I’ve been keeping an eye out for some compelling Christmas music over the last couple of years as a fun little game to play with myself. I typically avoid the genre like I avoid Justin Bieber records, but the Phil Spector album is all that it’s cracked up to be. And Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite is subtly great, and really easy to listen to. For RSD, the Jazz Dispensary collective released Holiday Treats on candy red vinyl. It’s kinda like having some questionable cranberry sauce mixed in with some otherwise sublime cornbread dressing.
The presentation of this set, as is the case with so many RSD releases, is ten tons of fun. I guess these Jazz Dispensary folks dress their releases up with medical marijuana branding, and it seems like their past RSD releases have been pretty well received. They have a “crate digger” feel to them, similar to what the folks at the Numero Group might do, but maybe a little less obscure. Booker T. and the MGs, Pharaoh Saunders, Rufus Thomas, and Kenny Burrell are all represented on Holiday Treats, for example, sometimes for better (Booker T.’s “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” Burrell’s “My Favorite Things”), sometimes for worse (Rufus Thomas’ “I’ll Be Your Santa Baby,” Saunders’ “Prince of Peace”). The newest tune was recorded (by the Jive Turkeys) in 2010, but designed to feel vintage as the next youngest is from 1975. The gummy bears on the psychedelic green and red cover are textured, and the album has an appropriately celebratory feel, taken all around. I wasn’t at all convinced that I was going to be keeping this record after the first couple of listens, but I’ve warmed up to it a little as the holiday has approached. I think I’d have preferred a straight instrumental presentation. I start to zone out (or try to) when folks start singing about Santa Claus with a straight face. Unless they’re on the Spector record. I love that thing. Way more than the Electric Jungle’s “Funky Funky Christmas.” But Holiday Treats is a quick listen with some fun parts. I’ve been surprised by how often I think to give it a spin. Maybe it’ll continue to grow on me, and integrate itself into the select company of my other two Christmas discs. The pressing is good enough, the actual recordings sound a little flat, and the whole thing adds up to more “fun” than “good.” Ho, ho, ho.
And now for something completely different…
I had good luck with the Hateful Eight soundtrack earlier this year, and I thought that having some additional film scores might make for an interesting niche in my collection. So I snagged the Chinatown Original Motion Picture Soundtrack from Cinewax, the soundtrack arm of Light in the Attic’s operation. According to the American Film Institute, Chinatown is the ninth ranked film score of all time. I won’t spoil the movie for you, but I’ll spoil the hell out of this RSD release. In fact, it was spoiled on arrival. It’s pretty much an emblem of everything bad about RSD.
The soundtrack itself is revered for good reason. It’s a neat amalgam of Classical and Jazz, although it sounds nothing like the music that would have been popular during the film’s setting in the 1930s. The problem is in the pressing. There’s a constant whirring sound throughout the entirety of the first side. It’s not listenable. You can’t listen to it. If you do, you hurt. The second side’s not as bad, but I’m not taking up valuable real estate on my record shelf to accommodate a one-sided release unless it was intended to be that way. And this was not. Jerry Goldsmith’s original compositions are joined by a couple of vintage tunes of the era (“I Can’t Get Started,” and an instrumental take on “The Way You Look Tonight”), and the whole thing would be a monkey barrel’s worth of fun were it not for the horrors that await within this record’s grooves. It may be worth mentioning that this disc was not pressed at United Record Pressing. I assumed that it was when I heard it, but I was wrong. Which means that there may be another shoddy facility craning out inferior releases, or this may be an anomaly? Maybe they got in a hurry, or maybe someone fell asleep at the wheel. Regardless, I’m going to try to get my money back or get a replacement copy through Light in the Attic. The problem with bad RSD products is that there isn’t replacement copies available for exchange due to the limited quantities of the titles produced. And I don’t know that it would help in this instance if there were copies available. This feels like a systemic issue, not a local one. Sure would suck to make all the effort to go pick up a replacement only to be assaulted all over again when you drop the needle on another compromised copy.
The artwork is neat. The album comes with a poster of the neat artwork. The record is gold. In color. Nothing golden about the sound at all. If you see this release available at your local independent retailer, run fast in the other direction. As if your ears depended on it.
I trust the folks at ORG Music. Even on Record Store Day. They tell you when their releases are mastered from the original tapes, and they just don’t mention it when they’re not. The pressings are always consistently fine, if not great. Their Carl Perkins RSD release from a while back turned out to be one of my favorite RSD finds ever (and they’ve just released the standard black version so jump if you’re feeling froggy). With that in mind, and knowing how stellar their Nirvana reissues were, I picked up a couple of their Black Friday RSD titles this year too. One was called Pop the Clutch. It’s a compilation of “Rare Rockabilly From The Vaults.” These were almost certainly not mastered from the original tapes or from tapes at all. But I can’t afford to be too choosy as far as these types of things go because I’m never going to plunk down the money for the original 45s anyway, even if I could find them, which would be as unlikely as me sporting a pompadour and driving a model T. Pick your battles, gang. That’s my advice.
And you should grab a copy of this compilation if you need some Rockabilly in your collection. That’s my other bit of advice. This appears to be a collaboration with Rhino, and Pop the Clutch shares a couple of songs, and multiple artists, with Rhino’s Rockin’ Bones CD compilation from a decade ago. The only problem with that set is that it has never been released on vinyl. The packaging and liners were outta sight, and I only wish that there were some liners included with the Clutch comp. There are none. Not on the rear cover and certainly not on the plain white inner sleeve which you’ll want to replace immediately with a less abrasive model. No artist bios, not even any indication of what year each song was released or recorded in. Ronnie Hawkins’ “Forty Days” sounds way more modern than any of the other selections, and I’d like to know if that’s due to its age or the techniques employed during its recording. Baby Ray and the Ferns have a funny little ditty called “How’s Your Bird” on here, and I’d like to know more about how they came to be recording Frank Zappa’s work and when it was written. Oh, well. There are some cool details involved with this release. For one, it’s pressed (quite nicely) on white vinyl. I’d imagine there will be a standard version in the offing, and I would urge Rockabilly fans (or those looking for an entry) to be on the lookout. There are also grooves under the center label, which is a throwback touch to pressings of yore. They’re not functional (unlike Jack White’s Lazaretto pressing, which was almost functional, maybe), but it’s a cool nod to the way things used to be. Kinda like when a shirt manufacturer leaves the run-on stitching intact. Anyway, I’ll get some play out this record. I imagine reaching for it as an extension on a Flat Duo Jets jag or something. It’s a cool, if not essential, entry into the RSD canon, and it’s probably still readily available if you get after it now.
ORG Music had another intriguing release on the Black Friday list, and I thought it might fit nicely next to my copy of their Carl Perkins disc, so I picked up Hey Boss Man! By Frank Frost and the Night Hawks. I figured the quality would be there, but I didn’t know a thing about Frost, only that the record was initially released on Sun Records and was produced by Sam Phillips. I was expecting Rock ‘n Roll. I got something else. Man, I’m glad I did.
I dropped the needle on side one opener, “Everything’s Alright,” and was confronted with my first tangible evidence of someone having directly influenced the music of Junior Kimbrough. I mean, you’d almost think that Kimbrough was sitting in on the tune. Most of the other songs on Boss Man! are straight rockin’ Blues numbers, but this one has more of a Hill Country than a Delta feel, and it made me nostalgic for my earliest days as a fan of Fat Possum’s records and roster. I was so pleased with my discovery. I was making connections that I thought were beyond the scope of most Blues enthusiasts and was floating high above the music scene on a cloud of self-satisfaction… when I learned that Frost had actually recorded for Fat Possum as a member of the Jelly Roll Kings with Big Jack Johnson. Makes perfect sense, really. You can hear it all in the grooves right away if you’re listening with the right ears. You can hear the antecedents of some of Chuck Berry’s earlier work on here too, if I have my chronology right. This record is a perfect hybrid for when you can’t quite decide if you’re in the mood for some traditional Blues or early era Rock ’n Roll music. It’s pretty perfect in general, really. Not perfect in an “I’m going to seek out everything this man has ever done” kind of way. But perfect in a “this album needs nothing added and nothing subtracted to improve the listening experience” kind of way. There’s a deft balance at play between guitar, harmonica, and vocally driven tunes. There are instrumental rave-ups, and, of course, the title track which was later popularized by the Grateful Dead on their “Skull and Roses” double live set. Sounds like something that would have set the young Rolling Stones on their collective ear as well. These are the types of finds that make Record Store Day and crate digging fun. Trouble is, I’ve never had the patience for crate digging so it’s nice that some of the labels are doing the heavy lifting for us in that arena.
If history repeats itself, this RSD release is likely still available at some independent record stores. Regardless, there will almost certainly be a standard black vinyl release after the candy apple red versions are gone. I’d get it along with ORG’s Dance Album of Carl Perkins and their Jerry Lee Lewis record. None utilize the original tapes as those are likely shot to hell if they can even be found. But they all sound better than any other versions that you’ll find at this late stage of the game. The time is now, folks. Don’t be afraid.
There are discoveries like Frank Frost which stand on their own, and then there are discoveries that are going to cost you time and money. Money for albums, plane tickets to get to concerts, concert tickets to get into concerts, etc. Fruit Bats opened a couple of My Morning Jacket shows in San Francisco a while back, and I didn’t catch a lick of their sets. I was doing school work. I did see their singer, Eric D. Johnson, sit in with the Jacket, and was blown away by his vocal prowess. Yim Yames was effusive in his praise of Johnson’s music, so I made a mental note to follow up. But I didn’t. Until Black Friday, when Fruit Bats released The Glory of Fruit Bats. I’m going to go broke over this guy.
It’s hard to say for certain that others will share my enthusiasm for Johnson’s music. He has a nasal vocal delivery that some might find off-putting. Reminds me a little of Supertramp, if I liked them (I might). Or Geddy Lee, if I liked him (I do not). Glory has a folksy, acoustic, AM gold kinda vibe with lots of finger picking, and intimate recording techniques that reveal fingers on strings and breathe in lungs. The RSD site says that these tunes were recorded in Portland over the course of one week’s time. I love it. I’m really excited about it, and I anticipate ordering past Fruit Bats releases from Sub Pop ASAP. Johnson has done time with indie rock stalwarts like the Shins, but that band has never grabbed me the way Fruit Bats does. Johnson has access to a wealth of vocal options with the Country/Folk leanings being displayed most prominently, but there are Soul flourishes that seep through too in songs like “I’ll Find A Way (To Carry It All).” If I were in the business of lazily comparing current artists to more familiar ones, I’d lump Johnson in with John Lennon, himself. Something about the melodies in conjunction with that gloriously whiny delivery makes it all fit. There are some moody instrumentals to flesh out this short work, and perhaps they nod to some of the work Johnson has done scoring films. I don’t know. I do know that this guy feels like a major league talent, and I’m surprised that I’ve not heard more from him. Hopefully, that changes. Dude’s a badass.
This is the only Black Friday RSD release that I snagged with a download code included. The record is not as well pressed as I’d have liked, but it’s no Chinatown scenario either. Just a bit of noise here & there. The work stands on its own, but I’m looking at it as more of an introduction to an oeuvre. It looks like some older Fruit Bats titles are still available via various online avenues. If you’re into mellower, smart, folk-y tunes at all, then you should at least explore a bit of the Fruit Bats catalogue online. I’m jumping in with both feet. It’s exciting to have a calling. This is gonna get fun…