In pursuit of Nonesuch Records

[Nonesuch Records]

Vinyl collectors tend to specialize. I have a particular weakness for anything on Nonesuch Records from 1985 till the rise of the CD, which is about 1990.

Why these dates? Robert Hurwitz, the president of the label, began his tenure in 1984. He overhauled the label’s roster, bringing in Steve Reich, John Adams, Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet.

The label was most famous at the time for championing modern classical music by the likes of Elliott Carter and John Cage, and Hurwitz started to refashion the label gradually.

Downtown New York jazz artists such as Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz and John Zorn came aboard. The Explorer Series paved the way for Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares.

And this transformation happened at the most vulnerable time in my life — adolescence.

If my allowance could have accommodated it, I would have bought every Nonesuch recording on the market at the time. Till then, I snatched up every Kronos Quartet recording I could. I overplayed Adams’ The Chairman Dances and Zorn’s Naked City. Robin Holcomb’s self-titled debut was the soundtrack to my high school graduation.

As of this writing, there are 152 items from Nonesuch in my collection. It outstrips the next ranked label, EMI, by 48 percent.

Would my loyalty to the Nonesuch brand be as strong if I discovered the label later or earlier in life? I think I’d arrive at the same place eventually.

My discovery of Nonesuch also happened at a time when I was not sufficiently funded to pursue it. So a lot of albums slipped through my fingers.

Whenever I flip through used bins of vinyl or CDs, I watch out for Nonesuch titles from the latter half of the 1980s. Before the minimalists and Kronos dominated in the roster, the label put out modern music by American composers.

Adams inaugurated the Meet the Composers series, which would release works by John Harbison, William Kraft, Stephen Paulus, Libby Larsen, Joan Tower, Tobias Picker and Joseph Schwantner. Stephen Albert, George Perle, Ingram Marshall and Scott Johnson released albums as well.

Browse the Nonesuch web site today, and you might run into some of these old titles. But they’re de-emphasized, almost treated as footnotes in the label’s march to be an eclectic curate. The Albert album hasn’t been made available as a digital release. Nor the only album recorded by Ani and Ida Kavafian.

So it’s these un-reissued albums that catch my eye. I have my fill of Reich, Adams and Kronos. Now I want to hear what else I missed during that influential time.

Looking ahead, April-July 2015

[Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free]

Part of me still misses ICE Magazine, the publication dedicated to reporting on new releases and reissues. Super Deluxe Edition has done a good job recapturing the kind of reporting that went into ICE. I’ve adjusted to using Pause and Play for tracking new releases, but sometimes, I get more relevant information from the personalization features on Discogs.

ICE launched in the early ’90s to track compact disc releases. It ended publication just as the download market ate into CD sales. If a similar publication were to launch today, it would probably report on which artists have made their content exclusive on which streaming service. And vinyl. Talk about turnabout being fair play.

10,000 Maniacs, Twice Told Tales, April 28

This latest incarnation of 10,000 Maniacs brings Mary Ramsey back into the fold and welcomes a guitarist who also doubles on vocals. For this album, the Maniacs reach for the roots, covering the traditional music that has informed their sound.

Roomful of Teeth, Render, April 28

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I had the temerity to stick with my composition studies in college. It might have sounded like the stuff happening in Brooklyn with the likes of Roomful of Teeth, So Percussion and Alarm Will Sound.

Takaakira Goto, Classical Punk and Echoes Under Beauty, May 5

Taka wrote this album around the time MONO started getting orchestral. I’ve enjoyed the rougher sound of Rays of Darkness too much to want to go back in time.

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, The Traveling Kind, May 12

Brian Ahrens didn’t produce this second duet album, but Harris and Crowell wanted The Traveling Kind to reflect where they are as artists now. It’s hard not to have high expectations.

Deebs/Jarrell Perry, Shift, May 19

A lot of attention will focus on the second album by Frank Ocean, but for my money, Jarrell Perry does a far more adventurous job pushing the edges of R&B.

Faith No More, Sol Invictus, May 19

Yeah, yeah, insert grumbling about Jim Martin’s lack of involvement here. I’m still curious.

NOW Ensemble, Dreamfall, May 26

See above about labelmates Roomful of Teeth.

Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free, July 17

Damn, Jason Isbell is looking mighty fine on that cover photo. I couldn’t get enough of Southeastern, so I’ve spent the last few months devouring his 2011 album Here We Rest. Now a new set is just going to keep this jones going.

Frank Ocean, Boys Don’t Cry, July 2015

Hey, Frank, could you convince Universal Music to put out a decent vinyl issue of channel ORANGE as well? Thanks.

Duran Duran, TBD, September 2015

Not since Colin Thurston has Duran Duran worked with the same producer twice. Mark Ronson brought out not just the vintage sound of Duran Duran but also the unmistakable essence of a Duran Duran song. Here’s hoping the latter gets retained if the former evolves.

Vinyl find: Ambitious Lovers, Greed

AmbitiousLoversGreed1988126069_b

I really did intend to buy Greed when it was first released in the late ’80s.

I was a devoted reader of Pulse! magazine, and the feature it ran about Ambitious Lovers made me think Greed would be something I’d like. I had just gotten into Kronos Quartet and downtown New York jazz, and Arto Lindsay certainly hung around the likes of John Zorn, Bill Frisell and Joey Baron.

But I was on a budget. I had to be strategic about what I acquired.

So Greed got pushed aside for other things — Broadway musicals, Duran Duran, all the stuff that would eventually turn into alternative rock.

I soon convinced myself that in reality, I wasn’t terribly interested in Ambitious Lovers after all. Back then, I couldn’t preview any of the music I was interested in pursuing. Radio and MTV were useless, so I had to rely on the printed word. Up until the era of downloading, press reviews really were my means of discovery.

But reading about music isn’t the same as listening to it. I lucked out a lot with my faith in reviews, but I also ended up getting just as many duds.

In short, the word of mouth around Ambitious Lovers wasn’t strong enough to convince me to plunge.

Now that I have a disposable income, a $4 worn vinyl copy is no imposition at all, so I picked it up to sate my curiosity.

I’m pretty sure I would have kept it in my collection had I bought it back then.

Lindsay sprechstimmes his way through the album, staying approximately in tune long enough to deliver a catchy chorus. The dated rhythm machines and synth bass mix remarkably well with the bursts of noise from Lindsay’s guitar.

Even Zorn doesn’t sound out of sorts on his brief appearance on the album. The quieter moments aren’t as impressive as the funkier, noisier bits.

In short, Greed is a pop album ground to bits by the downtown New York aesthetic. I’m glad I bought it eventually.

My brother’s albums: AC/DC, Back in Black

ACDCBackinBlack2003121738_f

Back in Black has meant different things to me over the course of forty(mumble-mumble) years.

In my childhood, the album represented scandal. My dad hated the color black, which meant this album got his withering disapproval. The mock calligraphy of the band’s logo surely meant something altogether unseemly, and didn’t AC/DC stand for “After Christ/Devil Comes?” That was just too much for my devoutly Catholic parents.

But my brother took it all in. Asia, Blue Oyster Cult, Foreigner, Toto, AC/DC — it seemed pretty rebellious to me. I stuck with ABBA and Manhattan Transfer.

In my teen-aged years, the album represented stagnation. I had become an insufferable post-punk, and I sneered at classic rock. The future was R.E.M., the Dead Milkmen, Camper Van Beethoven. If you listened to AC/DC, you were stuck in the past and had no clue.

In my early adulthood, the album was persona-non-grata. There was all this Japanese indie rock to explore. And all the music festival buzz bands. And a few local bands who put on great shows. AC/DC? I’m not their target market. They’ve got enough fans to earn them coin. They don’t need my cash.

Today, Back in Black, for me, is that-one-album-you-get-from-a-band-of-which-you’re-not-a-fan. You know the one: Oh, Inverted WorldStorm Front, Born in the USAWhite Blood Cells. It’s the album that transcends any misgivings you may have about a band.

AC/DC hew close to the blues-based tradition forged by the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, a tradition rejected by the punk-rooted bands of my formative years. But Back in Black struck that fine balance between rock ‘n’ roll grit and pop radio polish that allowed the album to belong to more than just than fans.

Even if you didn’t like blues-based rock, it was hard to get the riff that started side two out of your head.

Back in Black didn’t convince me to become an AC/DC devotee, but it also helped me not to dismiss them out of hand. I may never become their target market, but at the very least, I’m a fan of something they made.

Robert Palmer was the biggest tease on the cover of his Riptide album

[Robert Palmer - Riptide]

My introduction to Robert Palmer was through Duran Duran.

I had heard “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” and “Bad Case of Lovin’ You”, but I never knew who sang those songs till Palmer became the front man for the Power Station. At the age of 13, I started to discover it was guys like Palmer, Sting and Roger Taylor (Duran Duran, not Queen) who were stirring something in me. It wasn’t Madonna or the barely-clad Mary Jane Girls.

The Power Station music videos put him in near profile, and he cut a striking one. I found him handsome. Not hot in the teenaged girl parlance, but attractive all the same.

Of course, that meant I wanted to see him without a shirt.

Some of his previous albums came close. There was Double Fun:

[Robert Palmer - Double Fun]

OK. Bare shoulders. Where are the nipples? Perhaps on Secrets?

RobertPalmerSecrets

Thwarted! Cropped right before. What about Pride?

[Robert Palmer - Pride]

Illustration does not substitute for a photo. Also, the armor is in the way.

Perhaps the most frustrating cover is Riptide. There’s enough bare shoulder in the picture to hint that he may be missing a shirt. The sheet music song book for the album included the edge of said bare shoulder.

Even today, the tease of this cover confounds me. Why, Mr. Palmer, must you hint but not reveal?

Well, it’s because Robert Palmer was a dapper gentleman. He parlayed the success of the Power Station into Riptide, donning on suits in his music videos and garnering accolades as the best dressed man in rock music. If your image hinges on dressing well, there’s little point in undressing in public.

What makes me so eager to see a full-body shot of the Riptide cover stems from where Palmer was at that point in his life. In 1986, he would have been 37, too old to be considered a pop idol but young enough for his prime. The crow’s feet around his eyes lend just enough dignity to make his smile seductive. How is this cover not hot?

Every time I encounter Riptide when I flip through the vinyl bins, I keep thinking, “Dude. You are such a tease.”

The ones that nearly got away: L.A. Dream Team, Kings of the West Coast

[L.A. Dream Team - Kings of the West Coast]

I had completely forgotten I owned this album till I spotted a 12-inch single of “The Dream Team Is in the House” while flipping through the new vinyl arrivals at Everyday Music.

L.A. Dream Team’s Kings of the West Coast signified a time in my life where I tried to get into what was cool instead of what I liked. That’s not to say I didn’t like the album at the time, but I wouldn’t have sought it out if I weren’t guided.

It was 1986, and I was graduating from 8th grade. My classmates made sure I knew how low I stood in the social order, and I was getting sick of being out of sync. So I asked my older sister, who was a lot more skilled in navigating the social minefield of school, what to do. She told me what I should be wearing, how I should be wearing it, what I should listen to and what I should avoid.

So I did what she advised, and during my freshman year in high school, I put in enough effort to appear less clueless than I was. Along with the L.A. Dream Team, my burgeoning music collection made room for Janet Jackson’s Control, Club Nouveau’s Life, Love and Pain and the first two albums by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. It worked for a time, but eventually, I got tired of radio hits and my individuality eventually won out.

In junior year, I stopped listening to radio altogether, seeking out classical music and Broadway musicals instead. By senior year, I was deep into college radio. I was forging my own sense of cool, which pretty much meant disregarding the social order of school entirely. You can’t be an outcast if you’re not even trying to be accepted.

My cassette copy of Kings of the West Coast eventually got sold for cash. The sophomore slump hit L.A. Dream Team, and by the end of the decade, they would be eclipsed by Public Enemy and N.W.A.

But the party swagger of Kings of the West Coast felt optimistic and innocent compared to what came after. No calls to fuck the police, no mentions of bitches and hos, no aggrandizing of wealth. Just a lot of great beats and a joke quote thrown in for comic relief. “Pop goes the Dream Team!”

I spotted a vinyl copy of the album at Everyday Music, and my reaction surprised me — it was fondness. My intentions for owning this album were purely calculated, but I ended up enjoying it anyway.

The ones that nearly got away: R.E.M., Automatic for the People

[R.E.M. - Automatic for the People]

Automatic for the People marked the decline of my interest in R.E.M.

I’d been peripherally aware of the band since at least 1985, but it wasn’t until the local classic rock station put “Stand” on rotation that I was formally introduced.

I had recently become acquainted with 10,000 Maniacs at around the same time, and the music press made quite a deal of the relationship between Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe.

Green wasn’t the best introduction to the band, but Side A of the album set me on a course to play catch-up with R.E.M.’s indie work. By the time Out of Time arrived three years later, I was already well acquainted with MurmurDocument and Lifes Rich Pageant.

Out of Time was the soundtrack to my morning bus commute to the University of Hawaii, monopolizing my Walkman for months on end. At the time, I considered the album perfection. Everything seemed to be in balance — bright tracks (“Shiny Happy People”) offsetting darker tracks (“Country Feedback”), Mike Mills’ voice contrasting with Michael Stipe’s, Kate Pierson of the B-52’s adding a feminine touch the band was sorely lacking.

I was hopeful R.E.M. would always record albums this great.

Automatic for the People followed immediately afterward, and Rolling Stone magazine gave it a five-star review. The press leading up to the album’s release was breathless, and I bought into the hype.

I headed to the record store on release day and snagged my copy. I gave it every chance to burrow deep into my consciousness the way its predecessor did. It didn’t.

Months later, Bill Frisell and Duran Duran each released albums that fulfilled the jones I had hoped Automatic for the People would fill. I eventually concluded I was duped. It’s not a bad album, but it wasn’t five-star material.

Automatic for the People would not survive a purge for cash, and it went on my list overrated albums alongside Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins and I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got by Sinéad O’Connor.

The first pressing of the CD was housed in a jewel case with a translucent yellow tray. Back in November 2014, I ran across a used copy of Automatic for the People in excellent condition with the yellow tray. And it was selling for $1.

So I picked it up and gave it another spin. Would age and wisdom alter my opinion of the album?

Not really.

It’s not as awful as I thought it was, and taking a 20-year break from the ubiquity of “Everybody Hurts” certainly helps soften my previously sharp opinion.

It still hasn’t been dislodged from the overrated list, but it was a good first lesson in skepticism. Being a fan of a band doesn’t mean blind worship for everything they do.

My brother’s albums: Basia, Time and Tide

[Basia -- Time and Tide]

The last time my brother and I engaged in the Sibling Rivalry Collection Race, we each were trying to stake claim on two albums: Basia’s Time and Tide and Enya’s Watermark. At the time, a radio format specializing in light jazz and new age put singles from both albums in regular rotation.

So he and I made a bargain — I would relinquish a claim on Basia if he relinquished his claim on Enya. Months later, we both came to the conclusion that I got the better end of the bargain.

I think that trade-off started the thaw in the Sibling Rivalry Collection Race. As our tastes started to splinter — he getting into Hawaiian music, I going further into avant-garde classical music — staking territory became pointless.

It became rarer when our tastes intersected than when they didn’t.

I kept a foothold in (what would become) alternative rock, which inhabited an orbit far outside my brother’s more mainstream tastes. So it surprised me when he took up Sinéad O’Connor and U2. And he didn’t mind when I took up Sting and Madonna.

We live in separate parts of the country now, but we both share a love for Japanese popular music. We’ve gone so far as to introduce bands to each other.

So now I’m at a point in life where the stigma of “eww, my sibling likes that!” has lost its potency, and I can explore what was once arbitrarily off limits.

Time and Tide wouldn’t have happened without Sade to prove the commercial viability of jazz-pop. Anita Baker, Swing Out Sister and Johnny Hates Jazz rushed through the gates opened by Miss Adu and her eponymous band.

It’s a rather well-crafted album, steeped in the analog MIDI automation of the time. I can, however, understand my brother’s disappointment in the album. It doesn’t exactly break any new ground, compared to Enya and her hundred-times-overdubbed chorus, which was incredibly new for 1988.

But Time and Tide is an enjoyable, durable album. I do have to confess I first thought Basia was Agnetha Faltskog from ABBA, refurbishing her sound.

Looking ahead: January-March 2015

[Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love]

Barely two weeks into 2015, and the release schedule for the rest of the first quarter looks incredibly busy. Some of them are Musicwhore.org favorites, and others ought to be.

Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love, Jan. 20

NPR First Listen has featured No Cities to Love in this week before the album’s release, and damn if it doesn’t sound like Sleater-Kinney never went away.

The Decemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Wonderful World, Jan. 20

It’s probably too much to ask for this album to be the best R.E.M. has recorded since splitting up.

Exposé, Exposure (Deluxe Edition), Jan. 20

For an ’80s radio pop album, Exposure is pretty enduring. A deluxe edition, though, means endless remixes of the album’s four hit singles.

Kate Pierson, Guitars and Microphones, Feb. 17

Cindy Wilson’s absence was sorely felt on the B-52’s Good Stuff, the follow-up to the massive hit Cosmic Thing. So it’ll be interesting to hear how Kate Pierson sounds without the rest of the band around her.

Gang of Four, What Happens Next, Feb. 24

That’s the question with only Andy Gill as the only remaining original member of the band.

Shiina Ringo, “Shijou no Jinsei”, Feb. 25

Post-Tokyo Jihen Shiina Ringo has been sparse with new music, but with a new single arriving barely three months after an album, does this mean the drought has ended?

Madonna, Rebel Heart, March 10

I’m so past hoping this album is anywhere within league of Like a Prayer, Ray of Light or, heck, even Bedtime Stories. MDNA was just plain forgettable.

Inventions, Maze of Woods, March 17

Now, that’s a quick turn-around.

Death Cab for Cutie, Kintsugi, March 31

Chris Walla is no longer with the band and consequently no longer at the producer’s desk. Codes and Keys is the closest Death Cab has reached to the sublimity of The Photo Album or Transatlanticism since signing to a major label. So this album is pretty much make-or-break.

Björk, Vulnicura, March 2015

The most interesting aspect of this announcement, for me, is the silence from Nonesuch Records regarding its release.

Vinyl reissues

Guided By Voices, Bee Thousand, Jan. 27

On my list of Albums I Want Reissued on Vinyl, Bee Thousand resides in the upper echelon. Previous entries on said list included The Woods by Sleater-Kinney, The Photo Album by Death Cab for Cutie, the self-titled Metallica album and Floating Into the Night by Julee Cruise. All these titles appeared in 2014.

Sigur Rós, Ágætus Byrjun, Feb. 17

I’m also holding out hope for a Takk … reissue.

LOVE PSYCHEDELICO, ABBOT KINNEY, Feb. 18

All of LOVE PSYCHEDELICO’s albums are getting a vinyl reissue to coincide with a pair of retrospectives coming out the same day. ABBOT KINNEY, however, is the duo’s best.

Computers or music: Buckner and Garcia, Pac-Man Fever

[Buckner and Garcia: Pac-Man Fever]

I probably wouldn’t have remembered this album had I not spotted in a $1 bin at Sonic Boom Records. Given the shoddy condition of the record, even $1 was a bit steep. But I bought it anyway because, like any 8-year-old in 1980, I was enamored of Pac-Man, and “Pac-Man Fever” rode that zeitgeist to the upper reaches of the music charts.

I pleaded with my parents to let me get this album, but they considered video games no better than gambling machines. And they weren’t about to encourage anything that wasn’t practical or useful.

Pac-Man, however, planted a seed that pretty much resulted in the living I make today — computer programmer.

It wasn’t just about the thrill of gobbling up the pellets, powering up to eat the monsters and reaching even higher levels of skill. It was the artwork on the cabinet. It was the mechanics behind the game.

One of my siblings subscribed to a science magazine that featured Space Invaders on the cover, and it gave an overview on how video games work. There’s this grid, you see, and there’s some logic the computer calculates so when one object encounters another in that grid, the player earns a point and an invader gets vaporized. Or your ship goes kaboom!

I wanted to learn how to make that grid and those objects and those explosions.

But my parents could tell that if they bought me a computer to pursue that ambition to create my own video games, I would spend all my waking hours in front of that contraption. So they refused.

The video game boom eventually busted, and one day I wandered into the electronics section of the department store and was mesmerized by a miniature movie with music in the background. It was the same kind of movie I saw a few years back that fueled my craze for ABBA, only this time it was a band called Duran Duran. And the song was “Hungry Like the Wolf.”

Pac-Man Fever, like Uncle Vic’s “Space Invaders” before it, receded into memory. I don’t know if my parents were relieved that I wouldn’t take up gambling — remember, that’s what video games were in their mind — but instead, they bought a piano when I developed an interest in perhaps taking lessons.

They hoped I would learn songs from the Great American Songbook, the music of their youth. I wanted to be Nick Rhodes or Martin Fry.

So by thwarting my early interest in computers, my parents redirected that zeal to music, which would make them even more nervous a decade later when I declared music to be my major in college.

The Internet eventually steered me back into the world of programming, but it was Pac-Man that primed the pump. I somehow taught myself BASIC even without a computer, and I got solid B’s in the rudimentary programming classes in high school and college. The interest was there if the opportunities weren’t.

My parents’ prediction did come true. Once the Internet had its hooks in me, I’ve been parked in front of a computer ever since.

As for Pac-Man Fever, the album, I was quite surprised. Novelty albums usually aim for the quick laugh, but Buckner and Garcia have enough love for their subject matter to craft a set of tuneful songs. Synthesizers were still very much analog at that point, and new wave hadn’t yet made the jump from across the ocean. So instead you get some futuristic rock that serves as a pivot from Styx and Toto to Kraftwerk and the Human League.