Posts Tagged ‘indie’

DC radio and WHFS

Monday, October 25th, 2010
and old cassette tape recording of 99.1 WHFS

Image courtesy of naplesgc.blogspot.com

If you’re like me and live in the Washington, DC area, you know that flipping through the radio stations is an exercise in frustration. You basically have the choice among no less than three classic rock stations with identical lineups of tired 70s dadrock, some  top 40 channels, a few hip-hop/rnb networks, a couple of bro-rock stations featuring imbecilic Morning Zoo programs, classical and NPR at the bottom of the dial, and the rest is filled out by latin stations or those “mix” channels that are non-stop Cyndi Lauper and Maroon 5 (basically, music for dentist’s waiting rooms).

Before I continue: yes, I do sometimes listen to the radio, unlike most people under the age of thirty. There’s something reassuring and familiar about the FM dial, despite how its rarely a fulfilling experience. And forgetting higher tech stuff like satellite or HD radio, FM is actually a hi-fi format. If you can get a strong signal, you can get high quality stereo audio for free, provided that the commercials and DJs don’t make you tear your hair out. Something cheap and simple like this one from NAD Electronics can get you started off.

The sorry radio offerings around DC are probably the same around most U.S cities, but there was once a great local channel that met a sad demise: WHFS 99.1 . It had been around since the 60s and was eclectic from the get-go: mostly playing prog, art rock and jam bands. In the eighties it took a turn towards indie and “college rock” genres and was the first radio station to play tons of influential groups.

I have many fond memories of listening to this station as a child in the early 90s : rainy Saturdays riding in the back of my dad’s old Pontiac Sunbird to the strains of Soundgarden or The Psychedelic Furs. It was the first place I remember hearing dozens of bands: The Pixies, The Chameleons, Kitchens of Distinction, R.E.M., Nirvana, My Bloody Valentine, The Stone Roses, Depeche Mode, Jesus Jones, Stereo Mcs, Big Audio Dynamite, Catherine Wheel, Violent Femmes, Butthole Surfers, The Cure, I could go on and on. Not to say that all of it was good, but it was all memorable. Every so often I’ll come across a song that sounds vaguely familiar, and I’ll surmise that I must have heard it before on HFS.

By the end of the nineties, the station was starting to go downhill: you were more likely to hear Papa Roach and Eminem rather than Concrete Blonde and The Smiths. This reflected changing demographics and tastes which is entirely understandable, but it just sucked to hear the station losing its focus (but at the time, my middle school-self actually preferred nu-metal and hip hop so it only sucked in retrospect). Finally, WHFS met it’s demise on January 12, 2005 when it suddenly switched to playing some kind of Mexican polka music. I recall riding home from school in my friend’s car, turning it to HFS and laughing, thinking it was all a lame “wacky” joke. Alas, the switch was permanent, and DC lost its only listenable radio station. Others tried to fill the void, e.g 94.7 “The Globe” which was very HFS-esque for a while then switched to bog standard mix format.

We could blame ClearChannel like a lot of people do, but radio’s demise owes a lot to evolving technology and demographics. The only major bit of hope I see is the fact that the latest iPod Nano has an FM tuner feature…but why would anyone under the age of 40 bother with that when there’s podcasts and free MP3 downloads compatible with the same device?

For further listening, I found a blog that features old tape recordings of 1980’s WHFS and other alt/indie stations.

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 : 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

SACD Review : Pixies – Surfer Rosa (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab remaster)

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

cover of surfer rosa mfsl sacd

Artist – Pixies

Title – Surfer Rosa

Format – Hybrid SACD

Label – 4AD

Year – 1988 (original) , 2007 (remaster)

When the topic of the Pixies comes up, I’ve actually heard some indie fans scoff and call it “entry level”. Fuck that opinion. Yeah, everyone’s seen Fight Club and we all know how Kurt Cobain admits he was basically ripping off the Pixies for most of Nevermind, but you can’t dismiss how pivotal this album was in the context of the 1980’s. Before this album, American indie rock was dominated by jangly R.E.M imitators, stodgy post-punk (yes, I know I just previously reviewed Mission of Burma), or hardcore bands that finally learned to play their instruments. Surfer Rosa defined the sound that carried through to the 90’s and was unfortunately beaten to death by the middle of that decade. The album isn’t perfect (“Tony’s Theme” is a painfully lame piece of filler), but the first seven tracks are unforgettable classics.

I’ve had this album on vinyl for a while but it has a really bad warp that affects the first couple tracks on each side. I figured I should get a more listenable version of it, so I went with the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab SACD. For the uninitiated, a brief intro to SACD and MFSL: SACDs (Super Audio CD) are basically hi-resolution, dual layer CDs. Think Blu-Ray, but for music. The first layer contains the SACD recording, which is stored at a whopping 2822.4 Khz sample rate .The second layer contains the standard “Red Book” recording at 44.1 Khz, which works in any CD player and can be ripped to a computer. In order to get the improved sound of a SACD, you need a compatible player.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab has specialized in audiophile-grade remasters of rock albums since their inception in the late 70’s. They start from the original master tapes and produce an excellent new version true to the intended recording and not all compressed and shrill like modern attempts at remastering (louder=better!!!!111). There is currently a dearth of rock music on SACD, as most of it is classical and jazz, but MFSL is definitely filling the gap. Surfer Rosa is the first non-classical SACD that i’ve bought, as well as the first MFSL release.

So how’s it sound, Mike? Amazing. I started with high expectations which were more than fulfilled. Every song has a distinct sense of ambience and reverb, I really get a sense of the recording space. The drums sound like an actual drum kit and not a bunch of detached, percussive strikes. Joey’s guitar screams and squawks without sounding unpleasantly harsh, and Frank’s strained shrieks are maddeningly detailed. I heard little things that I hadn’t noticed on previous CD and vinyl versions; bits of feedback, string squeak, and a creaking chair during the studio banter at the end of “Oh My Golly!”.

Surfer Rosa SACD unpacked

The only letdown was the packaging. I had expected a plastic case but was instead served a cardboard sleeve (which at least had a protective slipcover for the disc). If you want to own a quality physical copy of this landmark album, I would definitely recommend this version. You can get it from Amazon for about 27 bucks. Even if you don’t own an SACD player yet, this is worth getting because you’ll still get some of the sonic benefits of the remaster on the CD layer.

Music: A-

Sound: A+

Vinyl review : Mission of Burma – Signals, Calls, and Marches

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Mission of Burma - Signals, Calls, and Marches

Artist – Mission of Burma

Title – Signals, Calls, and Marches

Format – 2x 180g Vinyl LP + bonus DVD

Label – Matador (remastered edition, original release on Ace of Hearts)

Year – 1981 (original), 2008 (remaster)

Among the slew of post-punk bands in the early 1980s, Mission of Burma was one of the few American groups, and probably one of the best. I had known of them for years but never checked out any of their work until the autumn of last year when I downloaded their Rykodisc compilation. I was living in Scotland at the time, and something about their songs really resonated with me as I spent countless grim mornings huddled at a bus stop in the pouring rain, hood up and headphones on.

The two disc set consists of the original 1981 EP (remastered from the original tapes) and their debut 7” , both on 12” , 33 1/3 records. These are 180g LPs, which means these records are thicker, heavier and generally better quality than other discs, which are generally 120g-140g. Most audiophile grade recordings are on heavy vinyl, and the improvement in sound is apparent. This is some of the quietest (in terms of surface noise) vinyl I have ever heard. Not a single pop or crack in either the lead in or run out groove, just a faint hiss. Nearly every other record I own has a noticeable amount of crackle, even brand new ones.

Little details are revealed by the new remaster, like the acoustic guitar buried in “Academy Fight Song”, and the bass has a good punch without being overwhelming. However, the vocals are a bit thin and the drums are vaguely distant. Despite this, i’m quite pleased with the sonics: the background is nice and black like I mentioned, and the whole thing has that laid back analog sound I know and love.

The set also includes a coupon for a free MP3 download of the album, booklet with pics and interviews, and a DVD of some live performances from 79-80. I haven’t checked out the DVD yet, but they supposedly had a mixed reputation as a live band (hence the title The Horrible Truth about Burma for their live album). You can get it from Amazon for 28 dollars , but I got mine from elusivedisc , a company i’ve been a fan of for a while.

Music: B+

Sound: B