a pretty deep cat. He released close to twenty albums between 1990 and 2009. He’s already been appreciated on a grander scale than you’d ever have imagined given his sense of humor and his chosen subject matter and his style. I’d be surprised if his star didn’t climb even higher, and I can almost hear him making fun of everything I’ve said about him in this write-up. You’ll get the picture much more clearly by listening to him instead of me. I’d get started on that right away if I were you.
Grateful Dead “Reckoning” Analogue Productions
When I think of rock and roll, the Grateful Dead circa 1980 is not the first place my mind goes to. I thought I liked the Dead a little bit in high school, but I was never one of their more devoted backers. I heard them plenty while riding with friends or partying with strangers or riding through a party of strangers with my friends, and I never complained. I played my role. But I could never commit fully to what they were doing, and I’m even less likely to do so now. Here’s the thing: I love Jerry Garcia’s playing. The guy was a maniacally great musician. But his guitar tone can get a little tiring for me after a while even if his style doesn’t. Recently, I’ve taken on the project of trying to fortify my record collection with some Dead material in the interest of having a well-rounded rock library, and because they’re an integral part of my latest hometown’s musical history. Plus, I’ll need something to play at the commune if this latest job doesn’t work out and I decide to drop off the grid and live off the land. Well, I’ve done it. Found the record, I mean. After whiffing on “Blues for Allah” a couple of months back and returning it for store credit, I’ve discovered my “groove” with “Reckoning.” It’s perfect for me. A Grateful Dead album recorded at the dawn of our country’s cultural nadir is perfect for me. Always keep your antennae up, folks. You never know what you’re going to find or when. “Reckoning” is a two disc set of live acoustic material that focuses mostly on songs with a little jamming thrown in so that you know you’re in the right place. But, mostly, it’s the songs. And they chose some particularly good ones for this set. And Analogue Productions handled this release so the quality’s where it needs to be. Score one for the hippies. Pass the patchouli, Mountain Girl.
I’ll start by saying that AP picked the perfect Dead set to release for their purposes and style. Say what you want about the Dead, but they always had the most happening sound system around. They cared about the sounds they made and how those sounds were transmitted. Maybe more the latter than the former, I don’t know. “Reckoning” was an “unplugged” album before there was such a thing. I was a little confused by MoFi’s recent reissue of REM’s “Life’s Rich Pageant.” It didn’t seem to fit with what they do, but “Reckoning” suits Analogue’s aesthetic to perfection if you ask me. Every note played can be heard distinctly without trying. All the instruments are spread out across the soundstage in such a way that you feel like you could twirl around with your glow sticks forever, and never risk hitting any walls or scraping up against anyone else’s overalls. The Dead drummers played smaller kits for these sets which gives everyone a little more room to swim around from the start. The electric tones that can get a little monotonous in the real world are nowhere to be found on “Reckoning” which gives us a chance to see what the band could do vocally for a change. They’d proven they could get harmonies right in the studio on “American Beauty” years before, but it’s interesting to hear them pull it off live without the strain of having to heave those notes over a high wall of sound. The song selection is pretty “smoking” too. (See what I’ve done there? I’ve referenced “smoking” in a Grateful Dead article, and put it in quotation marks to call attention to how clever I am. It’s great to be alive.) I always loved “Dire Wolf” which I assumed was a traditional, but was actually written by the Garcia/Hunter team which is cool to know. “Deep Elem Blues” is a traditional that’s included here, and a blast as always. “Bird Song” is about as representative of the Dead sound as anything I can think of, and the “Reckoning” version is my personal favorite – at least that I’m aware of. There’s a picture on the back cover of the band playing acoustic onstage, and it looks like they’re sitting right on top of each other. The vocals at times sound so soft and light that they almost sound weak, but it’s a welcome trade off for me. I’d much rather hear the band hit the notes than hear them strain to barely miss them. Put it all together, and you have a pretty intimate portrait of the Dead doing their thing. And, this time, it’s very much worth staying awake for.
I’ve noticed that the Dead are releasing much of their catalog on vinyl now, but they’re doing it through a variety of outlets. Friday Music did a title, Warner Brothers did the earlier studio albums and a couple of live sets, Audio Fidelity did a couple of really bad titles. I’ll be curious to see if I enjoy MoFi’s “Skull and Roses” album as much as I liked it when I was a kid. I think I’ll pick that one up or maybe MoFi’s “Live,” then I’ll let this project rest. I’d like to get an original copy of “American Beauty” at some point and maybe even an original “Workingman’s Dead,” but then I’d have a full on hippy infestation happening so I may have to make some choices. For right now, “Reckoning” is enough to get me through. You don’t get a lot of bonus stuff from Analogue Productions, just two well made records in a gatefold sleeve explaining that these songs were recorded between September 25 and Halloween in 1980 at Radio City Music Hall and the Warfield. I don’t feel like I have to wait for some bizarre mood to strike me before I give this one a spin. It’s set up for mass consumption and I’m a little alarmed at how much I’ve consumed of it already. I have a reputation to uphold and it won’t do to have the Dead wafting from my apartment as a matter of record. That’s a risk I’m willing to take to hear “Reckoning” sound like this. The search has ended for now, but the road goes on forever or it’s a long, strange trip, or you gotta keep truckin’ or… (insert overused hippy band imagery here, as needed.)
Alex Chilton “Free Again: The ‘1970’ Sessions” Omnivore Recordings
It’s been a good little run for Alex Chilton fans over the last year or so. Especially those of us who enjoy listening to vinyl. I waited for two straight hours in front of a record store last Record Store Day to pick up a copy of Big Star’s stellar “Third,” and that one still holds up as one of the crown jewels in my collection. To recap, it was produced by a company from Memphis called Omnivore Recordings that put “Third” in a box with a bunch of studio documents and called it the “Test Pressing Edition.” A quick glance at the company’s site shows that they’ve pressed 500 additional copies of “Third” in the same packaging, but this one is on clear vinyl. Of course, they’ve juiced the price a bit since the original run flew off the shelves and inspired mob hysteria and gunshots and trampling of elderly shoppers. No wait, this was Record Store Day. No Wal-Marts allowed. I must have gotten confused for a second. Regardless, you can get a copy of “Third” now if you missed it in April and I would advise you to do so as original copies of “Third” regularly top the $150 barrier on eBay. And while you’re at it, tell Omnivore to send you their latest offering of Alex Chilton’s “Free Again: The ‘1970’ Sessions.” If you’re a Chilton fan that’s unfamiliar with this material, you may be a little taken aback. You may even be shocked, but you won’t be disappointed. Unless you’re some kind of maniac. Maybe the kind that tramples old folks at Wal-Mart. Or the kind that trusts Wal-Mart as a viable option for music shopping.
I’d had most of the music on this set for years on a CD called “1970.” The songs were taken from sessions that pre-dated Chilton’s time in Big Star, but were made after his departure from the Box Tops (of “The Letter” fame). Fans would be challenged to pick out Chilton’s voice on the “1970” material when compared to what he’d done vocally to that point. Legend has it that Chilton had already tired of the recording industry’s contrivances, a theme that would resonate throughout the rest of his career, really. Chilton was a champion of the “indy” aesthetic back when people still said the word “independent.” He’d tired of making music that was designed for a specific audience or format, and the work from the “1970” sessions shows that in sharp relief. Much of it is brilliant. Some of it is “experimental” to the point of parody in my opinion. I don’t mean “experimental” in any kind of extreme way. He’s not filtering notes through windmills or anything, he’s just trying on new voices and new styles of writing with mixed results. For crying out loud, the guy wasn’t 21 years old yet, and he’d been making hits for four years. Some of the songs hint at the sweet power pop that he’d later define with Big Star in Memphis (“Something Deep Inside” or “The EMI Song”). Some of it sounds like a kid who just wandered in off of Beale Street at 3AM and turned the soundboard on and started wailing (check out the guttural vocals on “I Can Dig It” or “All I Really Want Is Money” for illustrative purposes). And, in between, you get the real gold with songs like “Free Again” presented here in its original Mono mix or “Just To See You.” Chilton even tries a more pronounced Southern accent, and throws a banjo in the mix on the gloriously bizarre “I Wish I Could Meet Elvis.” It’s a record with a fair amount of humor. You can almost hear the artist reaching, searching for a way to amuse himself and make some compelling songs that would entertain him if no one else. His version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is amongst my favorites with its stripped down, inverted guitar riff and ragged, bleary vocal approach. The “1970” CD included a druggy medley of “Sugar Sugar / I Got The Feeling” which is not included on the latest vinyl release. Some folks might mourn this omission, but I’m not amongst them. There’s a place for humor in music, I suppose, but not when it comes to James Brown covers. The new record does include the previously unreleased “All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain.” I’ll take that trade all day.
Once again, Omnivore has provided us with a collection worth savoring on “Free Again.” The single disc is pressed on clear vinyl, at least for the initial 1,500 pressings. The only thing that bothers me about this one is that the CD and the download versions have six additional songs that aren’t on the vinyl. I understand that finances may have dictated that they be left off the vinyl in order to avoid a double disc, but couldn’t we have gotten those as a bonus download? Seems wrong to me. Everything else seems pretty right. The liners are sparse, but that’s not surprising given that the songs may never have been intended for release. It took them more than 25 years to see daylight whether they were ever meant to or not… But the liners do give player and production credits. There’s also a small note attached to the inner sleeve explaining that the photos used for the cover art were not actually taken during the recording sessions. That’s a nice detail as Chilton was able to change his appearance as easily as his vocal delivery. Apparently, “no usable images exist from the exact time that these sessions occurred.” Luckily, a bunch of usable tracks do exist, and Omnivore Recordings had the good sense to release them on vinyl. This one will be in heavy rotation for the foreseeable future. If you’re a Chilton fan, it’s a no brainer – go get it. If you’re looking for an introduction to his work, you may want to start with something a little more accessible from the top. Or at least something a little more representative of his work, then move into this one. There are surprises a-plenty, I can assure you.
Little Joy “Little Joy” Rough Trade Records
Man, it was a rough month for finding compelling vinyl releases that anyone might want to read about. I mean, it was touch and go there for a second. I thought I might have to take a hiatus or something. The problem is that I don’t have tons of interest in the new music that’s being made as a general rule. You don’t want to read my opinion on last year’s American Idol winner or this year’s Limp Bizkit reunion, trust me. I’m a total downer with regards to all that. And we don’t want to keep talking about the same five new(ish) bands that I do like every month so I’m kind of at the mercy of whatever the re-issue folks have up their sleeves for the most part. But there are only a handful of re-issue companies that I trust for quality work so the pool gets a little shallow sometimes. All in all, I was able to make a pretty rousing comeback and came away with five keepers to talk about. God help me, I found one on a Volkswagen commercial while I was watching the NFL playoffs. Usually, I mute the commercials, but I heard this song at least six times over the course of a few weeks so I know it was in heavy rotation otherwise I’d have missed it entirely. Ironically, Volkswagen turned me on to Nick Drake via one of their older commercials so someone over there is doing alright for musical taste. The new find is the self-titled release from “Little Joy.” They’re a trio made up of a guy from a band called Los Hermanos and the Strokes’ drummer and his girlfriend named Binki. They’re a lot of fun. Let’s see…
It seems like the ukulele is in vogue these days, and that’s what jumped out of the TV at me the first time I learned about that Volkswagen. That and the airy little melody that accompanied said “uke.” After a couple of go ’rounds with the ad, I ran over to the Machine to do a quick lyrical database search to try to figure out who I was hearing. I thought the song might have been an oldie from the ’60’s or something as the recording itself doesn’t sound too modern. Turns out it was from 2008 so this record isn’t technically “new” either. New enough, I say. The tune in question is called “The Next Time Around.” Good luck getting that tropically breezy feeling out of your hair once you’ve heard this one. It’ll stick right in there, I promise. The group switches it up pretty regularly as far as sonics and moods are concerned, but they never get too serious or sullen. At all. “Brand New Start” has a couple more layers than most of the others on here. In fact, it sounds like Phil Spector got his bloody little fingerprints all over that one. A couple of the tunes, “Keep Me In Mind” chief among them, sound a little like Strokes outtakes melodically, but, ironically, these songs were written by the guy from the other band, not by Fabrizio Moretti. Binki Shapiro takes a couple of star vocal turns, and her songs are a little more reminiscent of some Velvet Underground action. None of which would seem to add up to the aforementioned tropical vibe, but it’s there, I promise. And, really, these songs aren’t as derivative as some, but it’s helpful to have some sort of reference when talking about these things, I guess. The VU vibe is mostly as a result of some pretty sparse production with some laconic female vocal delivery on top. I hear the Strokes when someone sings through a guitar amp over staccato rhythm guitar parts. That’s really all there is to it. Little Joy has a sound that’s really their own, I’ll give them that much. This is a quick little single slab of waxy goodness, and I imagine it was a blast to make. The group took its name from a bar that was near the recording studio so I suspect the good times kept a-rollin’ before, during, and after production. Or maybe I’m just superimposing my own vision of how that whole thing shook down in LA. Talking out of my ear, as it were. The big take away from all of this is that there’s a fun, carefree record out there that’s flying under the radar, and I think you might like it if you give it a chance. I do, and I don’t take as many chances as I could as far as new music goes. This one makes me long for warmer weather. I hope that on the first day of picnic season I think to play this one before packing the crackers. It’s perfect for that sort of thing. And who doesn’t love picnics and sunny weather?
This one was put out by Rough Trade Records and they did a pretty fine job with farming out their record pressing on top of everything else. The record is visually perfect with sonically deep blacks and lots of three dimensional space for the acoustic instruments (especially) to float around in. I replaced their standard paper inner sleeve with a MoFi inner as a means of keeping the album pristine for many happy listens to follow. They provided a digital download card so you can listen in the car if you’re so inclined, and they printed the lyrics for you too. All three members play a gaggle of instruments and I’m curious to know who’s playing what and when, but I’ll have to wallow in my own ignorance for now because the liners aren’t that detailed. This is a quality release that I’d have never known about were it not for those crafty German auto engineers so hats off to them. I haven’t found tons of online info about the group, but I’d love to know what they’re up to now. Seems like a good time for a sophomore release if you ask me. I’ll be on the lookout. Lemme know if you hear about something before I do. I’m not going to stop muting commercials just because VW got a couple right. Not enough return on investment when it comes to TV ads to put it mildly. But this one’s for real. You’ll see…