(This is not the recording’s fault. It’s the pressing. The recording would garner a solid 5/5. I’m serious.)
I think she cried. She took me and my right hand to see Bowie when I was fourteen. To this day, it was one of the most impressive shows I’ve seen. So much so that, 26 years later, I remembered every move in detail when I found a full-show recording on YouTube. The guy had showmanship’s mother in his back pocket, always. If you don’t believe that, witness his goodbye letter that was his last album. Blackstar, it’s called. In hindsight, we can superimpose all manner of messages onto its canvas. Are they our messages? Or his? There’s likely no answer to those questions, and that’s what I call “art.” I’m not sure that Bowie was an artist. I’m thinking he was art. Blackstar certainly is.
And I knew that right when I unwrapped it. The noire gatefold presentation with the die cut cover revealing the disc within. The 12-inch square booklet including photos and lyrics (printed in glossy black on flat black paper). The only thing that concerned me was that my copy was a second pressing as the first sold out immediately upon news of Bowie’s passing. I thought they may have rushed the production and that quality may have suffered. My worst fears were confirmed when I dropped the needle on the album opening title track. At first, I couldn’t tell if the surface noise was part of the program or not. Was it an electronic effect or was it a pressing gaffe? The racket prevailed even between tracks. Eventually, it got so bad that I began to wonder if my new cartridge was misaligned. Fortunately, it was the disc. And it wasn’t just mine. According to the research I’ve done, the second run pressed at MPO is the one to avoid, and that’s the one I got. There were others pressed at Celebrate and RTI, and they are reputedly fine. Do your research before buying. The only way I know to do that is to order from Discogs based on their descriptions of the various versions. I would contact the seller to confirm that their advertised version is actually the one you’re purchasing. The music is worth the effort.
Seems that Bowie went all in on the busy drum sounds that the kids love so much these days. He layered a drifting sax on top here, some swelling strings there. Sounds like the synthesizer was put to good use throughout. Many of the songs are disorienting. Like you’re in a sensory deprivation chamber and someone’s beating on its walls. The first song that really grooves is called “Lazarus,” and it contains this little nugget for your teeth: “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen / I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen / Everybody knows me now.” So, there you go. And how about this one from the same tune: “This way or no way / You know I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird / Now, ain’t that just like me?”
The guy turned his death into high theater. That was, in fact, just like him. At least my version of him. You probably have your own. That’s art, right? I’ll leave you with another one from “Girl Loves Me.” He knew the end was coming for eighteen months before it did. And here’s what he had to say, “I’m sitting in the chestnut tree / Who’s gonna f*ck with me?”
No one. That’s who. Not a damn soul.
I needed something to smooth me out after getting dragged behind the bumper of the gnarly Blackstar pressing. That’s truly an amazing sounding recording, and that pressing was sonically tragic. Soooooo… is there anyone smoother than Al Green? In history? I caught his act at a converted church in Atlanta during the Olympics about six years after the aforementioned Bowie show. Big Al also made an impression. I didn’t know if he’d play any of his secular hits, but he did. He played damn near every one. Some of them were from his Call Me record which might be my favorite. It’s as seductive as you’d expect, but some of the content may surprise you. I’m thinking specifically about the Country material. “(Ain’t It) Funny How Time Slips Away,” for instance. Or “For the Good Times.” Anyway, this one was done by the folks at Speakers Corner. I’ve never had any issues with their pressings. This was just what I needed. I feel better already.
You know you’re hearing an Al Green record even before you hear his inimitable vocals. You could tell just from the drums, in fact. The only thing that might trip you up is when the same band, producer, and studio is used to back up another artist. Like Anne Peebles. But we’re here to talk about Big Al. The title track drops the puck on this game, and I’d imagine that, back in the ‘70s, it also dropped a bunch of britches. He’s famous for that, you know? I’ve heard him say as much during his often manic monologues between songs during shows. (I didn’t stop seeing him after the Olympics. Not by a damn site.) This album shares a similar vibe with Green’s I’m Still In Love With You record, but no reputable company has tackled that reissue yet. Probably for the best. This world is over-populated, as is. “Call Me,” “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” and “You Ought To Be With Me” are probably my faves on this one. And the album closing “Jesus Is Waiting.” (Add that to the Country tunes, and that’s almost the entire album.) I don’t usually go in for strings in my Rock, but sometimes the Soul singers get it right. That certainly applies in this case. The folks at Speakers Corner use an all-analog chain, and that’s about the extent of my knowledge about their operation. My ears tell me everything else. The bass is so much more responsive on this version in comparison to my original copy. It really sets the strings off, and provides a sturdy foundation for the horns. The original Memphis recording has enough grease and grit in it to grow collards and cornbread straight up out of the ground. When you add those types of sonics to a true audiophile remaster and put it all on a pristine disc, you get what this is. And “what this is” is the sweetest experience of some of the tastiest Soul music ever made. This is not hyperbole. It’s almost factual. This one was out of print for a while. Get a copy before it’s gone for good. And mind your britches. We’re running out of room on this rock.
I don’t have many records that “take me back” to my college days, really. My friends and I were mostly into great live bands whose studio releases never captured their magic. One of my roomies turned me on to Uncle Tupelo right around the time of that band’s demise. We were stoked to learn that both of the principle members had new records forthcoming with new bands, and we couldn’t wait to compare the two. Lame and unoriginal in retrospect, but we had our youth to fall back on. Jeff Tweedy’s Wilco band gave us A.M. and Farrar’s Son Volt gave us Trace. That’s the one we’re here to discuss as it was just reissued on vinyl as part of its 20th anniversary celebration. It burns my fingers to have to type such a statement. But getting older beats the alternative. And Trace is as wicked as it seemed back then. It’s aged more gracefully than I have, I guarantee it. And it brings back a flood of hazy memories. The kind that you’d see from the bottom of a shot glass.
I was blown away by Trace from the first notes. It’s easily one of my favorite ‘90s albums. “Drown” still rocks me, and I always remember thinking that the band never quite could pull it off live. The studio version’s lazy lick always seemed rushed onstage. And I never got to see Son Volt perform their cover of Ronnie Wood’s “Mystifies Me,” but I sure as hell saw ‘em play Ol’ Neil’s “Come On Baby, Let’s Go Downtown.” (A purist would likely point out to me that this is actually a Danny Whitten and Crazy Horse tune. Because it is. And this is actually the version they played. I thought they were taking liberties with the lyrics which are slightly different than the ones on Tonight’s The Night.) But, for me, the impact of Trace was mostly felt in the realization that there was more music out there than the improvisational guitar groups and the bands that inspired them that I’d been listening to for the preceding few years. There was still a place, outside of mainstream radio, where badass bands were making killer three-minute tunes with lap steel guitars and old-fashioned melodies. A lightning strike to the forehead would have made less of an impression at the time. In fact, I might not have felt that at all. But I felt Trace, man. Still do. I still tear up singing “Windfall” on occasion. And I still remember seeing those coffins floating through that flooded Midwest town on the news and being so proud of myself for making the connection when I heard Farrar sing about them. Life was simpler then, but somehow I was less happy. But Trace transcends both eras, and I am rarely in the mood to pass on a listen. It’s a record for all times. At least the ones I’ve lived through. I expect it will be with me until the end. I hope so, anyway.
I never had an original copy on vinyl, but this one sounds way better than any digital version I’ve heard. The pressing is almost flawless, and I hear details that are totally new to my ears. They should have included a download card containing the bonus materials that are included with the deluxe CD reissue, but whatever. This album is essential, as is. Get it while it’s hot.
Few pop culture figures are more polarizing than Quentin Tarantino. His dialogue gets so nasty sometimes that I’m embarrassed to say that I’m a fan. But I guess I am. I went to see the Roadshow version of The Hateful Eight. Alone. Best decision I’ve ever made. I’d have walked out, my legs powered by my own sense of righteous indignation, if I’d taken a date. But, in reality, I thought the movie was pretty great. More fun in retrospect, somehow, than in real time. For those who missed it, the Roadshow version was shown on 70mm film. A musical overture was involved along with an intermission and a program. I’d have gone to see any movie in that format just to support someone trying to do something a little different. And I bought the soundtrack even though I knew going in that it had been pressed at United Record Pressing. I skipped the $250 deluxe version for the same reason. That was the second best decision I’ve ever made. The reader may have surmised that the author has made some questionable decisions in his time. To that, the author says, “yep.”
So, here’s my take on The Hateful Eight: first, the snow scenes were beautiful as was the music. The first time Kurt Russell elbowed Jennifer Jason Leigh in the face, I grimaced. I took the violence directed towards Leigh’s character as a commentary on our present state of hero worship, especially as it relates to the athletes and entertainers that we support, en masse, even if they’re abusive towards women. The climax of the movie, to my mind, was a commentary on how we’re going to be more than willing to partner with our worst enemies when things get so globally bad that our very lives depend on it. Maybe I whiffed on the whole thing. Maybe I’m reading too much into a movie that exists simply to glorify violence, misogyny, and racism. But I don’t think that was the director’s intent. And it certainly doesn’t jibe with my worldview. I’m concerned about the amount of simulated violence that I expose myself to and why I am often so entertained by it. So it goes.
Anyway, the soundtrack was composed and orchestrated by Ennio Morricone. If you don’t know what that means, find out. Although The Hateful Eight may be considered a Western by some, and despite the fact that Morricone is a legend in the arena of scoring Western-themed films, this soundtrack sounds more like Horror to me. Perhaps I know too much. For instance, it’s been publicized that Morricone, who was commissioned by Tarantino on short notice, used some leftovers from his early ‘80s score for John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. One way or the other, you don’t get any sounds like the ones he made for Sergio Leone. Nothing like the scores that inspired Danger Mouse’s collaboration with Daniele Lupi a few years back (also on Third Man Records and one of my favorite albums of the last decade). You get a bunch of tension building symphonic work sprinkled with bits of Hateful dialogue, a White Stripes song, and a Roy Orbison tune. Sounds crazy, but it absolutely works. I didn’t think I’d get much play out of this record when I bought it, but I will. It’s fun to listen to.
But I bought it mostly for the packaging. The pressings are better than I’d expected, but not great. The package exceeded my hopes. Triple gatefold presentation in Third Man’s “soft touch” treatment. Two killer posters, a booklet, and… my program from the movie showing fit in perfectly with the rest of it. This is a fun one, gang. That’s what vinyl and music should be. Just be prepared for some gnarly dialogue. Squirming discomfort can be fun too if you tune your antenna right.
There have been signs of life in the Country world recently, gang, mostly as a result of Sturgill Simpson’s muscle and bravery. He made a Country record that was so legit; the Grammy people couldn’t recognize it. They threw him on the Americana pile. The one that Jason Isbell lives on top of. So, I was pretty excited to learn that we have a third name on the menu, now. That name, in case you missed it, is Chris Stapleton. I guess he won a bunch of CMA awards a few months ago. And he played “Tennessee Whiskey” live on that show with Justin Timberlake. I didn’t see it, but lots of folks did. The version on Stapleton’s Traveller record is pretty great. Maybe the highlight of the album. I’m on the fence about the whole thing, honestly. I’m standing on the dock in my swimsuit and flip-flops, but I’m afraid the boat went right on by me. Maybe it’ll circle back.
I can see what the folks at the Country Music Awards and the Grammys found so appealing about this record. It’s plenty commercial without all of the hideousness and banality that’s attached to what we call Country music these days. If “Nobody To Blame” isn’t a radio hit, those folks just aren’t paying attention. It’s catchy as hell, and you’re not gonna bust a blood vessel drilling down through the layers of subtext and imagery to get the meaning. Stapleton serves it all up to you with no hidden fees. As a wise woman once told me: it’s good if you like it. And I like it best when Stapleton plays things close to his vest. The quieter numbers, I guess. Like “Whiskey and You.” Or “When The Stars Come Out,” which I like in spite of myself. Stapleton sounds a little like a cooler version of Kenny Rogers to me, generally speaking, and that became a distraction once I made the connection. Still, I’m not ready to rain on the parade here. In this era, we need all the parades we can get. Throw enough material at the wall, and something is bound to stick. This is so much more appealing and honest than the Florida/Georgia Lines that Stapleton has placed himself outside the genre. This ain’t Hot New Country. Is not. But it’s not exactly traditional either. And that’s fine. We don’t need the labels in the first place. They make writing about music easier, but music isn’t for writing about. I enjoy trying, but not as much as I love listening. And I may get a couple of trips around the plinth with Traveller. But I may sell it to my local independent retailer for store credit. I’m giving it a couple of months. Maybe it’ll call to me from its home on my shelf, right next to Chuck Berry. But I’m much more likely to reach for Chuck Berry and be done with it. I’m not on the fence about him at all.
Traveller is a flimsy, double album pressed (poorly) at United Record Pressing. My fourth side is decimated which is too bad because Dave Cobb’s production leaves plenty of tasty spaces between notes. The acoustic instruments sound especially airy and alive when you can hear them. No digital copy included which is weird. I might go with a download if I were you. (I feel dirty for having typed that. I’m gonna go wash my hands now.)