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Vinyl find: Steve Winwood, Roll With It

[Steve Winwood - Roll With It]

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but sometimes, the cover is incentive enough.

The Sibling Rivalry Collection Race precluded me from getting Steve Winwood’s Roll With It when it was released in 1988. My brother had already called dibs on Back in the High Life, which made Winwood his exclusive.

I feigned a lack of interest anyway because Winwood was at the peak of his solo career, and I had started my exploration of college rock by then. Winwood, by virtue of topping the charts, was immediately deemed square.

Except, he was kind of hot.

Not hot in the George Michael/Duran Duran sense of hot. More like a Robert Palmer/Huey Lewis kind of hot.

The cover of Roll With It dolled him up to look dangerous, but the back cover of the album drew my attention.

[Steve Winwood - Roll With It (Back cover)]

The album title is in the way, so let’s clear that up a bit.

[Steve Winwood - Roll With It (Back cover without title)]

Yup. I would have bought this album for a crotch shot. (An arse shot, too, now that we look closer.)

Would I have cared one whit about the music? Perhaps. At least, I would have pretended to.

In terms of hits singles, Roll With It didn’t have quite the same staying power as Back in the High Life, and I don’t think the cross promotion with a beer company did any favors to “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do?” Reviews of the album weren’t enthusiastic, but sales-wise, it managed to ride the coattails of its predecessor.

I left the album on the store shelf safe in the knowledge that I just wasn’t the target audience, despite how much I wanted to stare at that crotch.

I have no such reluctance 29 years later, especially when a nice 12×12 LP cover can be had for $1 at the Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Store. I could probably find a store clerk who would understand.

 

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Vinyl find: Love and Money, Strange Kind of Love

[Love and Money - Strange Kind of Love]

Here’s how it worked when I was growing up.

You heard a song on the radio. If you liked it, you bought the single. You heard more songs by the same artist. If you liked those songs as well, you bought the album.

What happens, then, when you stop listening to the radio? Easy — keep buying singles without hearing the song!

That’s how I encountered Love and Money. I was browsing the singles section of Tower Records, looking for something that might scratch my itch for non-American bands. The single to “Hallelujah Man” had a decent enough sleeve, and a name like Love and Money didn’t scream hair metal or radio pop.

So I bought it. I liked what I heard, but I wasn’t entirely convinced to sink a week and a half’s allowance on a full album. No other singles were released from the album in the US.

It would be another 28 years before I encountered Love and Money again. The album from which “Hallelujah Man” was taken, titled Strange Kind of Love, was sitting in a bin at the Lifelong Thrift Shop for $1. I spent that much on the single.

After an initial listen, I was intrigued by the band’s mix of British white soul and post-punk, as if the missing link between Johnny Hates Jazz and the Smiths were somehow unearthed. Another few spins made me seek out a CD.

“Hallelujah Man” was a decent enough single, but the title track and “Jocelyn Square” performed better on the UK charts for good reason. “Up Escalator” imagines what ABC would sound like with harder guitars and no horns, while the last vestiges of post-punk drive the adult contemporary cool of “Avalanche”. James Grant’s smooth voice could make him the captain of your heart.

Love and Money arrived a bit too late to capitalize on the revived British invasion early in the ’80s, and the light jazz radio format that emerged in the latter part of the decade flared out before it could do any good for the band.

So Love and Money remained a somewhat successful act on the other side of the ocean. I’m surprised someone had actually owned a copy of Strange Kind of Love to end up donating to the thrift store.

In 1988, the Sugarcubes, Kronos Quartet, Living Colour and In Tua Nua vied for my attention. Still, I’m a little disappointed in my youthful self for not following up on that blind single purchase. I think I would have liked the album, and it could have very well endured a number of collection purges to persist to this day.

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Vinyl find: Soldier String Quartet, Sequence Girls

[Soldier String Quartet - Sequence Girls]

One of the most influential issues published by Pulse magazine was a supplement covering the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. Those 20-some odd pages was my encyclopedia of the downtown New York scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Of course, I had no means to listen to any of the music described in that guide. Tower Records had a wide-reaching stock, but downtown New York albums just didn’t reach Honolulu unless it was released on a major label, i.e. Nonesuch.

Soldier String Quartet was one of those ensembles mentioned in Pulse, and my burgeoning interest in Kronos Quartet made me curious about Soldier as well. I wouldn’t spot any of their albums in the wild till I lived in New York City from 1992 to 1993. I had to leave them on the shelf because I was living on a student income (read: parents’ money).

I had honestly forgotten about Soldier String Quartet till I was flipping through the stacks of Crossroads Music in Portland, Ore. I spotted Sequence Girls selling for $6, and I had to sate my curiosity once and for all.

Kronos traces its lineage back to Josef Haydn, but Soldier can only draw a tenuous link to that tradition. With bass and drums augmenting the quartet, Sequence Girls is clearly a rock album. The quartet plays with a lot of fire, and David Soldier’s original works can get crunchy.

The album also includes arrangements of delta blues songs from Muddy Waters, Skip James and Charley Patton that don’t attempt to clean up the source material.

In addition to performing Soldier originals, the quartet premiered works by the likes of Elliott Sharp, Zeena Parkins and Fred Frith. Wikipedia mentions Soldier String Quartet served as a training ground for other ensembles, at one time employing Regina Carter, and the’ve appeared on Guided by Voices albums.

It doesn’t look like Sequence Girls was ever reissued on CD, but it is distributed digitally through CD Baby.

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Vinyl find: Madonna, True Blue

[Madonna - True Blue]

I’ve been a Madonna fan since 1990, but it’s taken me 26 years to include True Blue in my collection.

I probably wouldn’t have if I didn’t find a decent copy on vinyl at the Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Store selling for $6. That was a price point with which I could live, and it was for charity.

I can’t disentangle the heavy marketing of the album at the time of its release with its critical reputation over time. The album contained only nine tracks, but 2/3 of them were released as singles, all of them played to within an inch of their lives on radio.

“La Isla Bonita” is the only track that really caught my imagination, and it’s still a favorite. The synth strings of “Papa Don’t Preach” also put it in a class above the other tracks on the album. Otherwise, I’m not entirely convinced the songs which have become Madonna canon really deserve their spots.

“Live to Tell” shows up on numerous Madonna compilations, but the track has always left me underwhelmed. Music from the 80s was often accused of being cold and robotic because of its over-reliance on synthesizers and MIDI. “Live to Tell” would certainly be guilty of this accusation.

Bill Frisell did a tremendous job infusing humanity in the song, replacing the brief, ambient middle section of the original with an extended downtown New York freak-out.

The title track is something of an ear worm, but it’s not the strongest song on the album. It didn’t even make the cut on The Immaculate Collection. Does anyone even remember “Where’s the Party?” being a single?

Unlike Like a Virgin, the non-single tracks on True Blue don’t attempt to be anything other than filler. I’m pretty baffled by the gangster movie samples in “White Heat”. They made more sense on I’m Breathless.

Marketing muscle made True Blue a success, but without it, I’m not sure its excellent bits are enough to make up for its middling moments.

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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.

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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.

 

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Vinyl find: Yvonne Elliman, Love Me

[Yvonne Elliman - Love Me]

Yvonne Elliman was one of those artists whose music I heard all over the radio as a child, but I never knew her name.

That changed in high school when I went through my Andrew Lloyd Webber phase. I learned the Hawaii-born singer who originated the role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar also formed some of my earliest musical memories.

Elliman, however, had embodied the disco era, and nothing was more uncool in 1988 than listening to disco. I checked out Night Flight from the library but couldn’t get past the first song.

When the recorded music industry transitioned to compact disc in the early ’90s, Elliman wouldn’t get the compilation treatment till 1995. The ABBA renaissance made disco acceptable again, but an actual reissue campaign for Elliman’s albums never became a reality.

It’s a good thing I have a record player, then, because used vinyl copies of her albums are the only way to explore her career with any depth.

If one album ought to get a proper reissue treatment, it would be Love Me.

The album starts off with the three singles that were ubiquitous in my childhood — the title track, “Hello Stranger” and “I Can’t Get You Out of My Mind”. Elliman hadn’t completely thrown her hat into the disco ring at this point, so a lot of the tracks on Love Me sound more like California pop than New York dance floor.

“(I Don’t Know Why) I Keep Hangin’ On” has some of the signature marks of disco but nothing on the level of “If I Can’t Have You”. If anything, the dreamy strings of “She’ll Be the Home” and “(Without You) There Ain’t No Love at All” make the album harder to date.

[Yvonne Elliman - The Collection]

While Love Me was never reissued as an album onto itself, a compilation released in the UK cleverly titled The Collection includes all 10 tracks of Love Me thrown in with seven other tracks from other albums.

So it’s entirely possible to enjoy Love Me without the aid of a record player if you’re willing to track down the compilation in a music store. It’s not currently available on any streaming service.

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Vinyl find: Duran Duran, Demo 1979

[Duran Duran - Demo 1979]

My dedication to Duran Duran is probably far above average compared to the non-Duranie population at large, but I’m friends with Duranies who make my fandom look half-assed.

So I was surprised Duran Duran’s Demo 1979 even existed when I spotted it at Jive Time Records. Of course, I imagined my Duranie friends would have known about this bootleg for decades.

Demo 1979 predates the involvement of Andy Taylor and Simon Le Bon. Andy Wickett’s off-kilter warble places these four tracks closer to the band’s punk roots. The hook for “Girls on Film” was already in place, but the song that would eventually become “Rio” had a completely different melody and went by the title “See Me Repeat Me”.

John Taylor and Roger Taylor hadn’t yet achieved their trademark rhythmic seamlessness, but at that early stage, you could hear it coming together. Nick Rhodes had far more gear to acquire before his portion of the sound could expand.

Back in 2010, Capitol reissued Duran Duran’s early catalog with a number of demos, including a vocal version of “Tel Aviv”. I thought those demos were a great insight to how the band works.

Demo 1979 goes even further. It opens up the idea of an alternate reality where Le Bon never became the band’s singer. Would they have conquered the world with anything other than Fab Five? I hesitate to imagine.

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Vinyl find: 10,000 Maniacs, Secrets of the I Ching

[10,000 Maniacs - Secrets of the I Ching]

At the height of my craze for 10,000 Maniacs — circa 1988-1990 — I learned about the band’s pre-major label releases, Human Conflict Number Five and Secrets of the I Ching. All the interviews the band held up to that point pretty much indicated finding copies of these albums would be nigh impossible.

Elektra Records reissued both releases as Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings in 1990. Back then, I had this perception that a band’s first albums retroactively represented how they sounded before they signed to a label. Hope Chest corrected that notion pretty quickly.

The jangly folk-rock that marked the Maniacs sound was in a nebulous state on these early recordings. Rob Buck did some pretty experimental stuff with his guitar before settling on his recognizable style of playing. Merchant, still a teen at the time, had none of the confidence that emerged on The Wishing Chair and In My Tribe.

Hope Chest wasn’t impressive. The band sounded deflated, and reviews of the compilation hinted that Elektra meddled needlessly in remixing the material. When Rhino released the career retrospective, Campfire Songs, most of the early recordings were taken from Hope Chest and not The Wishing Chair. I found that disappointing.

Fast forward 25 years, and during one of my record shop visits, I found a vinyl copy of Secrets of the I Ching.

The reviews were right.

The Hope Chest remix drained the punchiness of Secrets of the I Ching. Merchant’s reticence comes across as more demure, and the post-punk vibe in band’s playing come through in greater detail. Hope Chest smoothed these rough edges much to their detriment.

Now that I’ve heard what Hope Chest originally sounded like, I’m a lot more curious about Human Conflict Number Five.

I doubt the clock can be turned back on a future archival release — if there is one — but these early mixes deserve a wider audience. The tougher sound on Secrets of the I Ching makes far more sense as a precursor to The Wishing Chair than Hope Chest had indicated.

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Vinyl find: Aaron Copland, Sextet / Piano Variations / Piano Quartet

[Aaron Copland - Sextet / Piano Variations/ Piano Quartet]

Back in the ’90s, an advocacy group ran a series of TV ads promoting the consumption of beef. Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” from the Rodeo ballet suite served as the soundtrack for these commercials.

College music appreciation classes include Copland in a chapter about early American orchestral music. Copland’s use of folk idioms paralleled what composers were doing in other countries — finding a sense of national identity through music.

Copland’s ballet suites in this style pretty much overshadow everything else he’s done. I owned only one album of Copland’s work with the most predictable track listing: Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Billy the Kid and Fanfare for the Common Man.

[Leonard Bernstein conducts Aaron Copland]

In this sense, Copland is not a one-hit wonder. He’s a one-hit style wonder.

So in my pursuit of Nonesuch albums from the late 1980s, I came across an album of Copland’s chamber works performed by members of the Boston Symphony with Gilbert Kalish on piano.

The difference was stark.

On this album, Copland threw out his elbows, banging out chords that could tell Charles Ives to shut the fuck up. (They didn’t really like each other.) It was actually pretty refreshing to hear not a single bit of the prairie in any of these works.

If he’s not using 12-tone techniques in these works, he’s pretty damn close. The slow second movement of the Sextet is lyrical without being comforting. The finale comes close to being melodic if it weren’t for the Stravinsky-style switches in meter.

The towering influence of Copland’s ballets — and their easy appropriation in anything smacking of Americana — do a disservice to these works. In short, I had written Copland off as an unabashed melodicist, good for some comfort listening but little beyond that.

This album, however, shows a side of Copland that balances out the popular perception. Now if only more of these works could be programmed in live performances …

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