Around the World in 10 Days

For ten days, my girlfriend Kim, my friend Emily and myself went on a ten-day stretch of going to see The Hold Steady in seven cities. Instead of doing the usual writeup of each show, we decided to capture the experience in a series of video blogs posted to the band’s message board. We have yet to do the Epilogue/wrap up, but felt it was necessary to post this now while it is still feels fresh in our minds. There’s so many stories that these videos don’t contain, and it’s stuff I’ll never forget, either.

Ear Wax: An Argument for Vinyl

There’s something special about music on vinyl. It’s almost magical to hear a new record. Even on the lousiest compact speakers, something about records just sounds so present. It’s like hearing music in 3D.

My musical journey did not start with vinyl. While still in high school, the arrival of most Thursdays meant a trip to Tower Records. I would flip through hundreds of CDs and spend a lot of time at the listening stations. I loved the employees’ recommendations. Even though I heeded the warning Empire Records boasted—that working at a record store is far from a great job—I still fantasized about taking a part-time job there. At the register, I’d take a peek at what others were purchasing. Once in the car, I would rip the shrink-wrap off of each one of my purchases and insist on playing a new CD through the car stereo. But, by the time Tower Records tanked, I had lost all interest in CDs as viable media.

At about the same time, I discovered my step-dad’s record collection. I flipped through the albums, full of curiosity. He hooked up his old turntable to our surround sound speakers, and although it didn’t result in the best sound (old isn’t always compatible with new), I still loitered around the basement to listen to many albums. I felt something magical about those old platters, and still do. They had stood the test of time, and many of them still sounded crystal clear and new.

I started to collect albums myself, but only those to which I felt a strong connection. I looked for a used record shop in every city I visited. I chanced to stumble across Smash! Records on a school field trip into Georgetown near D.C. (they have since relocated) and bought records while my friends bought souvenirs and trendy Urban Outfitters junk. First came Phil Ochs, then The Who’s Quadrophenia, The Beatles and Cat Stevens. The list goes on. Then I discovered that new artists were pressing vinyl. The Internet, and later John at Strawberry Fields Music (located in Potsdam, NY), helped with that. Suddenly my collection that started at five or so records was pushing 50.

You are probably asking yourself, “why vinyl?” For me, vinyl is the full experience of music. You hear music as it was meant to be heard. Once music is processed digitally and changes from pure sound to “ones and zeros,” it can never recapture its original quality. No matter how high the bit rate, it is never quite the same. I am also wary of classics re-pressed on vinyl for that same reason.

There’s also an aspect of authenticity. Hearing Led Zeppelin on a 33 1/3 record, just like your parents and their friends heard it suddenly makes it much cooler than listening to it on your laptop. This is certainly the case when the actual record you are listening to DID belong to your parents or someone of their era.

The visual aspect of records is undeniable. There is much more space and freedom for the artwork, which oftentimes adds another layer to the music and the story it tells (for example, The Who’s Quadrophenia came with an entire book of photographs; The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America came with a comic book). Album art often stands as art on its own; CD media always sort of swept art under the carpet. Recently, artists have been taking advantage of the visual medium much more through not only LPs but expanded packages (a la Of Montreal’s Skeletal Lamping) including specially-made t-shirts, wall decals and posters.

Lastly, there is the tactile aspect of vinyl records. You peel back the huge sheet of shrink-wrap, shake the inner, paper sleeve out and there is that huge onyx-black platter. Everything is a delicate process (scratches are not your friend). You can watch the needle physically skim around the record. The fresh yet acrid smell unique to records completes the experience.

The main reasons that people avoid vinyl are obvious: new records are pricey, and the price you pay doesn’t buy something that you can carry around in your iPod. I admit that, in a pinch, I’d probably sacrifice my vinyl collection to keep my iPod. Luckily, forward-thinking record labels include a code for a free MP3 download with all new record purchases. Artists respect the vinyl medium but also see the need for portability. Used vinyl is also a great option. For only a few dollars, a complete work of music can be yours to take home, listen to, and judge.

I’m not trying to change anyone’s concept of music. There will always be someone clamoring to collect the most (high bitrate) MP3s that s/he possibly can. I am just trying to take a step back into simpler, more analog times. Call me a music snob or call me old-fashioned, but I still think that vinyl is still the best quality music around—after all, it’s still here, yet 8-tracks and cassettes fell out of favor long ago (gee, I wonder why…). The recent resurgence in vinyl makes me curious about the future of the recording industry—especially with the CD end of things obviously faltering. But, much to the satisfaction of collectors and music geeks everywhere, vinyl ain’t dead yet.

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Kim Harrison is a music major and writer in her spare time. Therefore she has no job prospects whatsoever. At least that’s what she says.

On A 70’s Kick. Forever.

zap_fmacMy favorite album of all time, ever, that will likely never change, that will be in constant rotation until I die, is Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 release Rumours.

Why? Because it’s effing awesome.

Well, there is also a bit more to it than that. This album creates an environment for me. It’s a very specific type of feeling I get when I listen to Rumours (which I do on an almost daily basis) and it’s one of perfect blending. Much of the album reminds me of pouring really cold half and half into a scalding cup of coffee and watching the two swirl together in a beige tandem.

The voices of Nicks, Buckingham, and McVie are like the coffee and half and half, as is the multitude of instruments used on Rumours. It’s fresh, nearly perfect, but always a little gritty at the same time.

And, despite being a ridiculous seller (nearly 20 MILLION copies), never does Rumours sound like a direct attempt to generate sales. It’s all genuine, the emotions the band conveys feels real, especially on tracks like “The Chain.”
“The Chain” may be my favorite track on Rumours. As it opens with a simple, melodic guitar part that swells with a blue Delta flavor. I imagine the scene beginning with two flamenco dancers who circle each other until …
“If you don’t love me now, you will never love me again.”

That’s one hell of an ultimatum.

It’s a perfect segway into “we must never break the chain.” The way that Nicks’ and Buckingham’s voices stagger makes it sound like wicked bickering between two people. It’s great. Then McVie’s wonderfully maternal and earnest voice floats over the top, almost like a guardian angel’s attempt to look out for the participants in this odd version of a quarrel.

The entire album sounds like a romantic breakup, or rather a relationship’s entire course of action. Each individual song can stand on its own as a single or a decent representation of Fleetwood Mac’s particular pop-rock sound, but to notice the actual connection between the songs and the environment it creates, one must listen to the album in it’s entirety.

Tracks like “I Don’t Wanna Know,” or “You Can Go Your Own Way,” are pretty cut and dry breakup songs.

Although Rumours isn’t really a breach as far Fleetwood Mac’s sound goes, since they still rely on vocal harmonies and jangly guitars and piano to add a touch of folk to their music, the personal issues surrounding the band at the time certainly allowed for them to get creative regarding the context in which they wanted to present the material. Bassist John McVie and vocalist Christie McVie separated, as did Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. I can’t imagine what it was like to record this album when you’re Stevie Nicks and you KNOW that a particular song is all about you. And to think, I think it’s awkward to see someone you dated at the neighborhood coffee place. It’s got to be so much worse to have to create and perform songs that are blatantly about your personal life and the affairs that take place in them.

I just got a pair of noise canceling headphones, and I now have a lot more appreciation for the instrumentation of music. When listening on the crappy Apple earbuds, the album is wonderful. When listening on my new headphones, it sounds like a brand new album to me.

Baby Baby Baby Oooooh Baby!

When one is feeling, well, I guess I’ll say “pseudo-depressed,” there are few better songs to listen to than “Superstar” by the Carpenters. Not the cover by Sonic Youth, and not by anyone else trying to cover it in an “look at me, I’m playing a song that kind of sucks in an ironic way so you will appreciate my attentiveness to being on the pulse of hipster kitsch, and hey, would you like another PBR?” way. This is a whole new level of sincerity. LOOK at their album covers, for God’s sake.

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They look like engagement photos. They were serious. That is why I love them.

First of all, the Carpenters are so…clean. The application of this song to a depressing situation should not be taken lightly. If it’s a ‘I wanna stay in bed and drink wine,” kind of depressed, look to Chan Marshall, and if it’s a “wanna put on some flannel and never move again from the sofa,” try Chris Pureka (who is AWESOME live, by the way….).

But the Carpenters? This is a sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of milk and a stack of old letters kind of depressed. Moving one’s head side to side during the part where Karen Carpenter sings “Baby, baby, baby, baby, ohhh baby,” is not only acceptable, but also almost impossible to avoid.

I really think it’s the horns that make this song a delectable-melancholy-saccharine nugget; so perfect…so 70’s…so chocolate milk. I don’t want to say cheese, because it isn’t cheese. It’s chocolate milk. Pre-cheese, if you will. No enzymes, no salt, no aging. Simply smooth, sweet milk.

The forced vibrato that Karen for is just so damn sincere. She reportedly felt a little bothered by the lyrics to “Superstar,” since they seemed a bit sexual to her. Good lord…how far it’s come? Honestly though, The Carpenters at least had some beef on them, and probably meant every word and note they created during their reign of high school prom songs.

Collectively Uninspired

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I know I’ve reached that age where I’m not really impressed that easily. Especially with music. I’m sure there’s bands out there I would have gobbled up four or five years ago, like MGMT, that kind of power pop that I kind of give a half a shit about now.

This is not about MGMT, instead, it’s about seeing one of my current favorite bands, Animal Collective, live, and how let down I am after seeing them.

In the past two and a half years, live music has changed for me from a spectator sport, to a breathing, visceral, transformative experience. There’s a whole raft of them that do that for me.

Animal Collective didn’t do that for me tonight. They were staid, stale, and relatively uninspired. That’s so odd to me. Their records brim with inspiration and contain this almost tangible quality. It invades your ears, nose, mouth and your imagination.

Tonight just felt like three dudes with samplers and delay pedals, playing for themselves.

There was a rather large heaping of their material off of the just-released “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, but it wasn’t proportionally placed throughout the setlist. Case in point: Excellent tracks “Summertime Clothes” followed by the classic “My Girls”. I feel had they been seperated, they would have resonated with the audience a bit more.

Okay, they’re not completely guilty: Avey Tare had moments of genuine enthusiasm and attempted to connect to the audience, may it have been a small hop or dramatic cymbal crash. That excited me. The new songs were enjoyable, but didn’t do enough for me to enhance my concert experience.

There was no material off of 2007’s superior “Strawberry Jam”, and a one song encore – Panda Bear’s “Comfy In Nautica”. It was Avey-less – apparetly he blew out his voice during the set. Or maybe he just wasn’t up to it.

The show wasn’t terrible. It just wasn’t what I was expecting from one of the most exciting bands making music today.

Perhaps it was an off night. I’ll give them another chance. Let’s hope it’s different then.

Regrets, reminiscing and other embarrassments

Live music has become one of the cornerstones of my life as I creep into my mid twenties. There’s been countless great shows I’ve been to over the years, and I could write several posts about how amazing they all were, but let’s be honest – that’s not always that fun. Instead, I’ll engage you with moments of my musical repentance.

Here’s some concert experiences that I’d want a do over.

February 20, 2003 – Phish. For the most part, these guys blow chunks. Before this current breakup and reformation, Phish was dormant from late 2000 to late 2002. This was their first tour back , and being a junior in high school, thinking that jam bands were totally where it was at for two months, I thought it would be cool to try and snap up GA tickets for their show at Allstate Arena. Somehow, I did, and managed to piss off all the hippies I went to school with. Example:

Like, come on mannn, I’ll totally give you a hundred bucks for those tickets. That version of “Chalkdust Torture” on A Live One is the best thing I’ve ever heard! Totally dude, like, I totally, like, love Puh-hish. I mean, come on man, do you even smoke?

I forgot to mention some of them were pissed of the mediocre review I gave Round Room in my high school’s newspaper earlier that winter.

My best friend Jordan, who probably got an even worse dressing-down than I did, was my companion for this gig. We spent the night making our way through a sea of patchouli, hemp necklaces with those cute little blown glass trinkets, and my personal favorite – fainting hippies. I was not impressed, but Jordan didn’t seem to mind. He was totally groovin’ his way through tried and true classics like “Gotta Jibboo”. Really?

May 16, 2005 – The Mars Volta at the Riveira Theater. The Riv is a shitty venue, with piss-poor sight lines. It didn’t help that I actually payed to see the kings of pretentious art-rock. What’s equally embarassing? This glowing review of Amputecture I wrote a year later. Humiliating. You want a new Floyd or King Crimson? Listen to these turds. I’ll pass. Thanks.

October 3, 2005 – Foozer tour at the Allstate Arena. It was a dream bill – two of my favorite bands at the time, Weezer and the Foo Fighters – playing together at one show at the premier suburban arena. If only I could remember it. Largely incapacitated due to some incredibly strong prescription medication, this is more just a collage of moments than what should have been one of the happiest moments of my life. I remember next to nothing of Weezer’s set, save for their cover of ‘Big Me’, and that the Foos opened with “In Your Honor” and “Cold Day In The Sun” was somewhere near the end of the set as I wandered around the arena. Also, if you ask the right person, apparently I wanted food at a a ‘sit down place’, despite not having any money. I do not recall this.

August 6, 2006 – Missing the entire 17-member lineup of Broken Social Scene at Lollapalooza 2006 for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Lolla ’06 was my inaugural festival experience, and I was still figuring out the ropes of how it all worked. I realized that you can’t see everyone you want, no matter how hard you try. So, I opted to see the Chilis, a group I had been “totally jamming to” since the summer of 2000. The show was alright, from what I remember, but because of the steel toe boot to the head from an errant crowdsurfer things are sort of fuzzy. According to my friend (and fellow obviate-er) Evan Thorne, who attended the show with me, he heard the THUD of when the boot kicked me in the head, and then turned around to see me down. I remember still feeling like i had control in my feet, but it was just easier to fall. I think I got pulled out of that one during the encore.

October 31, 2007 – Shouting “YEAH!” very loudly in a quiet room after Craig Finn explained before the live debut of “Lord, I’m Discouraged” that it was a “sad song”. Man, talk about a buzzkill. The dude next to me patted me on the shoulder and said “nice job” as I sunk my head into my shoulders. Ouch.