Archive for the ‘Music Reviews’ Category

On Singles

Friday, November 5th, 2010

45 RPM singles collection

Image courtesy of noiseaddicts.com

Singles are often overlooked by hi-fi enthusiasts, disregarded as junk in favor of limited edition 180g boxsets and the like. In some ways they were the MP3s of the vinyl era: cheap, tradeable, compact, and expendable. So expendable that they are a dime a dozen these days and often in very poor shape (people used to stack them up on their turntable, removing one after each track to create a primitive playlist). But despite the difficulty of finding singles in good condition, they are a good way to get some easy wax into your collection. In addition to affordability, they have a supposed sound benefit because the 45 RPM speed allows greater spacing between the grooves which in turn permits better dynamics.

I own only a few singles, most of which I took from my father’s collection. The rarest in the collection is probably “Robot Love / For Adolfs Only” by The Valves , an incredibly early punk band from Edinburgh. Unfortunately, my copy was wrecked when a girl I was dating sat on it. I was sorting through my collection and set the single down on the couch next to me, she plopped down without realizing and hairline cracked the damn thing. The whole thing was my fault entirely but I got mad at her regardless, and we broke up like a month later (for other reasons, but the record cracking incident was the start of the downfall). Anyway, I’m going to give some of my singles a good listen and report back on the sonic quality or lack thereof.

Joy Division – “Love Will Tear Us Apart / These Days” : The krautrock-esque drums snap outward (but the hihat sizzles in the distance). Ian Curtis’ robotic murmuring emanates from the dead center, the synths swirl and the guitar just kinda stays there. When I flipped it over to “These Days” I hadn’t noticed that side B was at 33 RPM and briefly wondered why it was some cheesy New Order dance remix…yeah. Curtis sounds even more like an android on this tune, proper speed or not. The percussion is desperately thin but the guitars are at least up to something. Track 2 on side B is some kind of alternate take for “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, and frankly it just sucks.

Nirvana – “Sliver / Dive” : The vinyl is quiet for a used record, ill give it that, but this kind of stuff is hard to judge on audiophile grounds. At the beginning, the bass intro sounds promising but it disappears into mush which I guess is the point. Side A ends with a pointless recording of a hung over / strung out Cobain on the phone with his producer or something. Side B’s “Dive” is a better song and a slightly better recording.

Lou Reed – “Walk on the Wild Side / Perfect Day” : That famous bassline rumbles nicely and the acoustic guitar chills in the right-center channel. The “colored girls” surround Reed on both sides during their bit, but the rest of Reed’s vocals get that irritating sibilance which I pin more on the record wear rather than a flaw in the recording. An unfortunate buzzing quality affects the closing sax solo. “Perfect Day” lacks most of these sonic faults for some reason. The occasional popping and clicking enhances this intensely defeating and ironic tune.

So despite that these singles aren’t shining examples of acoustic brilliance, they are still worthy components of my music library. The only real pain in the ass associated with them that my turntable ( the Pro-ject Debut III) doesn’t have a speed control so I have to remove the platter and physically move the belt to a different part of the motor when I want to switch between 33/45 . Fortunately, there exists a speed box that you plug in between the power source and the table which adjusts the motor speed.

Vinyl review : Times New Viking – Rip It Off

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

Times New Viking - Rip it Off

Artist – Times New Viking

Title – Rip It Off

Format – 180g Vinyl LP

Label – Matador

Year – 2008

Finally, I’m reviewing an album that isn’t from the 1980’s ! Times New Viking is a loud as fuck lo-fi group from Columbus, Ohio. Now I know what you’re thinking : a lo-fi recording on a hi-fi system? Is it even fair to evaluate this on sonic grounds? Well, I picked up this record to hear how my system can handle an intentionally poor recording, and to also find out if a lo-fi band can still create a recording that is in some way acoustically remarkable.

I’ve “owned” this album in MP3 form for a few years, so I am familiar with how earsplittingly hot and strident this recording is. Quite often it comes up during shuffle mode, causing me to wince and fumble for my iPod volume. Having experienced this, I lowered the tonearm on Side A expecting Teen Drama to explode out of the speakers. Strangely, and somewhat disappointingly, I wasn’t blown backward like the Maxell guy. The music buzzes and blares but makes no attempt to go forward, politely making a din at a reasonable distance. On the back of the album cover reads the advice “please play loud”, which didn’t help much when I tried. Everything is mostly the same volume. The drums sounds like someone hitting cardboard boxes. No bass frequencies to speak of. Just one constant midrangey howl.

Some of the tunes are really catchy, e.g. DROP-OUT and RIP allegory, but the rest of the album sounds like short Dinosaur Jr. songs with broken equipment and forced indie affectations. The packaging is cool, if you dig played out typewriter and collage motifs. There’s a “contains explicit lyrics” warning on the front, which I found very amusing.

I put this record on expecting shit, I accept this, but I thought it would be shit with some feeling of engagement or presence. It offers little improvement over the MP3 copies (and the album comes with a coupon for the free downloads if you want them). Buy the album here for around 20 bucks if you want some hipster cred (which is a new grade I’m adding to my reviews from now on). At least it’s on 180 gram vinyl.

Music – C+

Sound – D-

Hipster Cred – B

Vinyl review : Minutemen – Double Nickels on the Dime

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

minutemen double nickels on the dimeArtist – Minutemen

Title – Double Nickels on the Dime

Format – 2x Vinyl LP

Label – SST

Year – 1984

A few years ago I kept reading how groundbreaking and influential Double Nickels on the Dime was so I downloaded the album (naturally). I tried to listen to it but couldn’t really get into the music for some reason. The short, quirky, directionless songs didn’t do anything for me, with the exception of “Corona”, which anyone can immediately recognize as the Jackass theme. Recently, I picked the vinyl version up on a whim and gave it another shot. Now I finally get it. The reason I didn’t like this album on MP3 was cause I kept skipping around between tracks, looking for something that I instantly liked. Double Nickels does not work that way. The record has to be taken as a whole, with the good songs nestled among the weak and forgettable. Listening to it on vinyl makes shuffling around the tracks practically impossible, forcing you to groove on the gestalt. And that goes for any record regardless of genre, which is yet another advantage of the almighty LP.

I’ll leave you this link to Wikipedia for all the background about the band and the record because they summarize it much better than I can, and it’s not really relevant to the audio review. I will say that for a band that “jams econo”, the production on Double Nickels is uncharacteristically great. Great in the sense that there isn’t really any production to speak of, no effects or multitracking or anything, just a solid analog recording of the band doing their thing. The tracks run together with little gap between, which is totally intentional and give the impression of an extended jam session. I noticed quickly that the soundstage is kind of compressed and cramped, but it seems to open up as the album progresses. Hurley’s drums and Watt’s bass burst out of the speakers without assaulting my ears to the point of annoyance. Quieter acoustic guitar portions are well defined and natural, with humanizing string squeak and a good sense of dynamics. D. Boon’s vocals are satisfactory in the acoustic sense, but the lyrics are mostly just stoned ramblings with a few trenchant insights sprinkled in.

The album’s packaging ain’t bad, a nice gatefold sleeve with barely legible lyrics on the back and some band pics plus Raymond Pettibon artwork on the inside. Double albums always have beefy spines that look good on a shelf, so much so that i’ve encountered records that are only a single disc but put in double packaging anyway (like the Plain Records re-release of Loveless).

Double Nickels on the Dime proved that punk rock could be more than just power chords and blastbeats. Get this record for the noteworthiness but also for a true vinyl experience. Drop the needle, ingest your intoxicant of choice (optional) and take an engrossing ride that tosses you between genius and garbage. Amazon has this sucker in a warehouse just waiting to be raked with a microscopic piece of diamond, all for the low-ass price of thirteen bucks!

Music – B+

Sound – A

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbBVOnRFHF8

Vinyl review : Felt – Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

Artist – Feltfelt - crumbling the antiseptic beauty

Title – Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty

Format – Vinyl LP

Label – Cherry Red

Year- 1981

Felt was an early indie band from England that mostly made jangly stuff centered around guitar melodies. The lead singer and songwriter goes only by “Lawrence” and sounds kind of like Bryan Ferry on valium.

…i’m not sure what else to say, really. Having listened through some of their 10 year discography, it’s all kind of samey : shimmering, atmospheric instrumentals paired with plaintive lyrics. They get a little poppyer and uptempo as they progress through the 80s, but this debut record is on the darker side..

The album opens with Evergreen Dazed, a 5 minute instrumental piece whose pained guitar lines evoke shuffling through chilly fall afternoons under steel gray skies. Unfortunately, the guitar on this track is kinda shrill, I mean I guess its meant to be high pitched and twangy but it’s still not as smooth as I expected from vinyl.

Our next song is Fortune , and the version on this album is different than the one i’ve heard before, it’s slower and has tribal-ish drums instead of porn music rim knocks. Wiki tells me it was re-recorded and re-released in 84 as a b-side, which is probably what I heard before. I prefer the single version.

Guitar harshness is reduced on the rest of the tracks, but still seems too jumpy and fake. On the tracks that have percussion, the drums are primitive style tomtoms and hand drums that have appropriate bass and a sense of being struck by a person. Lawrence’s vocals can get rather hissy and sibilant, especially on I Worship The Sun. In sum, the album’s sound isn’t terrible but it left me disappointed, especially since I had only heard the MP3s from the CD version before so I was expecting to be blown away by a rich sonic landscape. I guess if I had a tube amp it would mellow out the edges a bit.

Being that this is a fairly rare record, I can’t find it on Amazon for you guys. I got my copy from a guy on Discogs for about 55 dollars, which is fairly steep but at least it was in near mint condition.

Music – B-

Sound – C

Vinyl review : R.E.M. – Chronic Town

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

R.E.M. Chronic Town EP

Artist – R.E.M.

Title – Chronic Town

Format – Vinyl EP

Label – IRS

Year – 1982

Short record, short review. This five song EP was R.E.M.’s first major release after their 1981 single “Radio Free Europe” (and that single sounds a hell of a lot different than the album version they put out a few years later).

I picked this up for $12.50 at Joe’s Record Paradise in Silver Spring, MD, a shop I used to visit at their old Rockville location before I left for college. The record is in good shape with quiet grooves, although i’m pissed at myself for damaging the sleeve when peeling off the pricetag. With the needle down, the guitars ring and chime appropriately and Stipe’s mumbling follows suit. Bill Berry’s drumming on the first few tracks, especially on “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)” are really muted and indistinct; the cymbals mush together and sound like those maracas you made out of an oatmeal box filled with rice back in 2nd grade art class. Side B’s percussion has much better definition and push, but the cymbals are still kinda dialed down. I guess we can’t really expect world-class sonics from a debut EP.

Acoustic flaws aside, this is an excellent first record that nicely lays out the style they pursue on their next two LPs.  Some smug British dude wrote that R.E.M.’s stuff from the first half of the eighties was just Stipe “…mumbling gibberish into his fringe over tinny old Byrds riffs”, but I think that their work from that period was some of their best. Everything after Monster is entirely forgettable. Speaking of irrelevant musicians, Stipe should team up with Moby and do a tour of bald vegan white dudes with serious opinions about things.

Music – B+

Sound – B

Vinyl review : Rick Astley – Whenever You Need Somebody

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Artist – Rick Astley

Title – Whenever You Need Somebody

Format – Vinyl LP

Label – RCA

Year – 1987

Yeah, I know, old meme is old and we’ve all been rickrolled over 9000 times already. We really don’t need to talk about Rick Astley any moar, but as far as i’m concerned, haters gonna hate. So while I haz your attention, I’m gonna ask a question: Has anyone really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like? Because….um..uhh….okay, that’s enough obligatory 4chan memes (but I did briefly consider writing this entire post in Impact).

In case you have been living under a rock for the past three years, Rickrolling was an internet fad where you trick people into a clicking a link to the YouTube video of “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley. The purported humor lies in the intense eighties-ness of the song and the general incongruity of suddenly viewing a scrawny red haired Englishman awkwardly gyrating in front of a chain link fence instead of that funny cat video your friend promised. This prank was intensely popular throughout 2008; it became the theme song for Anonymous (the ad-hoc group of Guy Fawkes mask wearing basement residents who surface in public to protest Scientology, of all things), the target of online poll spamming to get it played at Mets games, and finally culminated in Astley himself lip syncing the song during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

I gotta be honest , I’ve only listened to the first half of this record so far and I don’t really plan on even attempting the B side unless under extreme duress or extreme intoxication. Like all of Astley’s oeuvre, it consists of competent but uncompelling dance-R&B constructed on synth equipment that sounds charmingly dated to modern listeners. But even before Rickrolling was a thing I unironically enjoyed “Never Gonna Give You Up” and to this day maintain that it is a corny but solid pop song, despite all the jokey baggage it accumulated thanks to Family Guy and the Internet.

Rick Astley's Whenever You Need Somebody vinyl LP plus liner notes

Like most mass-market LPs, this album comes on thin, floppy vinyl. The inner sleeve is printed with lyrics, credits, and several B&W portraits of the man himself. Drop the needle on Side A and that opening drum fill we’re all too familiar with bursts out the speakers with surprising depth. In fact, the tracks I’ve listened to so far have a fairly rich and detailed sound for something that was likely recorded on some crummy 16-bit Sony DASH machine. However, it’s still difficult to judge the sonic properties of electronic music like Astley’s because drum machines and synths don’t “exist” in an acoustic space, they are dumped straight to their recording medium instead of being miked in a studio.

In about 10-15 years when we’re all grown up, Rickrolling will officially count as nostalgia. If you have this album on vinyl by then, you can put it on during one of your yuppie wine & cheese parties and smugly revel in the fact that you just Rickrolled your friends…IN ANALOG! The guests geeky enough to remember the joke will briefly laugh and reminisce about various other dumb memes from a youth wasted online, while those who don’t get it will just shrug and go back to their Pinot Noir. To prepare yourself for that day, Amazon has used copies starting at just under five bucks , or you could probably find it at your local record store like I did.

NEXT WEEK : “Bed Intruder Song” split 7″ with Eduard Khil

Music: C

Sound: B-