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.
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.
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 …
Sometimes, I’ll justify an impulse purchase in terms of how much I spend on a breakfast at Starbucks. A cup of tea and a bagel usually sets me back $4. A Nonesuch record I’ve never heard of selling for $1 is a steal by comparison.
From what I can tell, this album is the only one where Ani and Ida Kavafian are billed as a duo. The sisters have successful careers separately, and the Amazon search algorithms turn up other recordings where they both appear. But from appearances alone, Ani and Ida aren’t the string players’ answer to Katia and Marielle Labèque.
Nonesuch hasn’t reissued this recording on the digital services, and neither sister is listed on the label’s site. The album was released in 1986, two years into Robert Hurwitz’s tenure, and the very mainstream choice of repertoire — Mozart, Moritz Moszkowski, Pablo de Sarasate — doesn’t align with the post-modern direction Nonesuch would eventually take.
It’s too bad, because the album is quietly charming. Mozart, of course, his overly bright self. The final movement of the Moszkowski Suite in G has a distinct swing, and the sisters sound particularly singular on the various runs in the Sarasate piece.
Nonesuch had the presence of mind to issue this album on CD, so you’re not shut out if you don’t own a turntable. The cover pictured, in fact, is from the CD.
Like Ambitious Lovers before it, Ofra Haza’s Shaday was an album I intended to buy when it was released in 1988, but it never managed to leap ahead of other priorities.
At the time, critical consensus about Haza seemed mixed. Some writers weren’t too keen on the commercial direction her international albums were taking, while the listening public buoyed them to the top of the world music charts.
I picked up on that ambivalence. I had my hands full getting into college rock and modern classical music. Shaday sounded like something that fit into my burgeoning interests, but without a way to preview it, I couldn’t be sure. So my curiosity was diverted and wasn’t rekindled until I ran across a cheap copy on vinyl 27 years later.
The precocious but unschooled teenager I was probably would have dug the novelty of an Israeli pop album for a spell, then moved on to something more fashionable. As an adult, I find the primitiveness of the analog synthesizers comforting, especially that robotic bass so emblematic of the late ’80s.
But I’ve also had a chance to be exposed to other international pop music in the time since I first encountered Shaday, and I’d say the album is on par with what Molotov or Värttinä do when mixing American popular music with their home culture. A clueless gringo such as myself can latch onto the backbeat while a local can appreciate the music’s core.
I don’t need to know a lick of Hebrew to appreciate Haza’s voice, and like the best J-pop artists, she throws in a few English phrases as punctuation.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to be young and to have access to streaming services. My listening habits were shaped by scarcity and compounded by distance.
Neneh Cherry is a case in point.
When Raw Like Sushi came out, the music magazines I devoured plastered Cherry all over their covers. She was a thing, and she had a hit.
But you wouldn’t know it listening to radio stations in Honolulu. The cool kids in high school never heard of her. I wanted to find out why all my magazines devoting so many column inches to her, but I didn’t have the resources to find out.
Sure, I could have just bought her album sight unseen, but my parents weren’t helicopters, and my allowance had to stretch. I had to be strategic about these kinds of impulse purchases, and Neneh Cherry didn’t cross the curiosity threshold far enough.
A quarter of a century later — and with a disposable income on the multitudes larger than my parents’ allowance — I came across a vinyl copy of Raw Like Sushi for $3. That was a price point my curiosity could easily manage.
I don’t think I would have appreciated Raw Like Sushi as a youngster. I had already developed a chip on my shoulder about “commercial music”, and Cherry’s sophistication would have been lost one me.
But would my relationship with Cherry’s debut have been different if I had easier access to it? Would the chip on said shoulder gotten heavier or lighter? The equivalent to streaming services back then were friends with duplicating cassette tape decks.
I was lucky enough to live in a city with a few branches of Tower Records. A good 2,000 miles of ocean separated me from the Mainland, and that slowed the propagation of pop culture by half a year. So in a way, it’s a miracle I heard of Neneh Cherry at all.
The Internet, of course, bridges these gaps. Rather, it provides the infrastructure for curious listeners to find the bridges to traverse those gaps. And with the plethora of choice comes the paralysis of choice.
I’m under the impression younger listeners don’t have the attachment to music that I have. They don’t want the burden of ownership — shelves, media, playback systems. At times, I wouldn’t mind relinquishing those responsibilities myself.
But coming from an era of scarcity, it’s tough not to want to possess when curiosity, expectations and reality meet. Raw Like Sushi ended up being as interesting — and fun — as I was led to believe. Why would I want to rent that relationship?
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.
A few weeks ago, I was flipping through the vinyl stacks at the Bellevue location of Silver Platters. This album by Stephen Albert caught my eye immediately.
I knew right away it was Nonesuch release. The typeface, the stark black and white photography, the clean design — the only other label with such a clear cover aesthetic is ECM. In fact, label president Robert Hurwitz worked at ECM before taking over Nonesuch.
I checked the back cover, and sure enough, there was a Nonesuch logo. Flower of the Mountain was released in 1987, the same year as Kronos Quartet’s White Man Sleeps and John Adams’ The Chairman Dances. But who was Stephen Albert? I hadn’t heard of him, and I know nothing of this album.
So I bought it without sampling it beforehand. Just one of those rash purchases.
Another remarkable aspect of this album is the title piece. “Flower of the Mountain” refers to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses by James Joyce. The Joyce estate can get pretty draconian protecting the author’s copyrights.
Albert, it seems, managed to secure permission to use this text, while the Joyce estate told Kate Bush no. So Bush ended up writing “The Sensual World”. Bush would later secure permission when she re-recorded the song and re-titled it … “Flower of the Mountain”.
Albert’s Flower of the Mountain is a fairly genteel piece, decidedly tonal but not exceptional. It’s the accompanying piece, Into Eclipse, that steals the spotlight.
Into Eclipse has more sharp edges with a much more striking orchestration. It’s also the piece that is more readily available of the two. Into Eclipse can be found on Julliard Orchestra recording (New World 80381) and on an Eastman Music Nova album (Albany 192). By contrast, Flower of the Mountain is available only on this out-of-print Nonesuch release.
So why hadn’t I encountered Albert till now?
It turns out Albert died in a car crash in 1992. His career was on the rise up till then. Two years before Nonesuch released Flower of the Mountain, Albert earned the Pulitzer Prize for his Riverrun Symphony.
Travis Higdon ran Peek-a-Boo Records out of an office we both worked at during the late ’90s. At first, I found that misappropriation of office resources distasteful. Then, the office politics pissed me off, and I thought Travis could have done more to misappropriate office resources.
But meeting him introduced me to his band, The Kiss-Offs, who attracted quite a bit of buzz in the Austin music press. The band’s debut album, Goodbye Private Life, became one of my favorites in 1999. They split up after releasing a second album, Rock Bottom, in 2001.
Peek-a-Boo had a pretty nice roster around that time. The Prima Donnas were reviving the ’80s at a time when everyone shat on the ’80s. Silver Scooter was a proto-Death Cab for Cutie with a bassist who really, really dug New Order’s Peter Hook.
But I missed out on the band Travis formed before the Kiss-Offs: The 1-4-5s.
A few months ago, a used LP of the 1-4-5s’ Rock Invasion showed up at Jive Time Records. I hadn’t thought about Travis or Peek-a-Boo in years till I saw that LP. I didn’t buy it right away because, as usual, I was cash-strapped. But it did afford me some time to find an EP Peek-a-Boo released called “Unsafe at 45 RPM“.
I’ve made my distaste of garage rock known, but I don’t mind garage rock from people I admire. So I eventually picked up Rock Invasion.
It’s fast. It’s bratty. It’s lo-fi. It has “rock” in the every song title on the album.
I particularly liked how there was a hidden track … on vinyl. Given the space constraints of an LP, the songs on Rock Invasion are pretty compact if a portion of groove real estate can be devoted to a gap of silence.
I can hear hints of the Kiss-Offs in the 1-4-5s, but the songcraft that would mark Travis’ later bands is not on display here. The 1-4-5s, like their name suggests, kept things rustic. At the tempos they played, there was no time for complexity.