Record Store Day came and went this year with neither a whimper nor a bang. I suppose it was kind of a “wang.” I cobbled together four titles that I knew I wanted from the list, then chose a fifth from a wildcard menu of about six potential buys. My preferred vendor amended their hours so that I’d concluded the hunt by 8:20 am, and it seems like some intrepid souls queued up way earlier than in years past. I saw fewer familiar faces than I’d have liked, and I typically occupy a more advanced position in line, but I was still victorious. I got everything I wanted, and one thing I didn’t. All for the thrill of the hunt…
The Jerry Garcia Band’s Electric On The Eel set was on my radar from the start, but I became less enthralled by it the closer I got to game day. I was concerned about the price. And quality. Based on what I saw and heard online, the artwork looked cheap, and the sound seemed suspect. But I knew it was coming home with me the second I saw it with my own naked eyes. The artwork was somehow enhanced by the texture and color of the flat cardboard wallet that houses the four discs. The soundboard recordings that I was so terrified of turned out to be remarkably balanced and alive, much less flat than I’d anticipated. The vocals are not overpowering in the mix, and the drums aren’t buried. Perhaps an audience recording was layered over the board tapes?
And the performances are great. This is the JGB lineup that is most celebrated by Deadheads. Melvin Seals’ keyboard work braces the entire band and is right out front throughout the seven sides. Every once in a blue moon he activates some effect that results in an “Axel F Theme” type of tone, but you mostly get the warm organ sound that you’d hoped for, especially during a raging solo in a song called “Think” (which is neither the song of the same title popularized by Aretha Franklin or the classic James Brown tune). Garcia’s guitar tone gets downright gnarly in a couple of spots with way more grit than one might anticipate given the Dead’s predilection for crystal clear sounds (and crystals in general, I’d imagine). The Band’s “Twilight” is a highlight of the set, and there are plenty of others.
This is the only officially released live recording available on vinyl by the JGB at this time, but hopefully, that will change soon. Their self-titled 2-CD set from the early ‘90s would be a welcome addition to the vinyl world. The sonics are better, the performances smoke, and the market is ready. Until then, Electric On the Eel will hold us over. The records are impeccably pressed, the presentation is spare but cool, and a download code is included. This instantly became a valued RSD purchase despite its imperfections and my prior ambivalence. I’ve always been more of a Jerry Garcia fan than a Dead fan, and the reasoning for that is apparent in these grooves. This is essential for Garcia fans, but don’t pay scalpers’ prices. More sets are being pressed on blue vinyl soon. I just know it.
The 2108 mono reissue of Pink Floyd’s debut album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, is one of my favorite RSD scores. When I saw that their second long player, A Saucerful of Secrets, would get a similar treatment in 2019, I naturally put it at the top of my list. I’ll take some of the suspense out of this by saying up front that the sonics on Saucer is spectacular in the truest sense of the word. It’s a sonic spectacle. Bernie Grundmann was responsible for the lacquers and the remastering on both titles, and records with his name attached to them often fly pretty high. These certainly do even though Saucer is probably not a straight analog affair. The hype sticker says “remastered from the original mono mix,” which is different from “the original mono analog tapes,” which was printed on the Piper jacket. Syd Barrett cracked corn, and I don’t care. Both albums occupy an exalted space on my shelf and in my mind. They’re twenty tons of fun as historical documents, and they’re pleasing to the ear. They’re of exceptional quality all around.
A Saucerful of Secrets begins with a heartbeat bass and noodling keys which could have just as easily signaled the start of a million other classic rock records. “Sweet Emotion,” perhaps. The illusion (and allusion) is brief. This is going to be different. Different than what was most popular then, different than the preceding Pink Floyd record, and different than what was to come. That groovy intro gives way to Roger Waters’s “Let There Be More Light,” which exhibits a nascent songwriting technique that would later be perfected on the band’s more historically commercial concerns – the melodic whimsy lulling the listener into a revery that will inevitably be upended by a more muscular vocal passage. Richard Wright is employing the same tension and release methods that would make “One of These Days” so compelling, but with more basic technology and tones. Hearing him create soundscapes without (then later with) the use of million-track recording consoles and outsized synthesizers is like visiting a photography exhibit spanning daguerreotypes to high-def satellite panoramas.
Casual Dark Side of the Moon fans might be aghast at Saucer’s grit and grime and general weirdness. There’s a sizable gap between the promise of late ‘60s psychedelia and the stoner rock that came next. Some listeners will inevitably find the earlier terrain inhospitable. I had Piper and Saucer on CD in high school, and I got the minimal play out of either. Maybe it was the unavoidably shitty stereo mixes, and general harshness found on the earliest digital releases of classic rock material. Or maybe I wasn’t ready for the loose outlandishness of the performances. But there are melodies to explore beneath the tangential layers, and the work stands on its own while simultaneously offering a window through which to observe the evolution of a Rock Institution.
Saucer is unique in Pink Floyd’s history as the only album of original studio material involving all four original members in addition to David Gilmour, who was hired as an insurance policy to cover Syd Barrett’s increasing unpredictability. However, much of the album’s strength is built upon healthy capriciousness and exploratory valor. It’s a high wire act without a net. The payoff is large.
“Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” indeed.
…and then there are the Hillbillies in Hell sets. I had such a strong reaction to the inaugural installment at last year’s event that I never considered not bringing Volume 8 home. I prioritized it. The compilations are advertised as being remastered “directly from first-generation analog master tapes,” which doesn’t necessarily mean that there were no digital links in the chain. That would be crazy expensive, and it would take a long, long, lonely, lonely time. But the promotional materials also acknowledge that the comp was “years in the making,” so who knows? Older RSD releases were often compromised by crappy pressings and flimsy quality, generally. That is not the case with the Hillbillies sets. I’m partial to anthologies of regional hits that never made it to the national stage or well-considered collections of obscure material from the likes of Light In The Attic Records or the Numero Group or the Soul Jazz folks. The Hillbillies in Hell stuff stands toe to toe with the others for quality of material, and scores knockouts for overall value and quality. I’m all in.
For content, Vol. 8 seems a little less concerned with fire and brimstone and heaven and hell than Vol. 1 was. The latest release drills down into the basics of human dysfunction and strife – both internal and external. Perhaps it was because I recently began working on a locked psychiatric ward, but I was unnerved by Porter Wagoner’s “The Rubber Room” upon first listen. Elsewhere, we find depictions of domestic abuse and truck stop homicide, along with post-apocalyptic cave scenarios. Ruminations on death and deterioration are plentiful, but we also saved room for the religious stuff. The artwork is a major part of the Hillbillies allure, but the song titles really carry the weight. I mean, it’s tough to go wrong with a song called “We Need a Whole Lot More Jesus (And a Lot Less Rock and Roll)” or “Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb.” I don’t know that I prefer those tunes to Johnny Paycheck’s “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone to Kill” though. I’m like Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. I prefer it in the shadows.
All joking aside, a lot of the performances in these sets are pretty great, especially from an instrumental angle. The spooky pedal steel is well represented, along with plenty of haunting reverb atmospherics. The songwriting can be pretty spectacular too. Lee Hazelwood’s “Still As the Night” (as performed by some guy named Sanford Clark) is legitimately great without irony. Many of the songs are authentically good, some are humorously good, and the set as a whole is terrific. Not sure how many more I’d need, but I’d probably jump in again if another volume were released next year. I’m a glutton.
There were 666 copies of this set pressed. 222 were on boring black vinyl, 222 were on “Beelzebub splatter,” and my copy was on “Mephisto red.” The pressings are great; the sonics are as good as they’re going to get. If you have a keen sense of humor and a discerning ear, Hillbillies in Hell might be for you.
Jeff Tweedy released a set of tunes for RSD called Warmer as a companion to his recent album called Warm, which was a companion to a book he wrote. Both albums were recorded simultaneously with the same personnel (Tweedy and his son – also named Tweedy), and so they sound as similar as one might imagine they would. Tweedy the Elder released the obligatory statement about how he’s as proud of Warmer as he is Warm, and about how Warmer shouldn’t be viewed as (warm) leftovers. That’s usually so much hooey, but in the case of Warm and Warmer, it flies. The guy’s been putting himself out there with some of the most personal, brave material of his career. The Warmer, the better, I say. Tally-ho.
Upon first listen, I thought that the Warmer material was even more accessible and groovy than the eternally approachable Warm. And I still think I prefer it. There’s at least one song on Warm that I could probably do without. Warmer is relentlessly unoffensive. Some of the rhythms conjure latter-day Wilco material. “Orphan” and “Evergreen” feel like sketches of “Normal American Kids” while “Family Ghost” nods towards “Locator.” But quieter and more sparse.
Always with the sparseness. So, maybe it’s that Warmer feels more familiar to me than Warm did.
Or maybe I’m impressing my own images atop the artist’s intent. Regardless, the Warm records are easily my favorite Tweedy material that doesn’t bear the Wilco brand. I prefer them to his live solo record from 2017 to his Loose Fur or Golden Smog bands, to the Billy Bragg collaborations, and certainly to his Tweedy project (also with his son, Spencer). These songs are the sonic equivalent of tomato soup and grilled cheese. They’re that comforting.
My second Warmer session occurred immediately after revisiting Warm, and this was when I realized that neither is easier to get to than the other. They’re both slippery with sliding solos; toasty acoustic strumming plainly stated vocals and those feathery drums. The two releases together are still shorter than most modern albums. Warm’s here, then gone before you know it, and the most logical thing to do next reaches for Warmer. Finding an affordable copy of the latter at this point might be a challenge though. People are asking Bryce Harper money for it online, and I haven’t seen any info about a digital release even if you were willing to slum it on this one, which would defeat the whole purpose anyway? The Warms are made to be experienced in the analog domain.
If you’re a fan and you missed the RSD event, keep trying. There are 5,000 Warmers out there, and they should be in the hands of real fans, not RSD opportunists. Something tells me that Tweedy would concur. He seems alright to me.
We explored REM’s Unplugged 1991 and 2001 (The Complete Sessions) as part of our RSD reporting way back in 2014. I find that last part hard to believe. I guess time flies when you’re doing nothing but listening to records relentlessly and without compunction. Speaking of time: way back in high school, I was relentlessly wearing out a VHS recording of the band’s ’91 performance, which provided a new template for what you could get away with onstage from a production perspective (reading lyrics off of a music stand?!) and a musical standpoint. Unplugged was its own movement, and I think that REM’s earliest installment was the most impactful of the shows. Maybe it’s because I lived only 90 minutes away from the band’s home turf, but I don’t recall any of the other performances generating as much discussion, imitation, or awe. When I saw that the band was releasing a show from around the same era that they performed under a profane and assumed name, I was intrigued. I gathered up a copy along with releases by James Brown, the Blasters, Van Morrison, Parliament, Herbie Hancock and a couple of others before ultimately settling on the REM release to take home. I had plenty of time to reconsider my options, but I went with what I had. I should have revised my plan.
As excited as I was about the quality of the soundboard generated Jerry Garcia Band set, I was equally disturbed by the quality of the REM release. It sounds like a straight-up audience bootleg. The perspective is distant as far as the band is concerned. The audience, by contrast, is quite close. So much so that the audio distorts when the crowd gets rowdy. This is usually between songs, but all of it together makes for a painful listening experience. To say that we are not in the audiophile arena would be a grotesque understatement. I was so blown away by the amateur production quality that I finally dug in and did a little online research, which I should have done before purchase because I would have learned some valuable info.
I did not realize that this was another acoustic performance. Had I known, I could have extrapolated that the song lists would be similar between the two releases. And I’d have been correct. If you have both titles, then you have a fine recording of the same material to compare to this giant pile of ass. Ironically, the few original songs that are on the latest release (incidentally called Live At the Borderline 1991) but not on the 1991 Unplugged set are on the 2001 Unplugged set. You will never reach for the Borderline set if you have the Unplugged material unless you’re the type of person that enjoys stabbing yourself in the eardrums with dull, rusty blades. Or unless you’re some sort of superfan. In which case you’d have this on your shelf despite the distant sonics and the crappy pressings. That ain’t me. This one’s going back.