I went on a bad run, same as the bad ones I’ve experienced in previous years. I’ve yet to figure out what causes the ebb and flow in quality. I don’t know if the plants get overwhelmed by volume or if equipment malfunctions are common. I do know that RTI doesn’t seem to experience the same occasional drop-off in quality that the other plants do. So, it can be done consistently well. It’s just not happening. I felt somewhat validated by reading the Washington Post article about Gillian Welch taking matters into her own brilliant hands. She and David Rawlings were fed up with the quality in the market too, so they bought and restored their own lathe. Their first run of The Harrow and the Harvest sold out before I could get my hands on one, but I finally secured a copy yesterday. Holy smokes. This is an instant classic. I’m beyond excited about it. Can’t recommend it enough.
This record sounds amazing. Cut from the original analog masters, obviously, and Lord, is it alive. So much detail and life in these grooves. So much three dimensionalities. There’s a “knocking at the door” lyric in the album opener (“Scarlet Town”) which finds one of the two players (either Welch or Rawlings) rapping on their acoustic guitar at the appropriate time, and it sounds so real that I seriously thought I had a visitor at my apartment. My heart skipped a beat, no lie. “The Way It Will Be” sounds like an outtake from Neil Young’s On The Beach sessions while Rawlings’ playing throughout is on par with that of the finest working acoustic guitarists today. Or any day, really. Rawlings is one of my favorite players ever, and this release gives the listener a more accurate idea of what you get out of Rawlings in a typical live setting than what he showed us on his own Poor David’s Almanac (cut from the same lathe) a few months back. That record is a ton of fun. This one is life changing. I caught Welch and Rawlings at the Fillmore when I first got to San Francisco in 2005. I’d never gotten to see them work prior to that, and the hook was set from that point forward. I always try to catch them at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, but they play the big stage, and I can never get too close. This record gets you as close as you can be without hiring the duo to play in your home. The material is as compelling as you’d expect given the amount of talent available to the duo’s two members. The seeming simplicity of these Appalachia-inspired compositions bellies the amount of musicality necessary to effectively make them fly. These are solid songs being performed by the hands of two masters. The naturalness of the acoustic instruments on this record are rivaled in my collection only by the Garcia/Grisman record that MoFi did a few years ago, and maybe by some of the higher end Classical titles by Analogue Productions that we’ve explored here previously. In fact, Harrow was pressed at AP’s facility. I still prefer discs pressed by RTI, but Harrow is a full-on vinyl event. I’m salivating for more, and I hope it comes soon.
I spent most of my time in college at Widespread Panic shows. When I wasn’t at a show, I was talking about a show I’d seen. Or planning what shows I was going to see next. Time passed, and I kinda drifted out of the circle when the band’s co-founder and lead guitarist, Mikey Houser, passed away. A series of pedestrian releases followed, and I started to wonder if I’d hallucinated the band’s greatness in the first place. There are a variety of events that might have given rise to such hallucinations, but a recent live release documenting a Panic show from Halloween 2000 brought me right back into the fold. This band was once legitimately great. A truly original sound with a list of badass songs to choose from that’s as vast as the interstate system that still allows the band to thrive today. The show in question was recorded for Austin City Limits, and the record is called Live From Austin TX (sic). It’s certainly a live one. It’s like taking a trip home. Whatever your best definition of “home” might be.
Widespread typically makes their Halloween show into the event of the season by debuting a bevy of whacky covers and revisiting wackier covers from All Hallows Eves past. This is not one of those. This is a more standard set list that’s composed of mostly originals along with a couple of choice covers by a couple of the band’s buddies and one by J.J. Cale. By live show standards, the set list is not dazzling. However, the collection of tunes makes for a nice sonic sampler of what one might have expected by attending a Panic show circa the year 2000. And, if my memory serves (which it often does not), the band was at the height of its super powers then. There’s a tasty “song sandwich” on side three that finds “Surprise Valley” inhabiting the middle of “Driving Song” which gives way to Cale’s “Travelin’ Light” on side four. This band’s live performances are difficult to capture in their unadulterated forms on wax because there’s just not enough space. Panic has been known to perform entire sets without pause, and they just don’t make records big enough to handle that load. This is a New West Records release, which caused me great consternation coming in because they used to use United Record Pressing almost exclusively (based on the author’s personal experience, there’s no peer reviewed literature to support this assertion). These two discs were pressed at MPO, which I believe is in France, and they’re both superb. I’m here to say that these might pass a blind taste test up against some of RTI’s finer work. And that is really great news for WSP fans because their reissue campaign from a couple of years back was a colossal embarrassment. I picked this one up in the interest of maintaining the completeness of my Panic vinyl collection, but wound up with one of the finest entries in their catalog to show for my efforts. This release is part of a larger series of Austin City Limits performances on vinyl. Now that I know the quality is there, I’ll be looking forward to exploring the other titles in this series by Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle. You should too.
At first glance, it would appear that the Black Friday edition of Record Store Day 2017 came & went without so much as a whistle through the Rock section. I got in line at an ungodly hour, same as I always do. I wanted three records. I got four. My primary target was the first ever vinyl release of Willie Nelson’s Spirit from 1996. I went straight to it, and snagged my copy off of the wall. I took a second to peruse a Gram Parsons record that I ultimately passed on, and the remaining copies of Spirit were gone when I was done. So it goes. It’s still available from independent online sellers for list price. If you want a copy, I’d suggest getting after it right away. There should be 2,199 copies floating around outside the confines of my apartment. It’s good.
The music is great. I like Willie’s music a lot. And most of what I know about Ol’ Willie, in general. But he’s far from my favorite. I tend to prefer his quieter, more stripped down records, and I don’t know that Willie is ever going to get any closer to the bone than he did on Spirit. Two guitars (Willie on lead acoustic), a fiddle, and Willie’s sister on piano. The occasional harmony vocal. Beyond that, it’s straight Willie. Seems like our guy was bent on bringing the Spanish-style accents that he’s used to such great effect right out front and into the spotlight on Spirit. The album opens with an instrumental sketch called “Matador,” and it closes with a reprise of the same tune. “Mariachi” is in the middle. There are a couple of Christian-tinged tunes (“Too Sick to Pray,” “I Thought of You, Lord”) that anticipate Willie’s follow-up to Spirit which was comprised of straight up Christian spirituals and was released just a few months later. But more than any lyrical themes or motifs, this record just creates its own mood and hangs out there for the entirety of the program. Modern Classic Recordings did a swell job of packaging that mood as the matte album cover with the sepia portrait of Willie on the front (and again in the gatefold) and the sepia colored vinyl tie the whole thing together in a melancholy little bow. These are the same folks that put out Willie’s Teatro on a Record Store Day past. I had to fight with them about that one, as my pressing was defective as hell. They did a little better with Spirit, but there are still disruptions. Overall, the pressing is passable, but there are a couple of noisy bursts that briefly yank you out of your reverie. Unfortunately, “good enough” is about all you can aim for on Record Store Day. I don’t know why the pressings are so consistently compromised. Maybe the plants have to rush to meet the demand. Maybe consumers just don’t care. Whatever the case may be, Spirit is a well-pressed record of a pedestrian quality recording. Teatro was a world-class recording on Bush League wax. One fine day, a reputable company should take these on. Until then, these are as good as it gets. A died in the wool audiophile might wanna pass. Willie fans most assuredly should not.
Man, I’d waited many a dark moon to get my hands on a vinyl copy of Steve Earle’s El Corazón. Problem is, there never was such a thing until November 24, 2017. The work was originally released on October 7, 1997. I’ll live a thousand years before I understand the reasoning behind the 20-year delay. My excitement at the news of the release was tempered significantly by my fear of Record Store Day pressings, in general, but I’ll spare the reader any suspense and say from the beginning that my fears were gloriously unfounded. They got this one right. There’s hope for us yet.
This record is a masterpiece. While I’m not familiar with Earle’s entire catalog, I do know much of it. If it gets any better than this, I’d love to hear about it. Clearly, this is a subjective discussion. But it is almost not. There are zero weak songs in this box. And quite a few great ones. I mean, it opens with “Christmas In Washington” and ends with “Ft. Worth Blues.” I’ve cried whilst listening to the latter. And I’m not exaggerating. Not this time. “Taneytown” and “N.Y.C.” are two of my favorite rockers from the past 30 years, and “If You Fall” is one of my fave love songs ever. A close friend who is no longer with us introduced me to the album. He passed away three years after El Corazón’s release, and I always think of him when I hear it. So I’m aware that this sentiment is likely coloring my experience of the listen. But it’s still a masterpiece. It sounds more or less, like it was recorded in the ‘90s, so the sonics are a little thin. The format warms things up a bit, but the environment is still a little too sterile for the songs to make babies in. Whatever. You gotta play the hand you’re dealt. And my world is infinitely richer for having El Corazón in it, cleanliness be damned. Earle’s collaboration with the Del McCoury Band on “I Still Carry You Around” predates their teaming up on The Mountain by two years so I’m guessing they got their rocks off dropping that little Bluegrass chestnut into the middle of the El Corazón to such glimmering effect. He also works a couple of collaborations with the Fairfield Four and the Supersuckers into the mix for good measure. There are 12 songs in total, six on each side. That makes a nice analogy for the balance of the record, overall. There’s a little bit of country, and some swing. Some grinder rock, and some ballade ring. Acoustic and electric. Dirty and clean. All of the emotion that a heart can handle with enough intelligence to get across the finish line. Steve Earle isn’t one to sit still. If I’d released a record this impactful, I’d have been tempted to hang out there for a while. But Earle has never circled back to make a similar sound that I’m aware of. He’s done some stuff with electronics and DJs. Lord knows, he’s done his fair share of protesting. I love it all. But I couldn’t live without my heart. And El Corazón is exactly what the title implies. This one is still alive. Thank God.
Big Star used to be a band that made you feel extra hip for just being aware of its existence. A friend of mine from home turned me onto their first two records, and I’ve had both feet planted firmly onboard since. Classic Records did some superb reissues of those two discs that are amongst the most satisfying listens in my collection, but it took a while before I found Big Star’s Third. This was a studio album recorded with Jim Dickinson at the helm while the band (and its remaining two members) was in the process of a dynamic implosion. Some of the band’s sheen was stripped away for this final round in the Power Pop ring. Things got a little dark, and a lot great. Then… the record was shelved for about three long years until 1978 by which time the band had split up. There were CD reissues under a couple of different titles with a variety of album covers, and the original work was eventually reissued on vinyl by a less than reputable company. The cat was way out of the bag when a group of stellar players convened to recreate Third onstage in 2010. The group called itself… Big Star’s Third, and they’ve taken their act around the world by now. I caught a show at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in 2015 (I think), and it was by far one of the coolest acts I’ve caught at the coolest music festival around. This year’s Black Friday Record Store Day event saw the vinyl release of a show recorded on April 27, 2016 in Glendale, California. It’s called Stroke It, Noel: Big Star’s Third In Concert. It’s great.
But there are a couple of things to know going in. I expected to hear a recreation of the album in its original running order, but that’s not what’s happening here. This is more like a tribute to the recording (and to Big Star’s most obvious member, Alex Chilton) than it is a straight recreation. Which is a little odd because the “cast” took great pains to make individual song recreations fly. I mean, the Kronos Quartet was brought in to work up the stringy parts. There’s a conductor, and a horn section (which includes Ralph Carney). The core band consists of twelve members, and there are nine special guests listed. Members of Big Star, R.E.M., Wilco, and Yo La Tengo all participated. With all that talent and that much force, I might have liked to have heard the work in its original form with the other material tagged onto the end. But that’s complicated by the fact that there are multiple versions of the original work, and each has a different running order, and some involve different songs altogether. So, here we are. There are worse spots to be, I promise. This record’s a ton of fun. It’s pretty well pressed; there are no egregious issues with that, just a little surface noise here and there that might scrub out with additional cleanings. There are no digital copies included, and an event of this magnitude screams for additional liners, which are nowhere to be found. But there’s a lot of joy and celebratory goodness in these grooves. If you’re a fan of the legend of Third, I’d say this is worth your time. There’s a DVD of the concert floating around out there too. It’s nice to see this record getting its time to shine.