Vinyl find: Tracy Chapman, Crossroads

[Tracy Chapman - Crossroads]

I played Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut a lot when it was released in 1988.

I had a few weeks to get through John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for a summer reading assignment in high school. Tracy Chapman served as a soundtrack to my reading. I wouldn’t have gotten through it otherwise.

The album grew on me as a result, but I wasn’t quite convinced I wanted to be a Tracy Chapman fan in the long term. Crossroads arrived a year later, and all the reviews I read at the time gave it damning praise: more of the same as the previous album, perhaps a bit more dour.

So I passed on it.

The last few years of flipping through vinyl stacks would bring Crossroads to my attention time and again, and each encounter would get me more curious.

First, I love the cover. It’s a striking photo of Chapman, more strident than the washed out sepia portrait of her debut. Also, the album’s modest success makes it a bargain on the second-hand market.

My decisive encounter with Crossroads would be at Everyday Music. I finally brought it to the in-store player to give it a sample and discovered Emmylou Harris had covered “All That You Have Is Your Soul” on All That I Intended to Be. That was endorsement enough for me.

The reviews were right — Crossroads picks up where Tracy Chapman left off, but the critics were wrong to imply that was a fault of the album. Chapman’s writing chops remained sharp, perhaps even getting a bit tender.

While Tracy Chapman is in a league of its own, Crossroads is just as enjoyable as her 1995 album New Beginnings. If anything, these three albums constitute her essential works.

The ones that nearly got away: Sleater-Kinney, One Beat

[Sleater-Kinney - One Beat]

Until recently, One Beat was my least favorite Sleater-Kinney album.

I got on board the Sleater-Kinney bandwagon in 2000 with All Hands on the Bad One. I hadn’t yet caught up with the band’s past work when One Beat followed two years later.

I played One Beat multiple times, but I just couldn’t get into it — I was hoping it would be just as tuneful as its predecessor. My opinion on the album continued to dim when The Woods turned out to be even more ambitious than All Hands on the Bad One.

I did eventually catch up with the band’s albums. Hot Rock and Dig Me Out made me appreciate Sleater-Kinney more, but neither album made me love them. After the band went on hiatus, I didn’t really think about them, save for watching Carrie Brownstein on Portlandia.

That started to change around 2013, when I began expanding my vinyl collection. I put on All Hands on the Bad One on the media player to figure out if it would be something I’d like to hear on the record player. It was, and I realized how much I missed them.

When Sub Pop announced it would reissue the band’s catalog in 2014, it seemed the right time for Sleater-Kinney to re-emerge.

Boy, did they ever. No Cities to Love pushed me over the edge from dilettante to fan.

So I filled in the remaining gaps. Call the Doctor and the self-titled debut put All Hands on the Band One into context. All Hands is still my favorite album of theirs, but the ones preceding and following it are far edgier.

And that made me think it was time to revisit One Beat. Even though I had sold the CD, I downloaded the album from eMusic a long while back. I spun it up again, and it finally made sense.

One Beat shared more in common with Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out than it did with The Woods or All Hands on the Bad One. What I mistook for tunelessness was really the band’s regular modus operandi of fierce performances and jagged writing. It’s probably the band hardest album next to The Woods.

I dismissed One Beat wrongly because I had incomplete information. I would now place One Beat nearer the top of a ranked list of Sleater-Kinney albums. That’s a pretty large leap from rock bottom.

In pursuit of Ty Herndon

[Ty Herndon - Lies I Told Myself]

I admit, there’s a bit of a halo affect influencing my interest in Ty Herndon. I didn’t even know who he was till he came out in 2014, and when I did the requisite web search, I thought, “Oh, he’s quite hot.”

But I had low expectations when it came to his music. Herndon released his debut album in 1995, around the time producer Mutt Lange brought his experience with Def Leppard to the albums of his ex-wife, Shania Twain. Country music’s biggest star at the time was Garth Brooks.

1995 was also the year Emmylou Harris introduced me to the genre with Wrecking Ball. I learned quickly that country music had an alternative streak populated by punk progeny on one end and traditionalists on the other.

So I started with This Is Ty Herndon, his greatest hits compilation. I asked a friend more familiar with country than I was to confirm my suspicion — it wasn’t really that bad. She did confirm it, and she too isn’t into country radio either.

Herndon has a smooth voice he puts to best effect when mining the broken heart vein of the country tradition. For the first few minutes, it’s tough resolving his real life (gay) with the themes of his songs (straight). But Herndon eventually sells the emotion behind “Heart Half Empty” and “What Mattered Most”. Maybe less so with raunchier songs like “You Can Keep Your Hat On”.

I found myself listening to This Is Ty Herndon day after day, and eventually, I got curious about his career after the hits stopped coming. That’s when Herndon gets really interesting.

Lies I Told Myself was released a year before Herndon came out, but the music on the album certainly felt like he was ready to unleash. A chugging pulse on electric guitar opens the album with a toughness nowhere to be found on his greatest hits compilation. He still excels on the love songs, particularly “I Can’t”, but even the socially conscious closing track, “Love Wins”, doesn’t feel forced.

In hindsight, Herndon was saying much more through his song titles. The Internet would like you to think President Obama was the first person to use the hashtag #LoveWins in 2015, so how did Herndon have the presence of mind to use that as a song title in 2013? Here’s a hint: the album was released in October, four months after the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in June.

The title track itself deals with overcoming adversity, but Herndon was hinting he told a lot of other lies before then.

His 2007 album, Right About Now, is no slouch either. Free from the strictures of country radio, Herndon’s post-major label work shows some real maturity. That’s not to say his major label albums were bad.

Steam and Living in a Moment are probably too tightly coupled with country radio fashion of the late-1990s, but What Mattered Most and Big Hopes have the strongest material. A big portion of This Is Ty Herndon was compiled from those two albums.

On social media, Herndon comes across as humble, likable and a bit of a goofball, adding to the halo effect. Would I be as interested in a gay country singer if he looked more like Garth Brooks? He’d probably have to write songs as good as Jason Isbell or Sturgill Simpson.

And if Ty Herndon weren’t gay, would I still listen to his music? I’ve been subjected to the kind of country radio that had me running and screaming back to my Lucinda Williams and Uncle Tupelo albums. I would easily choose Herndon’s “Hands of a Working Man” over Brad Paisley’s “Letter to Me”.

The ones that nearly got away: Janet Jackson, The Velvet Rope

[Janet Jackson - The Velvet Rope]

Count me as one of the folks with a ticket to a future Janet Jackson concert. She rescheduled her January 2016 date in Seattle to July before postponing the tour entirely. I intend to hold onto my ticket just to see how long I can keep it on my refrigerator door.

I was a pretty solid Janet fan till All for You, when it felt like she was spinning her wheels creatively. I stood by her during the Super Bowl incident in 2004, but I couldn’t justify sinking cash into Damita Jo. I didn’t get back on board till Discipline in 2008, at which point the major labels dropped her.

So when Unbreakable turned out to be awesome enough to crack the Favorite Edition 2015 list, I went back to her post-Rhythm Nation 1814 work to see if my opinion had changed. I still have a dim view of janet., but The Velvet Rope has turned out to be a durable and underrated album.

The hype machine went into overdrive in 1993 with janet. but I wasn’t convinced. It was sprawling mess, and the supposed influence of what was called “electronica” — now just called EDM — didn’t amount to much.

The Velvet Rope, on the other hand, gave the ideas of its predecessor some much-needed editing. The smooth ’90s sound got darker, as did the subject matter. “What About” has a fury that outstrips “Black Cat”, while “Together Again” is the bounciest tune about loss.

The Velvet Rope was released after I moved to Austin, Texas. I hung out at gay bars at the time, trying to figure out what I could get out of them. (Not much, as it turned out.) “Together Again” could be heard night after night, alongside whatever single the Spice Girls had out at that time.

When money got tight, I decided I didn’t need much from Janet except for Control and Rhythm Nation 1814, so The Velvet Rope got an eviction notice. Discipline is holding up OK, but The Velvet Rope has turned out to be better than I remember it.

Vinyl find: Duran Duran, Live ’82

[Duran Duran - Live '82]

Like Demo 1979 before it, this unofficial live album from Duran Duran surprised me when I found it while flipping through the stacks at Jive Time Records. It’s housed in a generic sleeve with a photocopy of the track listing taped to the front, and it isn’t even an accurate listing.

The Duran Duran Wiki says it was recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in December 1981. At one point during the concert, Simon Le Bon refers to “Last Chance on the Stairway” as “a new song”.

That was a transitionary time for the band. The biggest hits had yet to be written, so the set list includes three b-sides from the self-titled debut. The erroneous “Instrumental Jam” listed at the end of Side A actually consists of “Late Bar” and “Khanada”. “Faster Than Light” and “To The Shore” round out the once and future rarities.

The band is on fire in this performance, tearing through the songs with the exuberance captured on Arena. The rough edges from the 1979 demo had been smoothed out.

I’ve seen Duran Duran a number of times, and the rarest song I’ve heard them play is “Friends of Mine”. So it’s a treat to hear b-sides part of a set list. I probably won’t fall down the rabbit hole of collecting Duran Duran bootlegs as a result of this purchase, but I’m glad I got to hear something other than the hits done live.

 

In pusuit of Prince

[Prince - Parade]

In the two years since writing about Purple Rain, my interest in Prince had actually grown so gradually, I scarcely noticed I had become a fan. His untimely death affected me a lot more than I anticipated.

I bought up a whole bunch of his albums after hearing the news, partly to get ahead of everyone else buying Prince albums after hearing the news. I didn’t do that for David Bowie, and Bowie had far more influence on my favorite artists than Prince. But through my brother, Prince had a definitive presence in the household of my family.

My first pivot from ambivalence to appreciation dates back to 2013, when I picked up a vinyl copy of The Family for $0.50. I made an offhand remark on Facebook that The Family was the album Prince should have released instead of Around the World in a Day, to which a friend replied, “WRONG!” I enjoyed The Family, and it made me wonder what it would have sounded like had Prince recorded it.

But in the interest of balance, I picked up Around the World in a Day. I heard it once in 1985 when my brother played it on the family stereo, and I decided it was one too many. Nearly three decades later, I could see how my friend could declare my opinion “WRONG!”, but I’m still hoping a future reissue campaign brings The Family back from obscurity.

The next pivot was The Black Album. I was browsing the “P” section of Sonic Boom’s used CD bins, looking for John Zorn’s Painkiller. Instead, I found a bootlegged copy of The Black Album. I picked it up, familiar with the mythology of the album. Back in 1994, I almost considered getting a copy of the album myself.

The bootleg turned out to be a decent if flawed transfer from vinyl, so I bought a used copy of the official pressing from Discogs. Critical consensus indicates The Black Album would have been groundbreaking had it been released in 1987 instead of 1994. Decades removed from that context, The Black Album is still an odd duck in Prince’s output, which probably lends its appeal for me.

In the days following Prince’s death, I filled the gaps in my collection between 1999 and The Love Symbol Album. I haven’t reached a point where I want to explore anything before or beyond that fertile period, with the exception of HITnRUN Phase Two. That’s more than enough music to keep me occupied for a while.

2016 has been pretty brutal for rock heroes, and I must confess an ambivalence for most of the figures who have shuffled off this mortal coil. But something broke with Prince. For many  years, I dismissed him out of habit because of a silly, sibling rivalry turf war. When I started to appreciate him, it was in a cool, intellectual way. I admired the craft that went into his albums, but I didn’t let myself love them the way long-time fans do.

That ambivalence finally melted into fondness, but it took his death to make that happen.

My life as a music collection data nerd: The early years

[Microsoft Works]

I swear by the Music Collector software made by Collectorz.com. I bought a license for it in 2000, and I’ve used it to track every single item in my music collection ever since. But I’d been gathering data on my collection from way before then.

I didn’t really remember those proto-Collectorz days till I ran across a few .wdb files on a floppy disk. What kind of file is a .wdb file? It’s a Microsoft Works database file. That’s right — not an Access file or even an Excel file, a Works file. Microsoft Works was a home consumer version of the Office suite and came pre-installed on the first computer I owned.

Works amazingly lasted all the way till 2010, when Office finally supplanted it. Microsoft doesn’t provide a utility to convert Works database files to Excel, but a Java application by Duncan Jauncey does the job. So I took a peek into the state of my music collection in 1998, and I’ve shared it for the world to peruse.

The columns of that old database reflected how I kept records on paper. Yes, I do mean paper. Back in high school, I would type out lists of my collection, noting artist, title, release year, label and genre. Those fields became the basis for my Works database.

How do I know this file dates back to 1998? That was the year I replaced that first Windows 95 system — an Acer — with a Dell, and I bought a license for Office 2000 to go with it. I wanted a grown-up productivity suite, and the Works files were doomed to the digital dustbin.

I also kept track of genre, a concept I let go once I started shopping at Waterloo Records in 1997. Waterloo doesn’t organize its bins by genre, so Elvis Costello went right next to John Coltrane. When I migrated my data to Collectorz.com Music Collector, I stopped tracking individual genres.

Of course, you could probably date the list by its total lack of anything released after 1998.

A lot of the albums in that spreadsheet are the same ones in my current collection, which Collectorz provides online through its cloud service. 1998 was 18 years ago. 1988 was 28 years ago. I’ve held on to some of these records and CDs since then. Shocking, right?

Probably the most interesting aspect of that old spreadsheet are the number of titles no longer in my collection. I’ve written a few entries about albums I’ve welcomed back after letting them go. I thought I would feel an urge to listen to revisit those rejected albums, but looking at that list, I remember why a lot of them went away. If curiosity gets the best of me, there’s always the streaming services.

Very rarely would I fail to recognize an album completely. Case in point, Sunday Morning to Saturday Night by Matraca Berg. I did a search on YouTube to figure out who she was. I discovered Emmylou Harris covered a song from Sunday Morning to Saturday Night on her second duet album with Rodney Crowell. (I knew I heard “Back When We Were Beautiful” somewhere!)

The album is nowhere to be found on streaming services, so I actually found a used copy to figure out why it exited my collection. It’s not a bad album, but compared to other country albums I encountered in the late ’90s — Jack Ingram’s Livin’ and Dyin’ and Kim Richey’s Bittersweet — it went on the chopping block earlier than others.

 

A brief history of Meet the Composer recordings

[Meet the Composer Residency]

Do a Google search for “Meet the Composer” and the top result should lead you to a podcast introducing curious listeners to modern classical music. Five years ago, that same search would have led you to the site for a grant program of the same name.

The Meet the Composer Residency paired composers with orchestras for a year-long partnership and a one-album recording contract. In 2011, the program merged with the American Music Center to become New Music USA.

I didn’t learn about this merger till I tried researching a pair of albums I bought on a whim back in 1990.

Nonesuch Records partnered with Meet the Composer in the late 80s, right at the time I started getting curious about modern classical music. The first album Nonesuch released under the Meet the Composer imprint was Harmonielehre by John Adams. The last albums Nonesuch released in the series — the ones I own — were collections of works by Tobias Picker and Joan Tower.

In my chase for all things Nonesuch, I fell down a rabbit hole of research to find the other albums released in the series. Given the esoteric specificity of the topic, information was scattered. I got so far into the weeds, Google at one point stopped serving search results to me because it thought I was attacking it. (I was searching for barcodes. I did learn a valuable lesson about check bit numbers, though.)

After two weeks of scouring library databases and web searches for Nonesuch catalog numbers, I filled in those holes. The Discogs page on Meet the Composer contains the fruits of my labor, as does the Wikipedia entry about the Nonesuch discography.

So what did I find out? Over the course of five years, Nonesuch released 10 albums in the series. The advent of the compact disc bisected the releases — the first four were issued on vinyl and cassette, the last six on CD. Only John Adams went on to sign with the label, and Harmonielehre is still in its catalog.

Here, then, are the Meet the Composer albums released on Nonesuch:

  • John Adams, Harmonielehre, 1985, 79115
  • John Harbison, Ulysses Bow / Samuel Chapter, 1986, 79129
  • Joseph Schwantner, A Sudden Rainbow / Sparrows / Distant Runes and Incantations, 1987, 79143
  • Stephen Paulus: Symphony in Three Movements; Libby Larsen: Symphony: Water Music, 1987, 79147
  • Charles Wuorinen, The Golden Dance / Piano Concerto No. 3, 1988, 79185
  • William Kraft, Contextures II: The Final Beast / Interplay / Of Ceremonies, Pageants And Celebrations, 1989, 79229
  • Christopher Rouse, Symphony No. 1 / Phantasma, 1989, 79230
  • Alvin Singleton, Shadows / After Fallen Crumbs / A Yellow Rose Petal, 1989, 79231
  • Joan Tower, Silver Ladders / Island Prelude / Music For Cello And Orchestra / Sequoia, 1990, 79245
  • Tobias Picker, Symphony No. 2 / String Quartet No. 1, 79246

Probably the most prestigious Meet the Composer release was a recording of Symphony No. 1 by John Corigliano. The work, inspired by the AIDS quilt, won a Grammy Award for Best New Composition. Meet the Composer’s arrangement with Nonesuch expired by then, and the album was released by sister label Erato.

At that point, I lost track of Meet the Composer and wouldn’t think about the organization till recently.

On the whole, the works in this series are really appealing. American modern composers don’t seem to get bogged down in abstractions the way European composers might. Yes, the works produced by these composers won’t be mistaken for Jean Sibelius or even Leonard Bernstein. But there’s a melodic sense threading through these pieces that American composers are more willing to exercise.

The Nonesuch pressings of these albums have been out of print for a long time, but around 2004, the First Edition label reissued a number of them. Only the Paulus/Larsen and Schwantner albums remain unavailable. The Schwantner release didn’t even make it onto CD.

Although Meet the Composer, the residency, surrendered its name, it left behind valuable recordings that I hope remain out in the world.

Looking ahead: May-July 2016

[The Killers - Hot Fuss]

It’s nearly half way through the year, and the Favorite Edition 2016 list is pretty sparse. Every new release I’ve bought this year is on the list because I don’t have enough to fill the list out. So I’m pretty much watching out for vinyl reissues.

Anohni, Hopelessness, May 6

I miss Anohni (a.k.a. Antony Hegerty). I only ever seem to encounter him on Björk albums any more.

Vinyl

10,000 Maniacs, Our Time in Eden, May 3

This album was released on vinyl in Europe back in 1992. I nearly bought a used copy of it. I already have the first three Maniacs albums on vinyl, which I originally bought in the ’80s. In My Tribe also gets reissued the same day.

Enya, The Memory of Trees, May 6

The Memory of Trees makes its first appearance on vinyl with this reissue, which also sees the return of Watermark and Shepherd Moons.

The Killers, Hot Fuss, June 17

Have you seen the resale value of the original vinyl release of this album? We’re talking triple digits.

Sonic Youth, Murray Street, June 17

Amazon originally listed April 22 as a release date, but now it’s changed to June 17.

LeAnn Rimes, Blue, July 8

People were awed by how much the teenaged LeAnn Rimes sounded like Patsy Cline at the time this album was released. I remember playing it on the stereo at the student newspaper office in college. For some reason, we were all really into it.

Duran Duran, Duran Duran (The Wedding Album), Sept. 23

I still haven’t seen much corroboration for this reissue. I don’t even think the band knows it’s being planned. Amazon originally listed Feb. 12 as a release date, but it came and went without a single copy in sight. I would be a lot more anxious for this reissue, but I dropped a pretty penny for a used copy of a Korean issue.

The history of a music fan in four decades, part four

[A shelf in the Musicwhore.org vinyl colleciton]

Read Parts One, Two and Three.

When I started collecting music, vinyl records were the medium of choice. Walkman players shifted that focus to pre-recorded cassette tapes for a short while before compact discs steamrolled over everything. I nearly joined the 21st century in forsaking physical formats till I bought a pair of decent speakers for my stereo system.

Then I played a record from my old collection on that system, and a new obsession began.

Vinyl

Records force listeners to interact physically with the act of listening. You have to care for records. You have to flip slides while playing them. You have to pay attention. Computer files can be strung together in hours-long stretches that effectively severs that personal connection.

When I started collecting vinyl again in 2013, I focused on used copies of albums I could have bought as records but hadn’t discovered at the time. But slicing through the shrink wrap of an unopened record was an act I hadn’t experienced in more than 20 years, and something about it felt communal.

So now I double down — if I really like an album, I’ll buy it on vinyl as well. For me, the vinyl purchase is the premium display of support, short of seeing a band live.

Seattle arts scene

I lived in New York City from 1992 to 1993 on an exchange program between the University of Hawaii and Hunter College. I had an internship at a classical record label. I saw Kronos Quartet twice. I went to Broadway shows I’d been craving to see since high school. And my first Duran Duran concert happened two weeks before the band released The Wedding Album.

It makes me wonder what more I could have done if I had my 2016 income in 1992.

I would probably be doing a lot of the same things. I’ve seen Kronos Quartet three times now, and my fifth Duran Duran concert happened in Puyallup. I went to see a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in March 2016, and I’m a subscriber of the symphony.

Austin and Honolulu couldn’t fulfill my need for classical music the way Seattle does.

Nearly half way into decade four

It’s been more than 10 years since I’ve given up trying to be a tastemaker, and I’m glad to have yielded that responsibility, not that I was great at it. I used to have a vague clue about what’s popular, but I can’t even claim that any more.

I don’t want to say I’m done exploring music, because every time I think I’m done, I fall down yet another hole. I do, however, feel my tastes have settled down. I have my go-to genres, my go-to periods, my go-to artists.

But there’s always room for more.