Horror Rock. There’s a genre that is woefully under-represented in my collection. But it is represented because I picked up a copy of Songs The Lord Taught Us by the Cramps recently.
The Cramps
The Cramps
Songs The Lord Taught Us
Drastic Plastic Records
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I went down to LA to see the Queens of the Stone Age on Halloween a couple of years ago, and they showed some home movie styled film documenting the Cramps performing their zany brand of Psychobilly. At a mental health facility. For the patients. Seems horrendously irresponsible to me as some of those folks almost certainly would have had atypical sensory processing patterns, but I don’t mean to be a wet blanket. It is, as the saying goes, only Rock ’n Roll. Crazy-ass Rock ’n Roll, for certain, but Rock ’n Roll none the less. All in good fun, I reckon. Play on.

I’d had my eyes on the Cramps for a while. I decided to make a move when I read about this reissue project and realized that Kevin Gray was behind the boards. Not sure about the source tapes or any of that, but honestly I’m not that concerned. For once. Alex Chilton, of all people, produced the first couple of Cramps records, including this one. I believe they connected in NYC as part of the CBGB scene, maybe, although the principle Cramps kicked things off in Sacramento, of all places. The sounds a bit muddy, and there’s a distinct lack of bass because… the Cramps didn’t have a bassist yet. I love Neo-Rockabilly music the way I often love Neo-Noir movies. There’s some wiggle room built into the genres, but the Rockabilly business might be a little easier to spot. There’s a lot of humor built in, it seems, certainly in the Cramps’ music, but also from bands like the Flat Duo Jets. The first song on the second side of Songs is called “Mystery Plane,” for instance. I was kinda hoping it would be a sonic parody of the more popular “Mystery Train,” but they didn’t take the joke that far. This one will play nicely with the Rockabilly comp I picked up as part of Record Store Day’s Black Friday event last November and the Flat Duo Jets reissue that Third Man Records put out a few years back. Nothing here to pull the audiophile in besides Kevin Gray’s name, but the record is well-pressed and silent. Mine is pink and weighs 150 grams. There’s a standard black version on 200 gram vinyl too, and I believe both are limited to 1,500 copies each. I got the 291st pink ‘un. No extras of any kind, but how much more do you need, really? I’ve already got my eyes on another title in this series called Bad Music For Bad People. I’m in it for the artwork as I remember seeing it around as a kid and wondering what it all meant. It’s a compilation, and I already have a couple of the tunes on Songs, but one of those is “Garbage man” which is my favorite Cramps tune so far. This is for the adventurous, not the audiophile. Enter at your own risk. Forecast calls for hilarity.

David Bowie
David Bowie
The Next Day
ISO Records
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I had to circle back and get a decent copy of Bowie’s swan song, Blackstar, recently. The second run of pressings from a specific plant were defective across the board, and I got my lucky hands on one of those. When I realized that Music Direct had the right version, I jumped. And when I jumped, I realized that Music Direct also still had copies of The Next Day from 2013. Bowie’s next-to-last title was much more in line with what I think of when I think of classic Bowie. And when I think of classic Bowie, I think of an intensely varied sonic landscape with Bowie’s inimitable voice traversing the whole scene. And you get exactly that when you drop the needle on The Next Day. It was a gloriously pleasant surprise. This one won’t be around forever, and I predict it’ll be expensive when the well runs dry. I wouldn’t wait for that to happen. Not if you know what’s what. David Bowie certainly did.

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The album opener and title track is a fully formed rocker, right out of the gate. It has elements of Bowie hits past (the propulsion of “Rebel Rebel,” for example), but is in no way a nostalgia trip. Bowie didn’t do nostalgia. “Dirty Boys” sounds like Bowie had been on a Morphine (the band, not necessarily the drug) jag, and is as funky/sexy as anything I’ve heard from that band’s esteemed catalog. Some of the tunes on The Next Day veer treacherously close to the Adult Contemporary aesthetic with sustained electric guitar notes, bombast, and synths. But here’s the thing: Bowie was always reaching. He was always trying, and he was fearlessly invested. Even the misfires on here sound compelling to me. They’re interesting windows of opportunity to try to imagine what David Bowie was listening to, contemplating, and/or going for during the recording of this set. No one, of course, really knows what was happening, at least not in the circles I run in. But that was part of the Genius. Dude created, and turned his tunes loose on the world without any outward concerns for how they’d be received. I always had the impression that the man was only interested in entertaining himself. If the rest of us wanted to take the ride, great. If not, fine. That’s true freedom of expression, which is the only kind of legitimate expression. I can think of a couple of others that I envision working within this framework. Their names are Bob and Neil, and that’s about it. And maybe I’m wrong about the whole thing, but I’m not wrong about this record. I was aware of its release, but the artwork threw me. I didn’t know if it was some weird remix of Heroes or what. There are explanations behind the artwork to be found online. I will leave it to the intrepid reader to ferret them out. Makes perfect sense once you do. And that’s how he did it, I guess. I never was aware of Bowie explaining his motives or revealing his secrets. The songs belonged to the listeners once they were released into the world. And Bowie seemed to be far along into the Next Thing by the time they were. 

This is a compelling set of music pressed nicely on two heavy records with some cool artwork and a CD included. It’s a sleeper, but I wouldn’t sleep on it for long. Like its father, it won’t be around forever.

Run The Jewels
Run The Jewels
3
Run The Jewels, Inc.
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I’m going to go on record right now and predict that the world is in for a steady influx of politically minded message rap over the next four years. Just a hunch. Run The Jewels is my current favorite Hip-Hop act working, and I really wish that their most recent release, 3, had come out after the election. They’re pretty prolific, and they seem to work fast. I can’t imagine we’ll have to wait long to get their take on the whole gross thing. I hope not, anyway.

We’ve explored previous RTJ releases here before, but 3 isn’t like what’s come before. They’ve expanded their sonic pallet while still maintaining some allegiance to Hip-Hop past. Classic beats and conscientious rhymes. That’s the truth of this movement’s origins, but the movement got too big. It is often watered down. Anecdotally, I would put forth the idea that Hip-Hop has permeated every available crevice of the globe. Some might think of Hip-Hop as a musical genre, but I think of it more as an all-encompassing ethos involving fashion, language, visual art, film/television, leisure activities, and whatever falls between the cracks.

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Maybe even politics. Killer Mike, one half of the rappers in RTJ, was pictured dining with Bernie Sanders in Mike’s hometown of Atlanta during last year’s Presidential campaign. Didn’t work out so well for Ol’ Bern, but I can’t help but imagine that he came away from that meeting with an altered viewpoint. On the other hand, he already seemed pretty tuned in to the experiences of folks outside his social sphere and tax bracket. And I’d withdraw my life savings and give you the whole thing right now if I could be a fly on the wall during a lunch meeting between Mike and the current President. Seems unlikely, but a man can dream, right? Killer Mike comes from the Outkast School of Accelerated Rhyme while El-P provides a slower, more gristle aesthetic. Lyric sheets are provided for the Hip-Hop scholar along with stickers and posters. Both records are pressed on opaque gold vinyl which mirrors the cover’s artwork somewhat. Pressings are as righteous as the messages, but you get no digital copy, which is a drag.

If you’re in the market for some legitimate music involving skills, intelligence, and feeling, I’d say Run The Jewels is for you. When these gentlemen start bragging, it is never about the size of their jewelry or their bank accounts. This is the Hip-Hop equivalent of Rage Against The Machine (there have been previous collaborations between members), and 3 involves contributions from the suddenly ubiquitous Kamasi Washington (saxophone) and TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe (vocals). These guys have friends in all the right places, and I would have been thrilled if one of those buddies had ascended to the land’s highest office. But then we might not have gotten that musical windfall that I’m so looking forward to. It’s a rough trade. In more ways than one.

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
Planet Waves
Mobile Fidelity
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I’ve got this crazy thing I’ve been doing for a couple of decades. I started it during high school when I realized that I had a Bob Dylan problem. I’ll outlive the guy with any luck, and I don’t want to run out of material to explore. So I’ve been saving some of his albums that I’m most interested in to explore later as if they were new releases. Now, this plan has been queered by a couple of unforeseen eventualities. One was his Bootleg Series. Every few months, we get a dose of multiple records worth of unheard material that wound up on the cutting room floor. And, unlike most outtakes which would have served to weaken most releases and were outtakes for a reason, Dylan’s are mostly great. So, there’s that. The other thing that I didn’t see coming was the Mobile Fidelity reissue campaign. I sure wish I’d known that they were going to do his mono titles in addition to the stereo releases because I’d have skipped Columbia’s Mono Recordings box set and saved the room on my shelf and money in my pocket for MoFi’s versions. First world problems. Any old way, I’d never heard Planet Waves before. This is bananas. Especially since the Band is involved. I’ve been looking forward to it, and my ship has come in. Thank you Mobile Fidelity. You complete me. And my collection.

I can tell you right now that “Tough Mama” was worth the wait, the price of admission, and my first born child if I ever get around to making one. The sonics take some getting used to, and I doubt that any company could have polished them up while remaining true to the artist’s original vision the way MoFi has. This is right in their wheelhouse. The recordings are a little clean, a little too shiny for my ears and MoFi makes them sing on key. I’m reminded of their earlier Elvis Costello titles. Same concept, same results. Clearly, I have no original for comparison, but it’s hard to imagine Planet Waves coming through with more clarity and punch. By this time, the Band members were leaning on the synthesizer pretty heavily, and there are sounds to be heard that one might wish were more organic. I’ve had bootlegs from this era, and the live performances from this time were documented on Before The Flood which isn’t my favorite live Dylan. The toy sounds that the players were so enamored of were on full display in concert, but are way less obtrusive on Planet Waves. There’s plenty of swirling organ, and lots of Robbie Robertson’s biting guitar licks, both lynchpins in the Band’s glorious early sound. There’s no grit approaching the level of Big Pink or Blonde On Blonde, but you don’t get the impression that the recordings were made in a science lab either. Mostly, I get the impression that the studio was carpeted. Floors, walls, and ceilings. But these tunes have legs, and hearts, and teeth, man. And “Forever Young” is included. It beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. I’m stoked to have it. You might be too, but you’ve probably heard it before. If you’re gonna jump, jump. No better time…

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal
Labor Of Love
Analogue Productions
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I was challenged by a reader a while back to list some of my favorite albums in each genre. That process called to my attention the fact that I am somewhat deficient in the audiophile Blues aisle. In fairness to me, it’s a narrow aisle hidden in the middle of the store away from the main action on the perimeter. Shares a shelf with the prune juice and canned tripe. No one’s really looking for it, and no one notices when the goods don’t sell. Perhaps that’s because traditional Blues recordings were in no ways made with the audiophile in mind. Previously, I’d have told you that a dyed in the wool audiophile would reach for a Blues album about as often as I would a bag of suppositories, but the times they are a-changing, gang. If you don’t believe me, pick up a copy of Taj Mahal’s Labor Of Love. If you do believe me, pick up a copy of Taj Mahal’s Labor Of Love.

Seriously. I’ve sent four emails and as many texts to folks that could use this information. I’ve posted stuff about it on social media, and I post biannually, at best. Electric Blues, as I alluded to previously, won’t cut the prune juice for most of our listeners, but there’s a whole skiff of acoustic Blues recordings that have gotten “the treatment” lately, and Labor Of Love is a new release that had our kind in mind from the jump. These recordings were made in hotel rooms back in the mid-‘90s. The equipment used is listed in the liners, but the gist of the matter is that a young(er) man schlepped it all across the nation on a tour with Taj hoping that he’d catch some lightning in a bottle during an impromptu post-show jam session or something. That zany plan came to fruition in Houston one fine night, and now here we are all talking about how great the whole thing sounds. Taj gets help on a tune from Neal Pattman, who I used to see play quite often during this era when we both lived in Athens, Georgia, and a few others whose names I only vaguely recognized. The various players work with a variety of acoustic instruments, and the recordings are as immediate and transparent as any I’ve heard in some time. Reminds me a bit of the original Heartworn Highways release (not necessarily the Record Store Day reissue from a couple of years ago which I’ve not heard). Both need to be cranked up a bit to hear the nuances and details, and the cranking is good. You can’t hear a hambone on mute, after all, even by the hands of a master. And this release is masterful in so many ways. It makes me happy. I mean, I get happy just thinking and talking about it. The listening ratchets things up to the point of mania, damn near it. If you like, love, or are interested in traditional acoustic Blues music, then your ship has come in. Don’t miss it. Analogue Productions will sell out of this title and you’ll have to wait for a repress, mark my words. Two heavy discs pressed lovingly and silently at Quality Record Pressings. This is an “in the room” experience, a window to another world. It’s magical. And it’s exclusively available on vinyl. Beats the tar out of prune juice and tripe. It’s ready for the storefront, y’all. Don’t doubt me on this one.