Carole King has been something of a straw woman here on Musicwhore.org. When her name was evoked, it was usually in service of describing milquetoast or overly sentimentalized music. Do a search for Onitsuka Chichiro on old versions of this site, and King probably shows up in a paragraph somewhere.
King released her landmark album, Tapestry, a year and two months before I was born. I would have encountered her music on the radio as I was growing up, probably on KSSK alongside Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.
By the time I was old enough to explore music on my own, King’s music had become fodder for TV commercial jingles. A burgeoning art fag such as myself couldn’t help but hold her in disdain.
Gilmore Girls was one of my favorite shows, but when it aired, I had to mute the opening credits. The overly earnest cover of King’s “Where You Lead” is aural treacle.
But Tapestry shows up on critics list everywhere, and it’s not hard to find old vinyl pressings of the album selling for no more than $10. Before it could be jingle fodder, it had to achieve a level of success to warrant such ubiquity.
So when I spotted a copy of Tapestry selling for $1 at Lifelong Thrift Store, I bought it.
And I like it way more than I expected to.
King’s performances are gritty. Subsequent covers and reimagining of Tapestry’s tracks all polish off those rough edges. Onituska inherited that unfortunate legacy, although her own voice brings back some of that burnish.
I imagine Tapestry was the Jagged Little Pill of its day — an album where nearly every track could have been considered a hit single. While Alanis Morrisette’s breakthrough album took a raw, emotional look at heartbreak, King’s Tapestry holds together with an exploration of camaraderie. In both cases, they’re strong performances driven by an artistic clarity.
But it’s taken me nearly most of my lifetime to appreciate Tapestry. In that sense, the album is also a cautionary tale of music commercialization. Exploit a copyright too much, and a listener with little context may not realize that catchy jingle was actually intended to be art.
Teen-aged me would be very disappointed in mid-life me.
Cameo was all over the radio and MTV in the mid-80s with “Word Up”, and while the first few plays of the hit single were novel, the remaining billion over the course of its shelf life weren’t. That overexposure, of course, made me vow never to buy its namesake album.
But what did I do at the Friends of the Library Book Sale some 30 years later? I picked it up for $1.
What would compel me to turn back on my younger self’s resolve? The answer: “Candy”.
“Candy” was the follow-up single to “Word Up”, and it too became a hit, albeit without the excessive airplay. It was an unlikely candidate for a single, possessing a strange bass line that starts simply but shifts rhythmically in unpredictable ways.
The only hook in the song is the phrase, “It’s like candy”. The rest is a mishmash of an asymmetrical monotone melody and a punctuating guitar riff. Of the eight tracks on Word Up, it’s hands down the most complex.
Over the years, the catchier “Word Up” could be heard piping into public places more often than “Candy”, and as such, “Candy” receded into distant memory … until it appeared on the pre-show playlist at a concert by the Revolution.
When it came on, the oddness of “Candy” struck me, and I appreciated it on a level far more than I could as a teenager. A month after the concert, I found myself at the book sale with a copy of Word Up in my stack of purchases.
It turns out the title track and “Candy” are the most anomalous tracks on Word Up. The remainder of the album’s seven tracks are journeyman funk tracks that would not have sounded out of place a decade earlier, save for all the analog synths.
Word Up front loads its most remarkable tracks, then pulls back and becomes a different album altogether. If I bought it at the time, I wouldn’t have understood it, let alone appreciate it.
And I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed it the way I do now.
On paper, Pony Express Record by Shudder to Think ought to be an album I adore. It has complex rhythms, angular melodies, dissonant riffs and lots of distortion. It even arrived at time in my life when modern classical music started occupying my wheelhouse.
But for many years, I could muster at most an intellectual appreciation for the album. Something about it prevented me from internalizing it the same I would music by, say, Wayne Horvitz or Meredith Monk.
Part of the problem was the fact I never paid for it — Pony Express Record was an assignment for the student newspaper. I listened to the promo and found the album had potential. Because I didn’t discover it the way I did with Jayne Cortez or Bang on a Can, I didn’t feel invested in my opinion.
And because I was a snob where avant-garde music was concerned, I couldn’t take Shudder to Think too seriously. Just what were their bona fides anyway?
That ambivalence meant Pony Express Record would not survive a purge for cash. I don’t even know at what point it left my collection.
But it has always nagged at me. I felt I was missing something about that album, something that made it difficult to dismiss.
I’ve tried at different times after subscribing to Google Play Music to give Pony Express Record another shake, but my attention would drift, and it would end without my realizing I had it been playing.
When I spotted a copy at Lifelong Thrift Store for $1, I welcomed it back into my collection, and I gave it the attention I couldn’t afford it in the past.
As it turns out, my inability to embrace Pony Express Record comes down to my tolerance for odd, angular music — which is pretty high. For all its weirdness, Pony Express Record sounds quite normal to me.
I call this my Beck affect. When Beck released Odelay, critics couldn’t stop tripping over themselves to praise his whiplash cuts. I thought it was just poorly-executed John Zorn card pieces.
Pony Express Record is strange, but it’s not the strangest thing I’ve heard. It doesn’t stop it from being a good album, even an important one.
Shudder to Think made a loud, noisy album that relies on precise musicianship to pull off. Rather than dial up the metal influences of grunge the way nü metal bands would eventually do, the band made the punk influences veer into something a whole lot brainier. And they do it while throwing in an occasional hook over mountains of crunchy distortion.
I’m a lot more familiar with Pony Express Record now, and I’m OK with not being able to hum more than a few measures of “Hit Liquor.”
I joked with my mom that I didn’t want to travel anywhere in 2018 because I had gone to Victoria, BC and Salem, OR in 2017. Then I ended up going to Alexandria, VA in June and making a family visit to Honolulu in July.
Having lived in Austin, Seattle and New York City, I’ve noticed the health of a city’s music scene is reflected in the state of its record shops. By that measure, Honolulu is in passable health. The local shops dedicate significant shelf space to artists performing Hawaiian music, but since the scene itself doesn’t support much beyond that, Honolulu’s music retail options are limited.
That’s not to say you can’t find gems in Honolulu, but it usually takes a lot luck and some restrained expectations.
Hungry Ear Records
Hungry Ear had a prime location in Kailua, which it had to trade for a less-than-prime location near the University of Hawaii. It had to move again, this time to a far more spacious and pleasing spot in Kaka`ako.
As much as I miss the Kailua location, the Kaka`ako space is nice.
Hungry Ear has always been conscientious about organizing its stock well, and it’s a breeze to jump from genre to genre. Newly pressed issues take up a separate set of racks than used, and CDs form the perimeter.
Honolulu’s isolation means the stock is only as good as what happens to be on the island, but Hungry Ear somehow manages to find some winners, such as an original pressing of The Pogues’ Rum Sodomy & the Lash or a mid-80s reissue of McCoy Tyner’s The Real McCoy.
Idea’s Books and Music
On the day I visited Idea’s, a fellow customer asked whether the store was in the old location of Jelly’s Books and Music, not knowing he was posing to the question to the proprietor of both institutions.
Jelly’s has a long history in Honolulu. It flourished in the 1990s, then sold its locations to the Cheapo’s chain. It reopened again with locations in `Aiea and Kaka`ako, before downsizing again to a single location and rebranding as Idea’s.
Idea’s Books and Music is a far smaller operation than Jelly’s in its heyday, but the rustic charm is still in place. Idea’s stock reflects the taste of Honolulu in general, so it’s unlikely you’d find something esoteric.
But a bit of digging can uncover some surprises. On this last trip, I snagged an old rental copy of Tomosaka Rie’s Murasaki, a J-pop idol album renowned for including three early songs by Shiina Ringo.
Barnes and Noble
The compact disc boom of the 1990s allowed Honolulu to support three locations of Tower Records, two locations of Borders and the first Barnes and Noble location in Kahala Mall.
Today, a single Barnes and Noble store remains in Ala Moana Center.
The music section of Barnes and Noble has survived by adapting — first by including DVDs and Blu Ray, now by supporting vinyl.
The only time I’ve ever bought vinyl from Barnes and Noble in Seattle was for the exclusve release of Enya’s Dark Sky Island, but I make it a point to visit Barnes and Noble in Honolulu because of the difference in sales tax. In Seattle, it’s 10.1%. In Honolulu, 4.172%.
So I pretty much go to Barnes and Noble not for selection but for a 5.928% sales tax discount.
In the early 1990s, Shirokiya had its own music section. As the music industry fortunes turned, Shirokiya sub-leased the space to Book-Off. When Shirokiya relaunched as a food court, Book-Off moved to Don Quioxte. (Yes, there is a department store chain named after a Spanish novel, and it’s based in Japan.)
My friend Jen dislikes Book-Off because it makes terrible offers to people selling their books, and when I visited the Ward Warehouse location of Book-Off in 2016, the store was trying to sell fair- and poor-condition vinyl for upwards of $20. The Ward location was razed earlier this year.
So no, Book-Off isn’t the most reputable of retailers, but it was the place I could go to buy used Japanese rock and pop CDs.
Until this year.
I went to Don Quixote to find the CD stock completely replaced with Western artists. Honolulu no longer has a retail location that caters to J-Pop fans, a development that shouldn’t have been surprising given Kinokuniya’s move in the same direction.
A month into my new job, I traveled to Alexandria, VA to work in the main office of my company for a week. It marks the first time in a nearly-20-year web development career when I traveled for business.
Of course, I had to spend time checking out the record stores in the area. Most of the shops in Washington, DC are concentrated on U Street, which allowed me to hit a number of them in a single evening.
I left work at around 5 p.m. on a Tuesday and crammed as much shopping as I could before the stores closed at 7 p.m. My visit to Crooked Beats happened the day before.
Crooked Beat Records
Crooked Beat was the only shop not in DC proper, but in Alexandria itself, which made it my first destination. The DC area doesn’t have a square-footage behemoth like Amoeba, Waterloo or Everyday Music. So the shops are about equal in terms of size.
That said, Crooked Beat has a slightly bigger space than the rest of the places I visited, and it allowed me to find a good cross section of releases — some Nonesuch titles, Chris Isaak’s second album and a requisite helping of Fugazi.
I probably would have spent more time exploring if I hadn’t showed up about 45 minutes before the store closed.
Joint Custody is comparable to Crooked Beat in terms of stock. Everything is organized by genre, and little else, so a lot of digging is required. I came away with an impulsive purchase of Kanye West — I don’t care for his politics, but The College Dropout stands above all that — and the self-titled Minor Threat compilation.
If time weren’t an issue, I probably would have explored further down the racks. Joint Custody’s space is longer than it is wide, and the back portion of the store included jackets and vintage turntables.
The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead was playing in the background, which enhanced my shopping experience nicely.
On the week I visited Alexandria, high temperatures reached the low- to mid-90s. And it was a humid heat.
Som Records is located in the basement of a building with little in the way of signage. On any other day, the cramped, un-air-conditioned space would be punk-rock charming. Not so much during a heat wave.
Despite the size, the stock in the store also spanned a wide swath of styles, and I even found another Nonesuch title from the mid-80s.
Smash Records is the punk-centric shop of the city. Getting there was a bit more of a hike, taking me away from U Street and into the Adams Morgan neighborhood. I saved it for my last destination because it closed at 9 p.m. From the hillside, you can see the Washington Monument.
Like Joint Custody, Smash Records has vintage wear as well as records in a space of similar size. The stock of new vinyl focuses mostly on punk, but its used selection has a diverse range of genres.
I rounded out my Fugazi collection with a purchase of Steady Diet of Nothing on CD. I nearly came away with Queen Latifah’s All Hail the Queen on vinyl, but it was in a sad state, priced accordingly.
Red Onion Records
Red Onion Records is a smaller space than Crooked Beats, which meant that the available stock didn’t happen to have anything in which I was interested. So my stay wasn’t long enough to form an impression.