- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 08 July 2014
Jack White "Lazaretto" Third Man Records
Rolling Stone magazine did a cover feature on Big Jack White recently that seemed to leave a nasty taste in his spitfire mouth. He responded to what he obviously considered the bad press publicly. Somewhere in there, it seems they referred to him as “the Willy Wonka of Rock and Roll.” Or something like that. I don’t think that’s what got him riled up, but I didn’t read the article either. All of this was in advance of his most recent release, the otherworldly Lazaretto. It’s a collection of 16 songs of reasonable length. The vinyl version is laden with gimmicky tricks that Big Jack decided warranted the title of “Ultra-LP.” Thus, the “Willy Wonka of Rock and Roll.” Many parts of this review will be painful for me to write. Let’s get on the other side of it all ASAP, yeah?
Alright. Firstly, side A plays from the inside out. But the needle grabs a groove in the dead wax that is designed to project an angel hologram while the record spins. No kidding. So, you have to either skip the first bit of “Three Women” or spend about five minutes dropping & re-dropping the needle in hopes of landing in just the right spot. I’ve pulled it off once so far. From there, the rest of side A is a gas, gas, gas. The title song is a monster. “Temporary Ground” is a lilting, moody little number that benefits from some nifty female vocal accompaniment. The gnarly instrumental “High Ball Stepper” closes out the side before the needle settles into one of two locked grooves (see Sgt. Pepper’s) that end each side. “Just One Drink” starts the second side with two separate intros. One acoustic, the other electric. You get one or the other depending on where you drop the needle. I’d aim for the acoustic intro because the electric one causes a “hiccup” when it joins the rest of the track. By that, I mean that the record skips once, it doesn’t get stuck. I like it best when records don’t skip at all. Side B is also pressed with a matte finish rather than the more traditional glossy variety. This was an attempt to achieve the appearance of an unplayed 78 RPM record. The problem is that the entire side is noisy as all hell. Like a 78 RPM record. There’s a “whirring” noise throughout, and this is especially noticeable during the record’s many quiet passages. There are also songs pressed under the center labels. You’re supposed to just drop your needle on there and let it play through the paper. One of these songs is cut at 45 RPM, the other at 78. I’m an adult. I have an adult’s record player so I’m not dropping my stylus on a circular piece of paper with a bunch of glue under it. No big deal. I can just skip those songs. But the other stuff is a bit tragic because this would be a phenomenal sounding recording on a well-pressed disc. It’s an all analog affair without the use of compression during mastering (according to the press release). And the songs are great. There are fiddles and females and scorching guitar solos and funny lyrics. And a whirring sound throughout.
Mine is the Vault version pressed on split blue and white vinyl, but the issues I’ve outlined apply to the standard version too based on everything I’ve read online. Mine has different artwork than the standard release and came with a bonus book and 7”. I’d trade it all for a better pressing. I love Big Jack’s ingenuity. I just don’t think it should come at the expense of the sonics. The low rating for this record’s sound is specific to the pressing, not the recording. I’m hoping for a standard version of this record eventually.
John Doe "The Best of John Doe: This Far" Yep Roc Records
I don’t usually go in for “Best Of” sets. Never have, really. But I can rethink my position if maybe John Doe is going to autograph my copy at a local independent record retailer after performing a short set of mostly acoustic tunes. I did that recently, and I’m pretty excited about it. The timing was key as I’d also gone back and collected three of the first four X (the band) albums from the early ’80’s. So I was on a bit of a John Doe kick already. And I will be for sometime after making my way through The Best of John Doe: This Far. I like the way this guy makes music. And, based on everything I saw in the record store that day, I like John Doe. He called me “brother.” All this time, I’ve been thinking I was an only child. The truth is out there, I reckon.
Living in Northern California, I’ve been fortunate enough to see John Doe play on multiple occasions. Mostly at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. I’ve seen him play solo gigs, seen him play with the Knitters, seen him hop onstage with Los Lobos, but I’ve never seen him play a full-on electric John Doe set. I’m aching to do so after hearing This Far. The man’s voice is not otherworldly. He utilizes no affectations, but plenty of power. He strums his guitar with vigor, and precision, but without virtuosity. And he writes badass, simple songs that adults can groove to. There’s not much here for the kids unless the kids are cooler than any kids who have come before. A tune like “Golden State” might come off as being a little corny depending on what you’re used to for love songs. To me, it sounds like California’s anthem. I love the way it builds, crests, recedes, and ends within the span of what feels like two minutes. “Safety” is a more traditional rocker that might go further towards appeasing old X (the band) fans. (It would appear, according to the liners that JD is still writing with Exene which should excite us all.) He does experiment with some loopy drum sounds (“Forever For You”), but I feel like the record’s strongest moments are also its simplest. A couple of numbers feature Doe accompanying himself on guitar (“Take #52” stands out, as does “Poor Girl”), and these tunes really display Doe’s simplicity and honesty as a vocalist. Perhaps that’s a holdover from his punk days, but it all sounds like Rock and Roll to me. It always did. I never thought of X as a punk band because, to me, that would suggest a lack of musical ability. And John Doe has always been plenty adept at getting his idea across musically. This Far showcases a roster of familiar names (including Dave Grohl’s, Niko Case’s, Aimee Mann’s, and former members of the Go-Go’s and Beck’s band) so we know that Doe still draws a lot of water in “the industry.” I can certainly see why. When you come across something this genuine, in any era, you have to stand up and take notice. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. That brother of mine…
This Far is a nice little vinyl package. Two well-pressed, heavy discs that are plenty quiet in all the right places. The set comes with a CD, printed lyrics, and a few choice photos. I’d track the man down and ask him to autograph your gatefold’s interior if I were you. He’s your brother too…
Warpaint "Warpaint" Rough Trade Records
I met a girl at the Queens of the Stone Age show in Las Vegas last February who was from Los Angeles. She and her boyfriend had driven over to see the Queens and she was lamenting the fact that Warpaint, her fave new band, was not opening that night’s show. They were scheduled to open the San Francisco show a couple of months later. At the time, I had no intention of going to the SF show. By the end of the Queens’ Vegas set, I knew that I couldn’t miss it. And, based on the young lady’s glowing recommendation, I got there early to check out Warpaint’s set. They rattled the walls. The grooved out of their shoes. They were really pretty good. From there, it seemed like the only logical course of action was to pick up their latest, self-titled album. It’s one of my favorites of 2014, so far.
Do you remember early Sinead O’Connor? I mean, before that huge album she had with the hit Prince cover? I don’t either, really. But I had that CD. It was called The Lion And The Cobra, and I can’t tell you much about it beyond that. But the seed of a memory is rattling around in here somewhere, and something in the Warpaint sound reminds me a little of what I imagine that Old Sinead record must sound like. Not the wailing, histrionic Sinead. The smart, powerful, don’t-cross-that-woman Sinead. Warpaint is an album full of plinky, electronic sounds that compliment the more organic ones, and they all play so nice together that you wish we could hold this school of record making up as an example for all of today’s youth. But they’re too busy staring at their phones to pay attention anyway so to hell with it. These songs don’t follow any sort of prescribed formula as far as verse, chorus, bridge goes. They build and swell, then recede and regroup. Rinse and repeat. Lots of keyboard-y atmosphere and reverb. Lots of sinewy bass. Onstage, the band was not as visually confident as I’d have imagined. Except for the bassist. She did her hot shoe number throughout the band’s set and she looked like she’d have done the exact same thing in front of the mirror in her bedroom as opposed to the thousands of folks that were in the auditorium. The rest of the girls seemed a little tentative as far as their interactions with each other and the audience was concerned. But there’s nothing at all tentative about the band’s sound. It is their own. I’m not hearing a single here due to the lack of formula that we alluded to earlier. But there are few musical formulas that I can endorse. I’ve previously admitted to an affinity for the Hip-Hop beats behind acoustic guitar instrumentation formula, and that is definitely in play on Warpaint, but the band does it a little differently than their peers. Because the beats are the only discernible aspect of the sound that Hip-Hop has touched. And the guitars are buried a little more deeply in the mix. Add it up, and you’ve got yourself a keeper right here in the Cultural Desert that is 2014. Thanks, girls.
There’s nothing overwhelmingly great about this vinyl package. It’s a three-sided release with an etching on the fourth side. The discs are heavy, and a little noisy in a couple of spots. Maybe repeated cleanings will help. The download code gave me some issues which was not surprising since the site advised that I still had “eight tries” left after the first attempted download fizzled. But the recording is pretty good with a decent sound stage and plenty of clarity. If you’re looking for a new band to support, Warpaint is a fine candidate. I’m in.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
Gershwin as performed by Earl Wild and the Boston Pops Orchestra "Rhapsody In Blue - An American In Paris" Analogue Productions
I guess I’m not too clear on what counts for Classical music. I always thought, like perhaps most people do, that Classical music involves an orchestra and a conductor and suits and ties. If it has all that, it’s Classical, right? Not so fast. I’ve been led to believe that Classical music is specific to an era, and what we’re all running around calling Classical might actually be Chamber or Baroque or Romantic or whatever. I sure as hell wouldn’t consider Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” Classical music, but it sounds like lots of other folks do. To me, it sounds a lot like Dixieland Jazz played on… Classical instruments. (If anyone is inclined to clear any of this up in the comments section, I say “go nuts.”) Anyway, I’ve wanted to get my hands on some audiophile grade symphonic records for a while now, and I decided to start with what is generally regarded as one of the finer performances of “Rhapsody” around. Earl Wild is the featured pianist on the recording, and he has the Boston Pops backing him up. Analogue Productions was behind this effort so I felt like I couldn’t go wrong. And I didn’t. But it’s not the life affirming listening adventure that I’d envisioned. It’s pretty good though.
I saw “Rhapsody” performed by a bunch of high school aged pianists once, and it was one of the coolest performances I’ve ever seen by anyone in any discipline. I wish I had it on record. I’ve kind of kept an eye out ever since for a recording of a solo piano performance or at least a performance featuring that instrument exclusively. I’ve not enjoyed any success with regards to all that. So I went with the full orchestra. Just in time for Independence Day. Because that’s what “Rhapsody in Blue” sounds like to me. I always see fireworks (and Delta commercials) when I hear it. I can’t imagine that anyone could sustain a bad mood while listening to this tune. The word “ebullient” comes to mind. If you can believe that. The playful oboe intro that sounds like a minor hangover after a great first date. The main theme and its million minor detours that it takes before reconvening in front of the finish line. The swells and the valleys. The… fireworks of it all. Side Two of this version involves a performance of Gershwin’s “An American In Paris.” It’s fine on its own, but it's an injustice for any piece to have to follow “Rhapsody” as long as those two pieces share a similar mood and instrumentation. To me, “American In Paris” sounds like background music in an old movie. Maybe one with choreographed dance sequences and stuff. Mary Poppins, or something. It’s fine, but it doesn’t follow me around for days at a time like “Rhapsody” does. My search did turn up a version by the SF Symphony involving the original scaled back Dixieland instrumentation so I’ll be putting that one on the shelf soon enough. Until then, this version gets the point across in big ways.
If I don’t sound as excited about this as I’d like, it’s because the record itself is a little noisier than I’d expected from the folks at Analogue Productions. Everything else is just as you’d hope. The sound stage is massive, the instruments distinct. The room sounds huge. The percussive flourishes float around and on the more basic instruments that make up the song’s foundation, and we can hear every delightful nuance involved. Along with a few pops and cracks. I have nothing to compare this to, but I’d say it’s a safe bet if this is a tune you want in your collection. I’m happy to have it. Just in time for the Fourth of July.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
Los Lobos "Kiko" Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs
A buddy of mine had to drag me kicking and screaming to the Fillmore once. To see Los Lobos! Can you imagine? I was more interested in seeing their opener, Calexico, which was the only reason I agreed to go. To the Fillmore. To see Los Lobos. Calexico didn’t do much for me, but the headliner handled their business with aplomb. I was blown out of the water. Unfortunately, that feeling hasn’t translated to their studio output. There are a few of their records that I like just fine, but they all sound a little too clean for my taste. Luckily, I have a go-to record company for cleaner-than-I-typically-appreciate recordings. That company is Mobile Fidelity. And they recently reissued what is perhaps Los Lobos’ most celebrated work. And that work is Kiko. High days, gang. This stuff is exciting.
This album was shot with a wide lens, man. Tons of styles and textures and fun. Lots going on. Things start off a bit slowly, but Cesar Rosas kicks things into gear with “That Train Don’t Stop Here” soon enough. (There’s a picture of him in the gatefold sans sunglasses. Which makes this a collector’s item.) It’s a smooth rocker. Almost a Rockabilly rocker. It has accents. And saxophones. “Kiko and the Lavender Moon” is next and that one starts off with some horn sounds that would not be out of place in an old timey black and white cartoon intro. In the verse, those sounds are echoed on the accordion which is an absolute weapon in David Hidalgo’s hands. In fact, David Hidalgo is a weapon in his own right. He’d be the band’s Swiss Army knife if Steve Berlin weren’t already. Basically, these guys are versatile enough to play in any style they want. Luckily, they seem to want to rock. But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to rock in the way that you or I are most familiar with. They might rock in a Cumbia setting. Or they might rock in a “Sunshine of Your Love” type of way like they did that night at the Fillmore. There’s nothing too crunchy on Kiko though. The album’s strength is its ability to cohere from song to song while drawing from such a diverse color palette. A less accomplish group may have produced a mosaic wherein the divergent styles butt up against each other without mingling. Los Lobos produced an Impressionistic masterpiece with bleeding colors and soft lines. It looks like a different work if you stand back a bit. When you get up close, the details are astonishing.
MoFi is like the Miami Heat of vinyl reissues. I get a little tired of always having to see them in the championship round, but they’ve really pressed a winner with this one. They’re work is not unimpeachable (although they’ve never gotten their ass handed to them like the Heat just did). Some of their heavier Rock offerings lack sufficient teeth to leave a mark. That’s not a Kiko issue. This one has punchy, clean lows in support of the airier accents. Kiko was originally released in 1992 so there was precedent for grungier popular recording techniques, but Los Lobos doesn’t seem to go in for what’s hip. They made a diverse recording with straightforward techniques, and its legend has only grown in the intervening twenty-two years. Then, MoFi jumped in the ring to warm things up a bit. It all added up to a victory in my ears. Get yours while you can.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)