Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Bleach - Nirvana

Sub Pop SP 834

This is the double-album expanded reissue version of Nirvana's debut album originally released in 1989 on Sub Pop as SP 34.  It is pressed on white vinyl.  The original album is on one LP and there is a second LP of a live show at the Pine Street Theatre in Portland from February 9, 1990.  There is also an album size booklet full of vintage photos of the band from the late 1980s and some reproductions of contracts, record sleeves and other record company ephemera.  I first obtained this album on a CD which I purchased after hearing "Nevermind."  I'm embarrassed to admit that I did not pay any attention to Nirvana prior to their rapid rise to fame and was not even aware of this record upon its original release.  At the time I was working two jobs and writing my Ph.D. dissertation so I did not have much time for music.  Also I was bummed out about the demise of the vinyl record which greatly diminished my interest in music collecting at the time.  I think if I had heard "Bleach" when it was first released, I would have been very impresssed.  Record collector extraordinaire Kurt Cobain synthesized all sorts of disparate influences to come up with a hard rock sound that pushes all my buttons.  The album kicks off with the hard-riffing "Blew."  The lyrics are simple and a bit obscure, but introduce the negative vibe that pervades the record reinforced by Cobain's tortured vocal.  "Floyd the Barber" is a perverse spin on "The Andy Griffith Show" driven by a primitive, pounding riff reminiscent of pop-metal bands like Kiss or AC/DC.  "About a Girl" was written about Cobain's girlfriend and is the most pop oriented song on the album.  It is my favorite track on the album.  It is a love song, but it is a pissy love song, no straight ahead romance for this dark record.  According to Charles Cross' bio on Cobain, Kurt listened to "Meet the Beatles" three hours straight prior to composing the song which might account for some of its melodic flavor.  "School" is a return to hard rock with a killer riff and Cobain screeching about not having recess at school.  The lyrics are dumb and repetitive but the song is so highly charged that they are still amazingly effective.  It is a testament to the breadth of Cobain's musical tastes that he selected Nirvana's cover of the obscure "Love Buzz" by Shocking Blue (originally released on "At Home") and made it his own.  The song is driven by Krist Novoselic's hypnotic Middle-Eastern flavored bass riff over which Cobain drapes layers of distorted guitar noise and fast paced runs.  His vocal sounds slightly goofy adding some much appreciated humor to the record.  This is my other favorite track on the album.  It is followed by the ultra-heavy sludge of "Paper Cuts" which is for me the creepiest song on the record.  Cobain sings of being imprisoned by some maternal figure.  It has vivid details of his degradation and is unrelenting in its evocation of misery.  The side concludes with the punky "Negative Creep" which is full of primitive energy.  Side two opens with "Scoff" which is driven by a heavy power riff as Cobain howls for alcohol in between scathingly reproachful and nihilistic lyrics.  "Swap Meet" sounds like a heavier version of the classic Nirvana track "Sliver."  I believe Cobain is mocking hippies in the song.  "Mr. Moustache," "Sifting" and "Big Cheese" ridicule authority figures. "Mr. Moustache" is a fast-paced punk-style tune, "Sifting" is lumbering and metallic and "Big Cheese" is grungy.  The punk influenced "Downer" is vaguely political, but mostly it is Cobain venting his spleen.  I suppose that is true of most of the album, it is full of anger and negativity.  The live album comprises six songs from "Bleach" namely "School," "Floyd the Barber," "Love Buzz," "Scoff," "About a Girl" and "Blew."  I particularly like the noisy and raucous version of "Love Buzz" which blows away the studio version and the passionate interpretation of "Scoff."  It is the non-album tracks that make this live album special though.  It features a throat-shredding performance of "Dive" from the "Sliver" single which is one of the highlights of the show.  There is also a terrific work out on "Spank Thru" which saw its first official release on the "Sub Pop 200" compilation.  There is a rocking cover of the Vaselines' "Molly Lips" which appeared on "Hormoaning" and "Incesticide" in a performance recorded for John Peel's radio show.  There is a punchy version of "Sappy" with an exciting hoarse vocal from Cobain.  The song made its first official appearance as an unlisted track on the "No Alternative" compilation album.  There is also an energetic performance of "Been A Son" from the "Blew" EP.  The live album has excellent sound quality and the band plays with a lot of power and enthusiasm.  It makes the purchase of the deluxe version of this album worthwhile, I'm really glad to have it.  Nirvana fans of course already have the original album, but I think this upgrade is worth the expense.  If you are not a Nirvana fan, this is a great place to start.  Unlike a lot of records from that era, it has hardly aged at all, after 24 years it still sounds fresh and exciting to me.  With this record, Cobain drove a stake through the heart of the 1980s and anyone who suffered through that decade ought to be grateful.  Recommended to people who think it is better to burn out than to fade away.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Scepter Studios Sessions - The Velvet Underground

Scepter Studios Sessions
The Velvet Underground
Polydor B0017649-01

By an eerie coincidence I was listening to this album this morning when I started my laptop and opened the Yahoo homepage and saw a picture of Lou Reed.  A chill ran through me even before I read the text, I knew that he must be dead.  There he was singing on my turntable as I read about his death.  Ironically the first time I ever heard of Lou Reed was when I was a freshman in high school sitting in Electronics class and a couple of stoner girls asked our hip teacher, Mr. Farrow, if he had heard that Lou Reed was dead.  He was of course very much alive back then.  The girls spoke of Reed as if he were some rebel junkie, which I guess was not too far from the persona he had cultivated.  I was just becoming aware of underground culture and was intrigued by their conversation.  Soon I had some rock reference books and learned about Reed and the Velvet Underground.  I bought "Transformer" but was kind of lukewarm in my reaction to it.  But then I picked up "The Velvet Underground & Nico" and it blew me away.  I loved the Velvets from that moment and I managed to track down all of their records and listened to them all the time.  I was far more interested in the Velvets than Reed's solo career but as I got older I came to admire his solo albums and acquired most of them.  It is a very impressive body of work, consistently interesting and adventurous.  The Velvets are still one of my favorite groups and I dutifully collect their archival recordings of which there are now quite a few.  This one comprises the acetate they cut at Scepter Records Studio in New York, financed and "supervised" by Andy Warhol and Norman Dolph, a former record company executive.  It was discovered by a record buff at a New York City flea market where he bought it for 75 cents, perhaps the greatest used record score of all time.  Six of the nine tracks on here were re-mixed and used by Verve for the Velvet's debut album, "The Velvet Underground & Nico."  The other three tracks, "Heroin," "Venus In Furs" and "I'm Waiting for the Man" were re-recorded for that album.  The acetate version of "Heroin" is nearly a minute shorter than the Verve version and is less noisy although otherwise the arrangements are similar.  I think the re-recorded vocal is more expressive than the acetate one.  The acetate version of "Venus in Furs" is also shorter than the release version but otherwise they are similar and I don't see that the Verve version is any big improvement over the acetate track.  The acetate "I'm Waiting for the Man" however pales in comparison to the supercharged release version.  Not only is the Verve re-recording a lot punchier but it boasts a superior, more effusive vocal from Reed.  The version of "European Son" on the acetate goes on for more than a minute longer than the official release version.  The acetate version of "All Tomorrow's Parties" features Nico's vocal on just a single track as opposed to the double-tracked lead vocal on the Verve release.  The double tracked vocal is certainly stonger and heavier, but I like the more plaintive quality of the acetate recording.  The acetate's version of "I'll Be Your Mirror" is missing the backing vocal of "reflect what you are" at the conclusion of the song.  The backing vocals in "Femme Fatale" are different too.  On the acetate you hear more voices, on the Verve version Lou Reed's backing vocal is higher in the mix and the recording has more reverb.  The acetate "The Black Angel's Death Song" and "Run Run Run" sound practically identical to the release versions to me aside from very slight variances in the mixing, most notably because the acetate is a mono mix.  "The Velvet Underground & Nico" is definitely a more professional sounding record, it jumps out of the speakers more forcefully than the acetate recording does, but as someone who has heard the Verve record countless times, the unpolished mixes on the acetate offer a chance to hear these classic songs from a fresh perspective.  I should note however that on the quieter recordings like "I'll Be Your Mirror" or "Femme Fatale" you can hear noticeable surface noise since the album is recorded from the acetate record which apparently has some wear.  Unless you are a big fan you probably don't need the acetate recordings, just stick with "The Velvet Underground & Nico."  Recommended to people who believe that rock and roll lost one of its greatest masters today, a man who was a true original and a genuine artist who profoundly elevated the genre.  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Best of Ian & Sylvia - Ian and Sylvia

The Best of Ian & Sylvia
Ian and Sylvia
Columbia  G32516

Is this really the best of Ian and Sylvia?  Of course not, anyone who is even a casual fan of the duo knows that the best of Ian and Sylvia was recorded for Vanguard Records.  If you read the fine print on the back cover you will see that this double record set repackages Ian and Sylvia's two albums for Columbia Records, "Ian & Sylvia" and "You Were On My Mind."  Neither album sold many copies, so presumably some weasel at the record company decided to recoup the losses by deceptively marketing the albums as a greatest hits package.  Being a huge fan of Ian and Sylvia, I knew this was a rip-off when I bought it, heck that is part of the reason I bought it.  I like to collect examples of the major record labels' greed and evil chicanery.  Mostly I bought it because it was really cheap and when I found it in a Pasadena record store many years ago, I had yet to acquire a copy of "You Were On My Mind."  I figured I would buy it and then discard it when I finally did acquire a copy of "You Were On My Mind."  However when that finally happened, I found that I didn't want to part with it, just one of those irrational collector things.  The album is not entirely without value to someone who has the two Columbia albums already.  Bob Palmer's lengthy liner notes are quite good and you get a bunch of leftover photos from the photo session for "Ian & Sylvia," but really I just keep it because I'm a completist.  I've already blogged about the two Columbia albums, so I won't rehash them here, but even though this music is marginal compared to the classic Vanguard albums, it is still worth having, especially if you like country rock.  If I was making up a double record set of Ian and Sylvia's best recordings, I'd probably try to squeeze on a few of the Columbia tracks, in particular the remake of "Summer Wages," "Barney," "Bill (Won't You Please Take Me Home)," and especially "Everybody Has To Say Goodbye."  Recommended to Ian and Sylvia fans who can't find copies of "Ian & Sylvia" or "You Were On My Mind." 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Kinks/You Really Got Me - The Kinks

The Kinks
Zafiro ZL-340

You Really Got Me
The Kinks
Reprise R-6143

The UK and American versions of the debut album by the Kinks.  The Kinks have been one of my favorite groups since I first heard them in 1973 on the compilation album "Get It Together."  I've wanted to do an entry on them for awhile but I haven't been able to decide on an album, so I opted to just start at the beginning.  I have the UK version of the record (which was originally released in 1964 on Pye Records in England as NPL 18096) in a Spanish stereo reissue that I bought in Berkeley and an original mono pressing of the American version.  Actually even though the inner label on the Spanish record says stereo, the record still sounds like mono to me.  The mixes on both albums appear to be identical, although the Reprise pressing sounds a little better.  The two versions are similar aside from the Reprise edition missing three tracks on the Pye version, "I Took My Baby Home," "I'm A Lover Not a Fighter" and "Revenge."  The Reprise version has slightly better liner notes and a nice picture of the group on the back cover, other than that I don't think there is any good reason to have it except as a dumb collector thing which is why I have it.  The record is unique among Kinks albums in that more than half of it was written by someone other than Ray Davies.  Davies has six compositions on the album, two of which are first rate.  "You Really Got Me" is of course an eternal rock classic.  I've loved it since I was a teen.  I still remember my outrage when a classmate in physics class in high school played me a tape of Van Halen's cover version which I regarded as sacrilege.  The song's explosive heavy guitar riff and Dave Davies' raucous guitar solo are hard rock landmarks and Ray's urgent, desperate vocal adds to the recording's intensity.  It still sounds powerful nearly 50 years after it was recorded.  "Stop Your Sobbing" is a more sedate but catchy tune that is the only song on the album that hints at Davies' future as a pop craftsman although it isn't as good as the Pretenders' cover version.  As for Davies' other songs, "So Mystifying" is primitive but fun, I like the jangly guitar riff.   "I Took My Baby Home" is a very poppy, almost bubblegum type tune that sounds more like Jan and Dean than a Kinks song.  The only thing I find interesting about it is Ray's harmonica playing.  "Just Can't Go To Sleep" sounds like a girl group type song and the chorus seems to be aping the Beatles with "no no no" replacing "yeah yeah yeah."  "Revenge" is a simple and very short instrumental that Davies co-wrote with the band's manager, Larry Page.  It is probably the most undistinguished song Davies ever wrote.  There are two numbers by the album's producer, Shel Talmy, which are easily the worst songs on the record.  The inane "Bald Headed Woman" sounds like Talmy just made it up at the session.  It is boring until the rave-up at the end.  "I've Been Driving on Bald Mountain" (Talmy seems to have had a thing about hair loss) is just as bad, it sounds like the same song played a little faster.  It is a dumb and repetitious song that is sheer tedium to listen to.  Too bad Reprise didn't choose to leave these two off their version of the album, that would have made it better than the Pye version.  The rest of the album consists of covers.  My favorite of the covers is the band's frantic version of Chuck Berry's "Beautiful Delilah" which is full of energy, has an effectively sloppy vocal and features a manic guitar solo.  The band also tackles Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business" but their performance here is less exciting.  It pales in comparison to the Yardbirds' version of the song on "Five Live Yardbirds."  That same Yardbirds album also offers a superior version of Slim Harpo's "Got Love If You Want It."  The Kinks version is uninspired, although I do like the two rave-ups.  There is a rocking version of Bo Diddley's "Cadillac" that gets me bopping.  "Long Tall Shorty" is a cover of a song by Tommy Tucker.  It a rhythm and blues tune with crude, boasting lyrics that sound unconvincing coming from Ray Davies although he makes a game effort practically croaking out the lyrics trying to sound tough.  Ray does a little better with "I'm A Lover Not a Fighter" which is a cover of Lazy Lester's 1958 single.  This tune is highly propulsive and Ray's scratchy vocal is delivered with gusto.  The Kinks would never have made it as a rhythm and blues band, but at least they had good taste in covers.  This is the worst Kinks album of the 1960s, but that is as it should be.  They just got better and better as the decade went on.  The one thing that stands out for me on this album is its vitality and energy.  When I saw Ray Davies last year at the Wiltern, those were the two qualities that impressed me as well.  There on stage was a 68 year old man rocking with passion and vigor, his indomitable spirit was still present after all these years.  I consider Davies a brilliant pop craftsman, one of the great songwriters of his era who writes with intelligence and artistry, but inside him beats the heart of a true rock and roller as is evident on this album.  Recommended to people who prefer the Animals over the Zombies.

Friday, October 4, 2013

El Perro Del Mar - El Perro Del Mar

El Perro Del Mar
El Perro Del Mar
The Control Group CGO040

El Perro Del Mar is the nom de disque of the Swedish singer/musician Sarah Assbring.  This was her American debut album.  She produced the album, wrote all but one of the songs, and played almost all the instruments on the record.   She has a high, gentle voice and like many Swedish indie rockers, she sings in English.  I'm into female indie rock and Swedish indie rock so I bought this solely based on the descriptions of the record that I read in reviews.  "Candy" opens the album.  It is a slow song largely driven by keyboards and features repetitive lyrics about buying candy for herself, apparently as a gesture of doing something for herself rather than trying to please other people.  "God Knows (You Gotta Give To Get)" is a poppier, faster paced song that reminds me of Lavender Diamond.  It is even more repetitive than "Candy" consisting largely of the phrase "you gotta give to get back" which is the message of the song.  It gets a little extra instrumental oomph courtesy of some saxophone riffing from Alexander Nilsson.  "Party" is one of my favorite songs on the record.  It is more guitar oriented and features an emotional vocal from Assbring imploring the subject of the song to go to a party with her.  Again the lyrics are minimal with lots of repetition.  "People" is a song about alienation with a gorgeous heartfelt vocal including some doo-wop style background singing that goes against the grain of the otherwise downbeat song.  It is another one of my favorites. "Dog" is a remarkable song in which she equates her lover's feelings for her with his feelings for a dog.  She brings in a drummer, Nicolas Janco, for "It's All Good" resulting in the most propulsive and upbeat song on the album.  It is the indie pop equivalent of sunshine pop loaded with "la la la's" in the chorus and positive lyrics about moving forward and not looking back.  Side two opens with "I Can't Talk About It" which is about her making changes in her life that she can't talk about, which she repeats over and over.  It seems like a ridiculous idea for a song, but I find it amusing.  Her vocal is a bit rougher, almost soulful in places.  "Coming Down The Hill" is yet another song with minimal lyrics in essence that she is coming down the hill with the good news that she no longer has the blues for the person the song is addressed to.  It also features a sunshine pop flavor.  "This Loneliness" is another one of my favorites.  With its ethereal keyboards and plaintive vocal, I find it very touching and the lyrics, which describe her relationship with loneliness, are comparatively more complex than the rest of the record.  Unlike most of Assbring's songs, this one builds in strength and ends with some force.  The album's sole cover is Dorsey Burnette and Joe Osborn's "Here Comes That Feeling" which was a UK hit single for Brenda Lee in 1962.  With a pulsing organ line and Nilsson's honking sax driving it, the song does have a retro feel to it, but the lyrics about loneliness and rejection fit right in with the rest of the album.  The album concludes with two bonus tracks.  "Shake It Off" is another very repetitive song in which she asserts her independence to contradict herself.  "Hello Goodbye" is a jaunty acoustic guitar driven song that consists of the words "a girl" "a boy" "hello" "goodbye" repeated over and over in various combinations until the end when "pa pa pa's" take over.  It sounds dumb but it works.  The song reduces to the bare minimum what most songs are about.  I really like it.  Normally the lyrical minimalism and repetition on this album would irritate me or bore me, but there is a rightness to the lyrics that I find satisfying.  It helps too that Assbring has such an affecting voice, she gives the words additional depth and feeling.  I like the intimate quality of the record and its directness.  Despite the paucity of instrumentalists on the album, it has a rich and varied sound reminiscent of another one woman band, Bachelorette although not as extravagant.  The sunshine pop and doo-wop inspired harmony vocals also add to the richness of the album's sound, Assbring is a very fine vocal arranger.  The album is melancholy without being gloomy, delicate without being wimpy, personal without being narcissistic.  It is one I play a lot.  Recommended to Julee Cruise fans who wish she sang faster.