A Collection of New Vinyl Releases for the Audiophile – April, 2011

R.E.M. “Collapse Into Now” Warner Brothers Records

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I spent the better part of my formative years in Georgia. By that, I mean most of them. Went to middle school and high school in Augusta until a brief (although not brief enough) layover in Gainesville before finding the Promised Land which is Athens. If you like music, there is no better place to be. As I’ve never met anyone that doesn’t like music, it seems like we could all agree, in consensus, that Athens, Georgia is at least one of the best places in the world to be, live, love, fight, fume, whatever. That’s how I feel, and there are a lot of reasons for that. Perhaps the biggest is R.E.M. Honestly, I’ve never been as supportive of them as I have other Athens bands, but those other Athens bands may have never existed were it not for R.E.M. Probably would not have existed were it not for R.E.M. Their influence on my life cannot be underestimated when seen in that light. It’s one of the pleasures of my life to experience that appreciation in actuality rather than in theory. This happens any time they release a record that moves me. They have a few. I love “Life’s Rich Pageant,” and “New Adventures In Hi-Fi,” especially. I enjoyed “Reveal,” although I seemed to be the only one. That will change on the sad day when we have to look back on this band’s catalog as a complete body of work with no more records to anticipate. Even “Reveal” will get its due. And I can’t help but feel that their newest, “Collapse Into Now,” will be given a front row seat at the ceremony. Man, it’s good. It’s R.E.M. in the most classic sense. If you like them, you’ll love this one. Love’s the only option on the menu.

The easiest thing to do with R.E.M. is to compare them to themselves. Who else would you compare them to? I first heard of them on an airplane on my way to Johnson City, Tennessee from Atlanta. It was 1986 and I was eleven years old. I’d never flown solo and the young gentlemen seated next to me was listening to one of their first four albums, I suppose, given their timeline. I saw them on Nickelodeon around this time too. Shortly thereafter, the cat was out of the bag. And it was a big damn cat. Not so much ferocious as brilliant. Ludicrously intelligent for what it was, what it is now. It’s always been a cerebral beast and “Collapse Into Now” is no different. And the gang’s all here: the historic mandolin that rose to such prominence on “Out Of Time,” the secret weapon that has always been Mike Mills’ background vocals, Stipe’s lyrics and voice – obviously. The highlight, for me though, has most often been the guitar work. Historically, that can be credited to Peter Buck. Now, things are a little blurrier with the addition of Scott McCaughey as a supplemental player. I get the impression after having seen them perform live for the first time in support of 2008’s “Accelerate,” that he is much more than that. He appears to be a fully integrated part of their sound. At least on the last two records, and they’ve both been great. And I don’t mean a little bit great. Especially this one. (I dropped my copy of “Accelerate” on the corner of my record cleaner. It’s the only time I’ve injured a record in that way during the modern era. I’ve gotta go back and inspect the carnage. If it’s severe enough to sound, I’ll buy a new copy. In a way, that points to my passion for the newer release. I’m thinking of them as a set or, at the very least, shockingly significant contributions to an already phenomenal catalog that happened to occur in succession. I want them both in pristine form.) No point in getting into a song-by-song rundown of the record. There are rockers (“Discoverer”) and ballads (“Every Day Is Yours To Win”) and songs with crazy names (“Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I”). They’re all great, especially when consumed in a single sitting. Like a smorgasbord of soul food from a spartan Southern kitchen. I’m going back for seconds, thirds, and fourths. If this record could damage my cholesterol, I’d be dead in a week. And I’d die smiling.

I didn’t mean to be so effusive in my praise of this record when I sat down to write about it. But I’m listening to the record as I type and that’s just the effect it’s had. And that’s a good thing because I was a little shocked at its price. I don’t mean that in an artistic way, I mean the thing is a single record with minimal extras and it costs $25. And by “minimal extras” I mean it has a black and white lyric sheet included. At least the sheet’s glossy. No CD, no download coupon, nothing like that. That’s too bad because I’d like to have this one with me at all times in case I need to help someone see the light. “Accelerator” was a much more inspiring vinyl package on two 45 r.p.m. discs. They’re both quick listens and that works to their benefit. No filler, all meat. (Stipe might disapprove of that analogy.) It is worth noting that “Collapse” is a heavy single platter with a fine pressing containing no background noise which is remarkable as it came housed in a crappy paper inner sleeve that could have ruined the whole party. That’s an easy fix and it’s already been done. These men are heroes. Not in the “Superman” sense. More in the “Batman” or “Watchmen” sense, flaws and all. (One member once came on to my ex-girlfriend although she was very publicly married to another local musician of some prominence at the time. Stipe’s always been good for a snotty retort when approached by fans, but that’s understandable. And often hilarious.) And no band has done more for their community or to inspire that community. That’s no small feat when that community is as winsome as Athens. Hats off to you, gentlemen. Thanks a million.

Jessica Lea Mayfield “Tell Me” Nonesuch

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Jessica Lea Mayfield

Dan Auerbach is a taste maker. He is for me, at least. I mean, he found Hacienda for me and that would be enough on its own. His latest discovery is Jessica Lea Mayfield and she’s every bit as young as the Hacienda gang. Maybe younger. This is remarkable to me. I don’t want to offend any young readers, but I don’t look to the younger side of the 25 year old demographic for inspiration as a matter of course. I assume that they feel the same way about me. Mayfield is 21. She writes her own songs, plays some guitar, and sings her tunes in a voice that’s far from searching for its sound. Seems to have found it already, thanks. That’s what I’m hearing anyway. The fact that she has such a heavyweight in her corner is a testament to her talent more than a reason for her success. She’s got the chops. Auerbach is lucky to have found her, not the other way around. Her latest is called “Tell Me.” It’s a mostly quiet affair, and an easy listen. I’ll tell you who’s gonna love this one: women. I mean, lots of folks will – including me. But I suspect women, in particular, will hitch their collective wagon to Mayfield’s coach and ride off into the sunset together, commiserating about the nastiness of the other sex while passing the red wine around and quoting “Thelma and Louise.” Keep your hands on the wheel, ladies. And watch out for the end of the road. It’s a lu-lu.

I’ve gotta say, I do like Mayfield’s voice, but it’s not without precedent. That’s okay. We’re not reinventing the wheel here. But I can point specifically to a radio song from a few years back called “Kiss Me” that reminds me for all the world of the way Mayfield sings. Had to check to see if it was the same vocalist. It is not. That song sucks. The voice, given the proper context, does not. Far from it. Anyone familiar with the “Dan Auerbach aesthetic” will come to the party expecting some honest tunes, free of contrivance, with some curveball textures to keep things engaging. They’ll know they’ve found the place before they reach the front door. Things start off simple and spooky with “I’ll Be The One You Want One Day” before the drum loops and kinky Casio keyboards crash the reception. The sound stays sparse and languid throughout with just the occasional electric guitar, at full distortion, to jolt you out of your reverie. And, above it all, Mayfield’s voice hovers like a hummingbird, breaking at the perfect moment with a hint of vulnerability, but utterly without weakness. It’s a neat trick. A veritable high wire act. I was going to suggest that Mayfield’s music will eventually find its way to some TV shows’ soundtracks as that seems to be the order of the day. Lots of off-center artists that aren’t suitable for Top 40 seem to find homes on these faceless shows, presumably paid to play, without having to stump for Burger King or Chevrolet. (Another balancing act, I suppose, but I don’t see much difference, really. It could be argued that the soundtracks are in the furtherance of “art,” but that’s not my reading. The “product placement” phenomenon has blurred the lines between entertainment and promotion until it’s really just a matter of syntax. Auerbach’s Black Keys are selling Zales jewelry, and accenting vampire shows in the same breath. I can only hope they retire rich as a result.) A quick look at Mayfield’s Wikipedia page shows that this has already transpired. She’s in bed with Starbuck’s too. I’m starting to get queasy. I feel like the lost little old man in the mall. How did I get here? Throw me my navy blue socks, please. I’d like to pull them up to my knees and wear them with shorts. That time has arrived. It beats the alternative.

I think Nonesuch is at the head of the class for new vinyl releases these days. Their pressings are perfect, and “Tell Me” is no exception. They come with CD’s and high quality inner sleeves to protect the work that was so carefully prepared to begin with. It’s the only thing that makes sense, but they’re the only ones that do it consistently. I’m keeping an eye out for their new releases specifically. They clearly care. Looks like Emmylou has something on the way as do the Low Anthem (completely unfamiliar), the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and the Punch Brothers (I’ve heard good things about them). Until then, I’ll be getting plenty of play out of “Tell Me.” Just me and the girls, and my blue socks and shorts. We’ll make quite a team. Careful of my hip, ladies. And don’t drive so fast…

Carl Broemel “All Birds Say” ATO Records

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Carl Broemel

Carl Broemel isn’t exactly a household name. But he is a stellar musician. He makes up the lesser known half of one of modern rock’s greatest guitar tandems as Jim James’ foil in My Morning Jacket. He’s also working a lot as a side man on recordings at Jack White’s Third Man Records. (He plays pedal steel on Wanda Jackson’s latest which was reviewed here just last month.) I think he lives in Nashville so I’d guess he’ll have the option of padding his resume as a side man if he wants, but right now I’m just meditating on his first solo release called “All Birds Say.” It’s a good record for that type of thing. Meditation, I mean. It’s quiet and mostly acoustic. It’s not gonna steal his working band’s thunder because there’s really no thunder involved with “Birds.” But we wouldn’t know the awesome power of thunder if the skies weren’t mostly quiet, and this record’s gonna get some miles on it as I age with it. I find myself in the mood for this type of thing more and more the older I get. It’s not as exciting as some recent finds, and I’m not as excited about getting older as I could be either so the two work well together. Aging beats dying, and “All Birds Say” beats the radio. Compromises are part of getting by, I guess. I could draw a line in the sand, I suppose, but I don’t want to limit myself too much. This record is a nice find. It works well for quiet introspection which works well for me on a rainy day like this. It sounds like a blanket. Who doesn’t like blankets?

Michael Houser took time out from shredding with Widespread Panic to make a solo record called “Door Harp” a while back. (It’s been more of a while than I realize as Houser passed away in 2002. Somebody slow this ride down!) Maybe it comes with the territory of being a six string assassin in a band full of bad men. Maybe you wanna get away from the feedback and distortion for a minute so you hole up on your own, record a bunch of polite acoustic numbers, and release them as your first solo album. Houser’s had no vocals. Broemel’s has really quiet ones. He’s a passable vocalist, but there’s no mystery as to why he doesn’t sing lead for the Jacket. His voice simply isn’t that compelling. It’s pleasant, and it works for “All Birds Say.” No Jagger required, I guess. The record has a kind of academic quality to it. I think Broemel is a trained musician. He plays with feeling I guess, but he plays “correctly.” Everything is in its place, and the whole delicate package seems safe as a newborn bird in a nest. It never really flies, but maybe it’s just not time for that yet. I have no doubt that Broemel could unleash a rocker on this world that could set our collective hair alight. I’ve seen him do it live. My hair just grew back. But “Birds” sounds like a labor of love. Like a man doing exactly what he feels with the folks he’s most at home with. Speaking of home, one of those folks happens to be his dad who plays some woodwinds while MMJ’s Bo Koster plays keys. Broemel only plays guitar, and bass, and pedal steel, and dobro, and violin, and sax, and autoharp, and bells, and percussion, and handles all the singing. (Clearly, he’s a lazy blob that never capitalized on his innate ability, otherwise he’d learn how to play some instruments. Some folks can’t be reached.) You get your first foreign sound at the beginning of “Enough” when you hear some drums that are either programmed (no one is given credit in the liners for drum programming) or run through some effects. The effect isn’t startling. Nothing on “Birds” counts for startling, really. Beyond that, the sound is constantly quiet and mellow to the point of reverie. Saying the sound is warm is like saying Sarah Palin is scary. It’s understatement on a grand scale. But there’s at least a place in this world for quiet records. I’m not sure about the other…

“All Birds Say” was released by ATO Records which also handles MMJ’s releases. It’s cool that they gave Broemel a chance to share his own voice because I can’t imagine they’re going to make any money on this record. (Dave Mathews founded the label so at least they have a musician’s input at the top. I guess Mathews is a musician. He certainly fooled enough folks into thinking he is if he’s not.) They took some time with the vinyl version too. The record is heavy, the pressing is decent. Not visually luxurious, but sonically beautiful. It came with a CD, and the gatefold cover is sturdy with a cool matte finish rather than a glossy one. The liners are understated and only tell you who plays what and where the sessions took place. Perfect. Pick this one up if your collection is in need of some lighter fare with vocals. And pick up the vinyl version if you do. It’s a nice package and it comes with the CD anyway. I’ll probably never use mine. This is music for sitting at home and chilling out. I’d be afraid I’d nod off listening to it in the car.

Kanye West “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” Roc-A-Fella

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Kanye West

You know who’s probably more excited than anyone else to watch Charlie Sheen melt down in public? Kanye West. He must have felt like an ant under a magnifying glass on a hot Georgia day a while back. That thing with Taylor Swift didn’t do much for the old image, huh? Clearly, these folks do nothing to help themselves by relentlessly searching for the spotlight’s harsh glare, then setting themselves on fire and hauling ass down the Sunset Strip once they find it. Still, part of me feels sympathy. Yeah, they signed on for a career as a public figure, some more so than others. I mean, there’s a difference between George Clooney getting chased by paparazzi while shopping for dog food and Sheen hijacking any available public forum for seven straight days while standing naked in the rain smoking crack from a blow torch on stage at Disney World. Or whatever. Some folks seem to be in it for the art and some for the attention that being an artist brings. For the most part, I’ve managed to avoid all but the most pervasive examples. There’s no avoiding Sheen, and I couldn’t get away from Kanye a few months ago either. And then, without my noticing, he… vanished. I guess he was working. And here’s the part that really blows my mind: the fruit of his labor is a frigging atom bomb of unquestionably powerful hip-hop history. I mean it. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is REALLY fantastic. I can’t imagine he’s done anything better or surely it would have forced its way into my orbit by now. Someone tell me if I missed something leading up to this. Because “MBDTF” is kinda freaking me out.

So much so that I had to do some research. Seems that Kanye West rented an entire recording studio in Hawaii with multiple recording booths in it. When he got blocked on a certain song, he changed rooms and worked on another one until he dried up there. Rinse and repeat. And he used about as many producers as he had songs. It seems like this would add up to an uneven album, and I bet it would nine times out of ten, but they nailed it on this one. I credit strength of artistic vision for pulling such disparate influences into a cohesive whole. Lyrically, you get a bunch of boasting and self-loathing. Defiant defense of past transgressions and unbending hope and dedication to personal change. Basically, some really complex stuff which could be a microcosm for the artist’s mental state. Kanye West never seemed vapid so much as really troubled to me. I don’t know if “MBDTF” is proof of this, but it resonates with me as a challenged artist’s document of his attempt at change, complete with roadblocks, setbacks, and victories too. Say what you want about his public behavior, but the guy’s got lots of high profile friends that have declined to distance themselves from him no matter what. Beyonce, for instance, showed high class by allowing Taylor Swift her moment after West blew up Swift’s spotlight time in his loony defense of Beyonce’s perceived snub during that awards show. But Beyonce never abandoned West and she’s all over his newest record. I think he has substance, I just don’t have the energy to dig for it. “Fantasy” makes that a little easier. Musically, the content is all over the place, but even the modern hip-hop conventions that are so overdone and tired come off well. No featured artist seems gratuitous, everyone’s’ contributions add to the mosaic in positive ways. The ever-present vocoder is not so ever-present either. It’s used sparingly for effect, not as a crutch. (I could spin off here about how the hip-hop world has co-opted the vocoder and transformed it from a tool for people that can’t sing into a mainstream sound that everyone seems eager to employ, not unlike a certain word that many young African-Americans use with affection towards each other which was formerly a term of derision. I think the world would be better off without either, but we’re too far down the road now and I can’t see a spot to turn around. Things are improving. Progress is good.)

The vinyl version of “MBDTF” feels like an artifact. Something some future Indiana Jones will excavate from a bomb shelter in 150 years if we can make it that long on this rock. And I hope Indiana can still outrun that rolling boulder if that’s the way it happens because this one’s worth the bringing back alive. Like the very energy that surrounds Kanye West, it requires some extra effort to get to the good parts. Part of this is my fault because I insist on cleaning every side of a record before dropping the needle. In this case, that’s six cleanings per listen. Effort, indeed. Each record has its own individual artwork on the center label stickers, but there’s nothing special about them beyond that. They’re not real heavy, and the pressings are imperfect. The background noise is still minimal and the short sides make for good, stronger than average sonics. The set feels huge due to the triple gatefold cover which sports a die cut center on the face with five interchangeable pieces of art to populate it with. I change mine after every listen just to enjoy the novelty of it. I figure the novelty accounts for some of the inflated price so I might as well take advantage. There’s also a poster included with liner notes crediting the various contributors and featured artists. They are legion. The names that jumped off the poster at me belonged to Elton John and Bon Iver. As well as Rihanna, Beyonce, Jay-Z, John Legend, Fergie and… Chris Rock? Those are just the names I’m most familiar with. There’s another Army of guests behind them. But no one takes over Kanye’s game despite their numbers. This is a flower born in the concrete jungle. The fact that it was never trampled or picked or burnt or paved is one of the most welcome miracles in music that I’ve witnessed in some time. I wish it came with a digital copy so I could take it with me. I’d almost buy it again. I like it a lot.

Lucinda Williams “Blessed” Lost Highway

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Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams is a maniacally great songwriter with a voice as recognizable as anyone’s in the industry. She set the bar at sky level with “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road” in 1998 and critics have more or less implied that she hasn’t lived up to its promise since. Her fans know otherwise. I’m a fan. While “Car Wheels” contains what I think is her strongest material, it’s still saddled with sparkly ’90’s production and I’d just as soon listen to 2008’s “Little Honey” or her live set from the Fillmore. All I’m saying is, she has much more to offer than the thirteen killer tunes from “Car Wheels.” It’s not like her best days are behind her. If you don’t believe me, check out her latest, “Blessed.” I’ve not heard or read much about it, but it’s moving me with every spin of the platter. Williams seems to always have some well-publicized event in her life (usually the death of a loved one or the dissolution of a long-term relationship) that gives rise to her latest batch of songs, and that makes for an interesting listen when the quality is there. “Blessed” is of top shelf quality. And I don’t know of any event, save for Vic Chesnutt’s suicide, that spawned this latest batch of magic. It feels like she’s letting loose and following her muse for the sake of the song more so than the sake of her mental or emotional state. Music for music’s sake, I mean. (Now, it feels like I’m being presumptuous and reading way too much into an enjoyable listen. But that’s what I do. It’s never been enough to simply listen. I have to research. So it is.)

The first thing I noticed after a first “Blessed” listen was the variation in the emotional timbre of the individual tunes. If “Little Honey” was a rocker, and “Essence” was super somber, “Blessed” is balanced. The thing I most noticed on second listen was that I felt like it was my 100th listen. I could almost sing along. The songs became a part of my conscience in an immediate and persistent way. They are survivors. Perhaps none more so than “Seeing Black,” the “Chesnutt song” mentioned earlier. And that may be because I knew the history, but I think it’s because of its catchiness and Elvis Costello’s stellar guitar work. They partnered for a song on “Little Honey” too, and I’m so glad they’re sticking with it. Somehow, they go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Thankfully, Lucinda’s still full of venom and vinegar too. “Buttercup” is a kiss-off tune of the highest order, and her lyrics at least suggest that she’s still drawn to drunken angels and grifters. Until she’s not. She always finds her strength and, through it, redemption. It must be a hell of a process for her, but she turns it into gold. An alchemist of superior skill with a well of experience that’s produced for decades already. And her voice… what to say about that? More expressive than powerful, maybe. But that’s where it’s power is. She can almost talk her way through “I Don’t Know How You’re Living” or the title track or any song, really. And that’s not really true. Part of its allure is that it’s impossible to define. The other part of its allure is it’s overt sexuality. (Hollywood has a hard time placing actresses in sensual settings once they’re past 30, maybe younger. Lucinda places herself in whatever setting she damn well wants at 58. I bow to you, ma’am.) I’d still like a rougher production on this record, but that’s true of most any record. Especially new ones. I’d be really curious to hear what David Barbe could do with her material. Or to hear her as a Fat Possum Records artist. Just turn the woman loose in a Mississippi juke joint and roll tape. Everything about her art suggests to me that she’d be on board with the plan, but I also can’t imagine anyone else calling the shots for her so she must sign off on her sound. And, why not? It’s supernatural as is. But it could get grittier, and I hope I live long enough to see it happen. I hope we all do. Given all that, this is my personal favorite collection of Lucinda Williams songs since, you guessed it, “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.” Ironically, I can’t wait to re-explore “Little Honey” next. That one’s a little raunchier and I’m primed for it.

Lost Highway Records is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a slew of re-releases on colored vinyl. “Blessed” is on white double vinyl for its first run. That’s cool, I guess. I’d have preferred a gatefold cover instead, but I can’t be satisfied anyway. The records come with a CD of the album which is cool too. What’s cooler is that it comes with a second CD of “Blessed” demos. Song for song. She calls it “The Kitchen Tapes.” It should come as no surprise that I find these acoustic versions every bit as compelling as the final, fleshed out versions. Maybe more compelling. Really, it’s one of the coolest extras for a vinyl release that I can think of. These tunes are available on a deluxe iTunes edition too although it would have been better to make them specific to the vinyl release. Period. “Blessed” also comes with a variety of outer covers. Mine is the one pictured. There are at least two others. All in all, this is a wicked vinyl release, gimmicks included. But the music makes is what makes it a contender for album of the year so far. It won’t go uncontested as 2011 is shaping up to be a great year for new music outside of the normal schlock that is Top 40. I’m assuming that Secrets readers know that’s not where it’s at anyway. I shouldn’t have even mentioned it. Lucinda would be ashamed.