I should know better than to like All-American Boy, the debut album by Steve Grand.
It’s the kind of over-compressed pop music that baits rockist former-record store employees to gnash their teeth and sneer. Even more rankling is the target audience for Grand’s big choruses and butch guitars — young gays with hot bodies very much like himself. If I were ungenerous, I’d call it “twink rock”.
But I can’t help think All-American Boy is also one of the most important albums I’ve encountered this year.
That’s right. Important.
Musically, All-American Boy hits all the radio-friendly cues. The guitars get louder when they ought to get louder. The piano gets plaintive when it ought to get plaintive. This album would not give Revolver any sleepless nights.
But lyrically, Grand sings love songs to other men, in a language these men would understand. That’s remarkable but still not the big deal. No, it’s part of a bigger deal.
The landscape for gay musicians has grown large enough for Steve Grand to record a pop album with a wall of guitars, for Jónsi to sing in Hopelandish in a stratospheric falsetto, for Ty Herndon to give country music some bonafide homosexual beefcacke, for Nico Muhly to light a fire under the classical music establishment’s ass and for Ed Droste to bore the fuck out of everyone within listening distance.
A decade ago, I lamented about how gay musicians couldn’t do rock. Throw together the words “gay” and “music” in the same sentence, it would invariably mean “dance music”, with “theater music” close behind. The only band with any amount of visibility at the dawn of the aughts was Pansy Division. Sure, there was Rufus Wainwright, but he’s more Elton John than Rob Halford.
Of course, the aughts were smack dab in the middle of the W. Bush administration. Gay people were embraced on the metropolitan coasts, but the big red swath in the middle of the country meant visibility held risks. Republicans put gay marriage bans on state ballots to ensure voter turnout among its base, and it fucking worked.
Music by gay musicians couldn’t escape the ghetto of the dance floor — or the folk guitar, as most “gay rock” seemed to be labeled back then — because it was still a cultural liability.
Oddly enough, the passage of Proposition 8 in California on the night Barack Obama was elected for his first term as president marked the shift in opinion. It was the victory that shouldn’t have been, and it galvanized allies to put deeds behind intentions.
It took a while before the victories started piling up — the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; the decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act — but once in place, that liability started to lose its teeth.
Members of metal bands such as Torche and Gaythiest would make Halford less of an anomaly. Adam Lambert gave American Idol its last bonafide star before The Voice gobbled up its viewing audience. Frank Ocean and Sam Smith went so far as to win Grammy Awards.
Country singer Chely Wright weathered a lot of crap for her coming out, but it opened up the door for Herndon and Billy Gilman to follow. It’s worth noting these revelations arrived after their biggest hits were behind them. The country music audience still has a lot of catching up to do.
Steve Grand is the latest beneficiary of this shift, and he’s taken it further by recording what could have been a very plain album with all the usual paeans boys sing to girls. Instead, he’s singing those paeans to other boys, and his age group isn’t batting an eye.
But Grand is part of a larger spectrum of music by gay artists, one that expands as visibility and acceptance become more commonplace. He doesn’t have to work in a ghetto. He can find an audience performing music in a style of his choosing without compromising his identity.
A study using listener data from Spotify confirmed what the Onion reported more than a decade ago: listeners stop seeking music once they reach their early ’30s.
For me, the Onion story mirrors my own experience closer than the conclusions drawn in the study. Right around 2005, I got exhausted trying to keep up with all the new bands. It really did feel like I was going through the motions, and at one point, I realized I wouldn’t get back all those hours listening to music that moved me only fleetingly.
So I pivoted, and a decade on, I can say I add maybe one or two new artists to my collection each year. Most of what I listen to now is catalog.
At the same time, I’m not sure I totally believe the idea that music was “better in my day”, as the study would like to claim. A lot of the catalog I’m exploring is music I didn’t hear when it first came out.
Rhino released The Complete Studio Albums by the Replacements, a band I’ve been listening to in bits and pieces till I dropped $40 on this set. Curiosity got the best of me during Record Store Day when I picked up reissues by Social Distortion and Happy Mondays with only scant research on Google Play to help.
Neneh Cherry, Ambitious Lovers, Ofra Haza — I considered buying their albums a long time ago but didn’t act till now.
Then there’s my deepening relationship with modern classical music, a genre I’ve been following for a quarter of a century. I’ve discovered quite a number of great new pieces, such as Gloria Coates’ Music for Open Strings, just by picking up a vinyl record that looked interesting.
Heck, I’m going back and listening to music I actually disliked the first time around. Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, AC/DC — my 18-year-old self is looking at my 43-year-old self with a very suspicious eye.
So while it may look like my tastes have entrenched, I’m still getting as much satisfaction from the discoveries I’m making now as I did when I first encountered the bands that would become my idols. It’s the same experience when I encounter newer artists such as Jason Isbell, Jarell Perry or Steve Grand.
I’m not stuck in the past. I’m exploring parts of the past I never got around to visiting.
Along with Yano Akiko, this recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 2 was one of five cassette tapes I held onto after giving up on the format more than 15 years ago. The CD reissue pictured adds a few pieces not included on my cassette.
It had been years since I listened to Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony by the time I was deciding whether to toss or to keep it. I remember enjoying the piece when I listened to it, but I wasn’t too swayed to upgrade it to a CD.
So it disappeared into a closet, then I forgot I even owned it.
I haven’t listened to anything else by Vaughan Williams. The only reason this album is even in my collection is because of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Michael Walsh’s biography, Andrew Lloyd Webber: His Life and Works, name-checked the London Symphony, stating the famous descending hook in The Phantom of the Opera was ripped off from Vaughan Williams.
Sure enough, the idyllic introduction of the first movement builds to an ominous descending chromatic line full of brass. The movement then turns into a Dvorakian meditation on British folk melodies. I probably wouldn’t be the first to say the symphony could also be nicknamed the Old World Symphony.
When I unearthed the Yano Akiko cassette from storage, I also revisited this piece, wondering if my opinion of it would change over time. Surprisingly enough, it hadn’t.
A London Symphony is a beautiful work — melodic, sumptuous. Thinking back, my precocious college music student self would have scoffed at a work with this much appeal, but it makes its argument to be heard and to be appreciated.
Lloyd Webber larceny aside, that chromatic line in the first movement is really a punch in the ear. The third movement scherzo ratchets up the folk dances of the English countryside to a dizzying pace, and with the big gestures of the final movement, Vaughan Williams shows Aaron Copland how it’s done in the motherland.
While I really like A London Symphony, it hasn’t quite spurred me to explore more of Vaughan Williams’ work. Sorry to say, A London Symphony is kind of like my Back in Black — the one piece I need from Vaughan Williams at the expense of everything else.
I eventually did upgrade the cassette to CD, finding a used copy in a serendipitous stroke alongside Yano Akiko.
Waterloo Records in Austin, Texas does not file its CD stock by genre. The name cards indicate by color code the genre in which an artist primarily performs. But they’re all stocked in the same room.
To get to the John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, you’ll need to thumb through Cocteau Twins and Elvis Costello. Compilations, soundtracks, world music and classical music are sorted separately, mostly out of taxonomic necessity. (Classical music, in particular, doesn’t lend itself easily to an artist/title naming convention.)
It’s a structure that I mimic with my own collection — compilation, soundtracks and classical get their own parts of the shelf, but everything else is sorted alphabetically by artist, regardless of genre.
For a long time, I’ve ignored genre as an attribute in the music I listen to. On an instinctive level, I recognize broad categories — Emmylou Harris and Renée Fleming don’t circulate in the same circles — but I try not to use genre as criteria for judgment. If anything, I tend to favor artists who blur them.
I use a database software called Music Collector by a company called Collectorz, and until recently, I used only four genres: Popular, Classical, Compilation, Soundtrack. (Seem familiar?) I recently decided to granularize that list to include more specific genres — rock, pop, country, soul, heck, even new age — and I reminded myself why I stuck to such overly broad categories.
Genres require judgement calls, and the traditional list used in most record shops reflect the kinds of individuals who would work there — straight, white males.
Let’s take the dichotomy between rock and pop. Rock, in your traditional music critic perspective, comes from a more authentic foundation than pop, or so it’s been perceived. A lot of calculation and commerce goes into creating pop idols, and rock musicians supposedly rally against that kind of prefabrication. So what about a guy like Steve Grand? He’s got a lot of guitars and butch posturing on his debut album. What makes him closer to Nick Lachey than to Neurtral Milk Hotel?
The relationship between rock and soul is even more contentious. This categorization is entirely race-based. Are you black? You get filed under soul. Never mind that Jarell Perry sounds more like Kate Bush than OutKast ever will. And what about Res? She released an EP of Fleetwood Mac covers.
Jazz is almost reverse discrimination. Yes, there are plenty of white jazz musicians, but the black musicians in the genre outnumber them.
The very idea of world music is Western-centric. Speak a language other than English? You are automatically a world artist. Not that I hear much Asian folk influence in the pop music of Utada Hikaru. Molotov certainly incorporates Latin rhythms in their metal hip-hop, but then so does Shiina Ringo.
Yes, certain music can be clearly classified in a particular genre. But what happens when artists confound expectations? Rock music is to guitars as pop music is to synthesizers. Is Björk a pop artist because she doesn’t have guitars on her albums? She has strings, so that makes a classical artist instead? No, ultimately we file her under rock because wearing that swan dress is not a marketing-driven decision.
The exercise of using a more granular genre list made me realize I’m pretty dumb to the nuances of each genre. What determines entry to the pop category? Use of drum machines? Sales figures? Audience size?
Is Duran Duran a pop band because they’ve sold millions of records? Are they a rock band because they play their own instruments and write their own songs?
All these judgements make genres a tiring attribute to attach to music.
If it weren’t for vinyl, I probably would have never explored Seattle beyond my immediate neighborhood.
My vinyl addiction led me to seek out places where I could find them. Capitol Hill certainly has a large concentration of stores, but some of the best selections can be found in West Seattle, Fremont and Ballard. I’ve even found a few out in Bellevue.
Nearly two years on, I’ve sussed out the strengths and weaknesses of all the stores I visit with regularity. Here’s a guide to help you, the random reader, navigate the area.
Jive Time Records
I’m sure if I ran a report in Quicken, Jive Time Records in Fremont would be the destination for most of my disposable income budgeted for music. Jive Time specializes in used vinyl, and their stock is in wonderful condition. As such, the prices may seem steep, but you get what you pay for — vintage vinyl in awesome condition.
Of particular interest for me is the classical section. It’s not the biggest, but it’s one of the best organized. Modern music is filed separately, which is awesomely convenient for me.
Portland-based Everyday Music isn’t picky. If they have room for it in their spacious Capitol Hill store, it’s out on the floor. That said, the condition of their stock can range from falling apart at the seams to still-sealed vintage. The pricing, on average, is incredibly fair. Sometimes, you get a real bargain. Other times, you wonder whether how they can charge for something in that condition.
But it’s the diversity of their stock that makes Everyday Music an essential destination. If I’m looking for low-hanging fruit — say, an easy-to-find ABBA album — the store just might have a copy in the bins or understock. Lately, Everyday Music has brought in some real impulse buys — Kings of the West Coast by L.A. Dream Team or Meeting in the Ladies Room by Klymaxx. I almost picked up the self-titled album by Ta Mara and the Seen.
Silver Platters is aptly named. Most of their floor space is dedicated to compact discs, and with the market in CDs tanking, some great bargains can be found. At Silver Platters’ price points, it’s more economical to get an album on CD than to download it.
When I first moved to Seattle, the Lower Queen Anne location of the local chain inhabited what used to be a Tower Records. As a result, the store inherited Tower’s excellent classical section and maintained it, even as it moved from Queen Anne to SoDo.
Perhaps the store’s greatest strength is its web site. Its entire inventory is searchable online, and for the really anal retentive, you can search by barcode. It’s how I discovered the SoDo store carried a vinyl copy of the self-titled Naked City.
I’ve found a few used vinyl gems at Sonic Boom, but that’s more of the exception than the rule. Sonic Boom isn’t a very big store, and the used vinyl section isn’t as thoroughly organized as other stores. Rather, Sonic Boom focuses on new vinyl, oftentimes pricing LPs competitively with Silver Platters. I usually go to either Sonic Boom or Silver Platters for vinyl reissues.
Easy Street Records
Easy Street is definitely the priciest option on this list so far. New vinyl is usually priced a dollar or two more than other stores, but used vinyl? Easy Street tends to score some incredible collectibles. I found a Korean pressing of Duran Duran’s The Wedding Album, and no, it wasn’t cheap.
Easy Street had a Queen Anne location, but like Silver Platters, they were shut out of the neighborhood by rising rents. The Queen Anne location had the floor space to stock a good classical section. The original West Seattle location isn’t as impressive with CD stock as the Queen Anne location had been.
Where Easy Street has other shops beat hands down is the café. They serve a really tasty breakfast.
Spin Cycle Records
Spin Cycle is an essential destination for me personally because it’s up the street from my apartment. I’ve found some really great titles there, and the stock is a nice mix of rock hits and indie obscurities. They also have the most personable Facebook business page, sometimes offering some interesting specials. When the drummer for AC/DC was arrested in a murder plot, Spin Cycle offered a 10 percent discount to customers who said “Dirty deeds done dirt cheap” at the time of purchase.
Neptune Music is located in the basement of the Neptune Theatre in the University District. It’s a cramped space where every nook and cranny is crammed with used vinyl, CDs and tapes. But the purveyors of Neptune do their best to optimize the space, organizing the sections thoroughly.
Prices on their stock are some of the fairest in town — reflective of the quality of the product without being too unreasonable. Where many stores tend to lean toward a particular genre or style, Neptune has a diverse selection that’s expertly curated.
Wall of Sound
Wall of Sound absolutely caters to a very specific audience. The store carries a number of genres, but their specialty is avant-garde music — jazz, electronic, classical. I’m surprised, given my tastes, I don’t shop there more often.
I wouldn’t have started listening to country music if it weren’t for Emmylou Harris. Wrecking Ball was my gateway drug, and I wanted more.
But I knew it was the anomaly. Harris said as much, calling it her “weird album.”
Even though I loved Harris, I was wary about how to approach this newfound appreciation for a genre that speaks nothing at all to my experience. You can’t get any whiter than country music.
Luckily, Harris’ former label Warner Bros. made that exploration easier by releasing a three-CD, career-spanning boxed set titled Portraits. I determined Pieces of the Sky would be my next purchase, followed by Bluebird.
The boxed set left out Cowgirl’s Prayer, the first album Harris recorded for her then-new label Asylum before following up with Wrecking Ball. With so many great albums under her belt, surely Cowgirl’s Prayer would be a safe investment.
So I bought it, and while I could recognize it wasn’t bad, I wasn’t swayed enough to call it good. At the same time, I knew I didn’t have enough context. Harris had released a dozen and a half albums by the time I encountered her, and I had only five points of data up till then.
Cowgirl’s Prayer, unfortunately, did not survive the next crush for cash, and I sold it. But not without backing it up on a CD-R of MP3s.
Since falling down the black hole of vinyl collecting in 2013, I’ve made sure my analog acquisitions have digital counterparts, which meant my Emmylou Harris collection expanded greatly over the last two years.
I revisited Cowgirl’s Prayer for the first time in 14 years, and my more mature ears — educated extensively in Harris’ oeuvre — finally understood that context.
As stated by other writers many times over, Harris doesn’t really record bad albums. Cowgirl’s Prayer isn’t Pieces of the Sky, Trio, or Luxury Liner, but it’s not Ballad of Sally Rose, or Hard Bargain either. If Harris’ albums were ranked, Cowgirl’s Prayer would inhabit the upper half of that list.
She sounds reinvigorated after a lackluster turn on Brand New Dance. The eclectic song choice and pristine production could have been a product of her early days with producer Brian Ahern, while the sparser arrangements hinted at the introspective direction her music would go.
What I didn’t understand about Cowgirl’s Prayer was the fact it was a pivot. It was the last album Harris would record aimed at a mainstream country audience, but it set the template for Wrecking Ball and everything that came after.
An unlikely comparison would be Sade’s Love Deluxe. I thought the album was a dud because I wanted more of Stronger Than Pride. I didn’t realize Love Deluxe was the starting point for Lovers Rock and Soldier of Love. Of course, it took Sade eight years to clarify that point.
Wrecking Ball is definitely the album on which Harris transformed her career, but before it could happen, Cowgirl’s Prayer needed to set up the shift.
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.
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.
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.
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 World, Storm Front, Born in the USA, White 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.