Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ashes To Ashes Redux

A few years ago I wrote a piece called “Ashes To Ashes” about the death of a long time customer, and how the buying of his collection affected me personally. It ultimately turned into an expose of my feelings about the importance of individual fans on the career development of successful artists. I noted how much this business I’m in revolves around death and divorce. Often people lose their collections when their life is in turmoil or when their families find themselves in the unenviable position of disposing of their legacy. Recently another good customer died and I found myself again confronted with some complex feelings about the experience of buying his collection. This customer was a very nice guy who was involved in many facets of the music business for many years in Colorado. He had connections to radio, bands, labels, and I knew him to be a genuine fan of music. In the last few years he had transitioned out of music, and had purchased a bike shop. From my perspective as a casual acquaintance and business associate he seemed to have led a charmed life. Unfortunately, there were problems that resulted in a drug overdose.

One of my employees called me at home on a Sunday evening and said, “man this is crazy, I’ve been working on this collection all day - it’s amazing. You must have known this guy.” When I looked at the collection the next day, it was clear to me too that I must have known the guy. Many of the CDs were purchased at Twist and Shout, and his taste indicated that this was someone I would have seen eye to eye with about music. When his father came in that afternoon to collect his money, I spoke to him briefly. Yes, this was indeed someone I knew. I was very saddened that evening as I thought about the quickness of events and the impermanence of life and the permanence of death. In the next few days, as I went through the collection, I put aside a few items for myself. I almost did it unconsciously. They weren’t items that I felt I really had to have. There were some things I was glad to get (early John Prine titles I was missing etc.), but as the process wore on, I started to ponder the real purpose of my acquisitions. I started to remember other events like this, and I realized that any time I purchased the collection of someone I knew, or anytime the experience of purchasing a collection created a profound emotional resonance in me, I would almost always leave myself with some kind of totem. These items then take on a special meaning within my collection.

Here are two literary references that play into this for me. At the end of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as Chief Broom smothers McMurphy so he won’t have to continue living as a lobotomized vegetable, he says softly “You’re coming with me Mac.” This always struck me as a very interesting and touching thing to say. The other scene involved Holden Caulfield, the young tragi-comic hero of The Catcher In The Rye. He talks about the death of his younger brother Allie and how he always felt sad about Allie being in a lonely graveyard when it was raining and cold and wet. He didn’t want to leave him there alone. It’s not an exact correlation to my feelings, but I kind of feel like, by keeping a couple of representative items from the deceased’s collection, I help that person’s memory stay a little clearer and a little more whole before the gaping maw of eternity. By holding those John Prine CDs near, I’m saying; “I won’t leave you alone, you’re coming with me.”

Friday, June 26, 2009

Me and Michael Jackson

The media frenzy over the death of Michael Jackson is predictably of unbelievable proportions. This will be the biggest reaction to the death of a pop star ever. And there is a good reason for that. Michael Jackson has become a Rorschach for the modern condition. If we peel away the flesh on our skulls, and look into the mirror, we all face Michael Jackson. His musical greatness has been made dark and distorted by his overwhelming fame as an object of public curiosity. He has become more famous for his public disintegration than any of his many artistic triumphs.

For me, he has been an ever-present figure. We were the same age until yesterday, and I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t around. Here are some of my specific memories of him:

-In 5th or 6th grade “I Want You Back” burst onto the airwaves. There was pandemonium in my school amongst the African-American kids. I remember a girl who was far more developed than her peers standing up in the lunchroom and stating “If Michael Jackson was here I’d make him kiss me right here” and she pointed to her chest. We were scandalized and excited by her obvious deep affection for MJ.

-I remember buying both the “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben” 45’s at the record store. I always cracked up at that song, and when Weird Al sang the line “I wrote a love song to a rat named Ben” I just about died.

-I remember watching the Motown 25th anniversary TV special and hearing the crowd erupt when he did the moonwalk for the first time in front of a national audience. It really was a groundbreaking moment.

-In 1984, my girlfriend at the time really wanted to go to the Jacksons Victory Tour at Mile High Stadium. Tickets were fifty and eighty bucks which was unthinkable at the time, but I swallowed hard and did it. The show was really fun, and I remember being struck by the diversity of the crowd. There were people of every race, age, sexual orientation, and style there, and everyone of them had a special connection to Michael and his music. At one point he moonwalked in a circle and the crowd went apeshit.

-When I first began my teaching career I had a nice young student named Susan who I noticed was wearing a single glove one day. I asked her if she liked Michael Jackson and when her eyes welled up with tears I had my answer. I noticed over the next few months that she took all her fashion tips from MJ and referenced him a lot in her journal writing. I also was part owner of a record store in Boulder at the time and when we got a MJ picture disc with a replica sequined glove , I brought it to school to show her. She flipped over it, and I told her she could buy it. I then had second thoughts when I pondered the correctness of a teacher selling stuff to his students, so I withdrew the offer to sell and said, “you can just have it.” Her parents were not comfortable with that - and with 25 years reflection I don’t blame them, so they insisted she give it back. She was crestfallen, and I suggested maybe she could trade me a different record of the same value for it. Her parents agreed and that is how I ended up with a copy of Julian Lennon Valotte in my collection and learned an important lesson about teacher/student boundaries.

-Shortly after I bought Twist and Shout I was closing up one night when an attractive, heavyset woman came to the door. She knocked when she realized we were closed and I let her in. She said she was a local musician named Crystal Cartier and she needed some R&B records to get ideas for her own work. I let her go through he section and listen to some stuff while I got ready to leave. When I started turning off the lights she, asked me if I wanted to hear some of her music. I said sure and she handed me a cassette tape. I played a song called “Michael” and told her this Michael was a lucky guy to have such a love song written for him. She thanked me, didn’t buy anything and left. When I picked up the stack of records she had been listening to I realized they were all Michael Jackson records. I didn’t think about it again until a year or so later when I saw Crystal on the news, suing Michael Jackson for stealing one of her songs. She created a minor media frenzy around the event when the judge removed her from court for wearing revealing clothes to the trial. The case ended up being dismissed, and Crystal went into oblivion, but I realized that this was a deeply obsessed fan.

The last 10 or 15 years have been a long downward spiral. The adorable, precociously talented artist has turned into the sick and twisted reflection of our own lost innocence. With the release of Thriller and the ensuing sales the music industry fundamentally changed. The big companies got a taste of REAL money and never looked back. Art became an annoying stumbling block on the road to success and the industry started trying only to recreate the success of Michael Jackson over and over. They were able to do so with Whitney, Mariah, Boyz II Men, N’SYNC etc. but with the new model of commerce, the old model of art and artist development took a back seat and eventually started to disappear. For years I have referred to the failure of the music business as “the Michael Jackson effect” because after Thriller things were never the same.

And now, it’s over and we are left with the confused feelings we have about this curious man who became the world’s biggest star. MJ himself often referenced Peter Pan when talking about himself, and you know, I think he might have been right. Peter Pan was the boy who wouldn’t grow up, and that is an attractive notion. However, there was always something a little bit creepy about Peter Pan as well. It was an unnatural thought and trying to make it fit into the reality of growing up was a discomforting feeling. Yet, I love Peter Pan and the story has stayed with me my whole life. I suspect we will never be completely clear on Michael Jackson either. He was the child who never grew up, maybe because he never really was a child.

Jeff Beck content update

In another great example of the industry cutting off its nose to spite its face, I discovered that on the Blu-Ray version of Jeff Beck Performing This Week: Live At Ronnie Scott’s there is an additional 7 song concert with Beck and his Rockabilly outfit. This is awesome footage of Beck really swinging, playing early rock and rockabilly hits that he clearly loves. One would think there would be something eye-catching on the package alerting the consumer to this cool bonus. But no, there is a tiny mention in the small print on the back cover. I didn’t know until a customer pointed it out. This is crazy!!! Like with the Neil Young Archive, there are compelling reasons to get the Blu-Ray version, and the manufacturers act as though they are protecting some kind of secret. Whatever! All you need to know is, if you love Jeff Beck and this incredible new video-which just keeps selling and selling, you should consider the Blu-Ray.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sleep - Hesitation Wounds

Sleep is back with a new album and a new label, releasing his project under the Strange Famous label. As you take the trip through his CD, he brings you to places only Sleep can, by introducing who he made the record for "I made this record for the eager, the weary, for the believer, the dreamer, the future leader, the living, the ones beneath us."
As you continue on down through the first four tracks, he's telling us who to point the finger at and about day dreaming, in the way only Sleep can. But on "Ginelli" and "Orchestra of Strangers" he returns to the form of the Sleep past, rapping fast. As the album continues, Sleep continues to shine, the same way he does on the Oldominion and Chicharones albums, helped out along the way by Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and Grayskul.
The CD is a keeper, on a scale from one to ten, Hesitation Wounds is easily a nine. It's no Riot By Candlelight, but it is a very good album overall. My only complaint? I would have liked to have heard B. Dolan on a track, but oh well, maybe next time.

Love Always,

Girls Rock!!!

Have you seen the Girls Rock DVD yet? It's a documentary about four girls who transform their lives at a Rock 'n' Roll camp for girls. It was filmed in Portland, and since its release in 2007, the camp has expanded to other cities in America including Denver (July 27 - August 1). Twist & Shout is working with this organization and is excited about the potential that this partnership will be sure to create. I am personally volunteering as a Band Manager during the camp and will be sending along updates & photos about the experience. For now, I spoke with Project Director Monique Bourdage to find out more about it.

What is the purpose of Girls Rock Camp? Why do girls need this?
The mission of Girls Rock Denver is to empower girls and young women through music education, creation, and performance. Its purpose is to provide Colorado girls ages 8-18 with a safe space in which to express themselves. We're doing this because we believe that strong girls grow into strong women and that the skills the girls learn at camp, such as assertiveness, self-expression and teamwork, will benefit them and their communities long after camp is over. We believe our camp will also help to break down gender stereotypes by providing our campers with female role models (everyone who works directly with the campers is a female musician, artist, performer, educator, or community member) and the confidence to use their voices. Furthermore, women are still under- or mis-represented in the music industry. We hope to introduce our campers to female musicians whose music and images challenge what is usually depicted in popular media.

What are some of the effects the camp has had on previous participants in other cities? Have there been any follow up with girls who've been through the program to determine the lasting effects (specifically the girls from the Girls Rock documentary)?
Many camps have had campers who have returned year after year. Some have even gone on to intern, volunteer, or otherwise work for the rock camp they attended when they were younger. The campers also form bonds with their bandmates that can last for years. Blubird, a band shown in the documentary, still regularly plays around Portland and even plays as a lunch time band during Ladies Rock Camp sessions. The rock camp experience is one that definitely sticks with you. Marie Schow, who was featured briefly in the documentary as a camper 4 years ago, is now in college. This summer, she will return to her native Colorado and work as a band manager with Girls Rock Denver. Although I don't have data about specific effects of rock camp, it says something that so many campers turn into camp volunteers in order to continue the experience for younger girls.

How did you get involved with girls rock?
I found out about Girls Rock camps while researching my master's thesis on the electric guitar and the social construction of gender. Through my research, I discovered the Girls Rock Camp Alliance, and my partner, Chris Conner, and I decided to take part in the GRCA's annual 50 Shows in 50 States benefit event. We held three events in December 2007 and raised
more money than any other state. With the outpouring of support from the community, it was easy to see that Denver needed and wanted its own girls rock camp. In April 2008, I helped plan events, along with Angela Death of the Denver Roller Dolls and Erin Harbowy of Neighborhood Flix, for the Denver premiere of Girls Rock! The Movie. It was during these director's weekend events that we did the volunteer recruiting necessary to hold our first camp session this summer.

What volunteers are needed and how can they get involved? Who can they contact?
During camp week, we are still in need of several female musicians willing to donate their time. We need instrument instructors (drums, bass, guitar, keyboards--especially keyboards, and vocals). This requires a commitment from 8:45 a.m.-10:45 a.m. from July 27th through July 31st. We also need a couple more band coaches. Band coaches supervise a particular band's practice sessions and guide the band through the song writing process. This position requires a commitment from 1 p.m.-4 p.m. from July 27th-July 31st. Volunteer applications can be downloaded from our website (www.girlsrockdenver.org) and emailed to girlsrockdenver@gmail.com. Questions can be directed to me at the same email address.

If girls 8-18 are interested, how can they get into the camp? How are the girls chosen?
Camper applications can also be downloaded from our website and mailed to us at P.O. Box 8473, Denver, CO 80201. We still have a few spaces left for girls interested in learning guitar, bass, or drums. Girls are chosen on a first come, first served basis and financial aid is still available. Details are included on the application and website.

Anything else to add?
We are also in need of food, equipment, supplies and other donations. There is a wish list on our website, or people may contact me to find out about additional items we need.
Since our days are long and several of our campers come from low-income families, we would like to be able to provide lunch and snacks for all 6 days of camp. We have received some donations, but are still in need.
Any equipment donations may be dropped off at Music Gear Guys (220 S. Broadway, Denver, CO 80209) or the Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons. We will gladly take anything you have to offer--practice amps, bass guitars, mics, effects pedals, drum equipment, auxiliary percussion, and accessories such as picks and cables. If you would like to loan equipment to the camp, please email us to make arrangements.
We are also in need of services such as photocopying and donations for our campers' goodie bags (such as water bottles, composition notebooks, cds, picks, drum sticks, etc.). We'd also like to secure some gifts for our volunteers, who have worked year-round and also taken a week off work this summer to make this camp happen for the girls of Colorado.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The state of the industry and the state of The Beatles

This week I was at the annual NARM (National Association Of Recording Merchandisers) conference in San Diego. I haven’t been in a few years and was full of anxiety about what it would be like in the increasingly digital era we find ourselves in. I wondered whether anyone would be there and what the mood would be. It turned out it would be one of the more productive NARMs I’ve been to. I found the labels and distribution companies somewhat more open-minded about dealing with independent retail than they have been in a while. Money seems to be tight for everyone, but that makes for a creative atmosphere. Part of that creativity is being manifested in the unbelievable resurgence of vinyl. There was a lot of talk about it, and I feel confident that the format is going to enjoy an even bigger resurgence, and that the quality will continue to improve, making it THE premier format it rightfully is.

I appeared on a panel with the Chief Executive Officer of The American Booksellers Association, Oren Teicher who was very interesting and thought provoking. I am already thrilled to be next door to one of the best bookstores in the country - The Tattered Cover - and I have been starting to really get into this whole concept of buying locally and avoiding chains or monolithic national companies that ship money out of state and limit the intellectual and artistic choices we have. I hope to become more and more involved in my local community as an individual and a businessman, and being on this panel sharpened my desire quite a bit.

As always at these conventions, the real fun happens late night in the private rooms of the store-owners. This year, my friend Eric Levin of the great independent store Criminal Records in Atlanta arranged for us to have some crazy multi-hundred thousand dollar sound system in a room where we could really listen to stuff. Part of it was an amazing turntable that retails for over 50 thousand dollars. Various people brought rare records to play and labels got the chance to play us some cool new stuff on vinyl. By far the highlight for me though came on the final night when some of the folks from Capitol Records brought in a CD under lock and key. It contained 13 samples of the new re-mastered Beatles albums played back-to-back with the old ones so that we could really hear the difference. That was followed by three of the new versions in their entirety. I cannot express fully what a profound experience this was. It was really big on many different levels. First off, it reminded us all how absolutely elemental The Beatles are to our understanding of modern popular music. They are the standard by which all other bands are held in terms of how that band effected society and in the music they actually made. Some of the effects on society were out of their hands and a product of the times but there is no getting around the fact that STILL, The Beatles’ music stands the test of time. It is forward sounding and beautiful - even today. There is both a highly evolved quality to it and a precious innocence that we will not see the likes of again.

So how did they sound? It is almost a crime that it is 2009 and we are still living with the original masters from the first generation of CDs. Technologically, things have progressed light years from where they were at the dawn of CD and the care that has obviously been poured into these releases reflects the best that the format has to offer. On the early songs that were compared to newer ones it was startling. The songs went from a one dimensional wallpaper effect to a deep, resonant, immersive sound. The guitars crackled and every nuance of George Martin’s thoughtful production and engineering was in the correct place and it sounded remarkably like, well, a great vinyl recording. The songs were presented in chronological order, and as the band approaches the psychedelic era, with Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s etc. the recordings became deeper, more resonant, and more and more exciting. There were probably thirty people in the room, and the feeling of growing excitement was palpable. With each hi-hat snap or lush three-part vocal harmony people were literally gasping. We were all anticipating the full songs at the end. "Tomorrow Never Knows" has always been a personal favorite, and has been embraced universally as a psych classic. It was a crushing experience to hear on this stereo in that quality. When the insectoid-like backward-masked guitar solo squirted out of the speakers you would have sworn a 300 pound day-glow mosquito had just flown by. It was AMAZING. Ditto, the opening guitar figure on "Something." Harrison’s tone had such warmth and presence it seemed like he had to be in the room. At the end there was a moment of silence before the whole room burst into joyous applause. I somewhat drunkenly stood up and made an impromptu speech that went something like this;

“If we can accurately convey to our customers the aural ecstasy of hearing this incredible music, and even more importantly, the significance of doing so in a room with other people, and the social implications of that…we will all have jobs for a long time.”

Drunk or not, I really believe that. The experience was so much more for the fact that we were experiencing it together, with the music washing over us in the optimal auditory setting. Sound matters, the society of others matters in the appreciation of that sound, and that is a fact that is becoming lost in torrent of instant gratification modern consumers face every day. Perhaps waiting so long for this moment made it that much sweeter. Either way, be prepared to replace your Beatles albums one last time. Also, there will be vinyl versions later in the year. My unquenchable love for music has its roots and greatest love in the music of The Beatles. They have been one of the most satisfying constants in my life since childhood, and this listening session really brought into focus what it all means to me. I hope you are as excited by their release on September Ninth as I am.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca

The way I see it, Dirty Projectors, led by David Longstreth, are at the cutting edge of rock/pop music. The more I listen to Bitte Orca, the more I hear in it. The whole album is incredible but the second half is what I've really been digging. Let's talk for a moment about "Useful Chamber," which seems to me the centerpiece. This lengthy track is, I think, a microcosm of what the Dirty Projectors are about. I love how the drums and bass are very restrained but still doing interesting things - very purposeful. I love the cheesy synth tone that washes over the first section. It sounds like a cheap violin patch that reminds me of the music from "The Oregon Trail" video game. The female backing vocals on this song and throughout the album are just gorgeous. They consist mostly of held chords, sometimes moving chorale style, sometimes breaking up into intricate counterpoint. Listen to the way they slide from one chord to the next in perfect harmony at the end of the song. At other points the voices are jarringly chopped up ProTools-style. The center of this song is a rockin' little rave up with Longstreth's trademark twisted, overdriven faux-Sunny Ade guitar playing and his repeated declamation of the album title. And wow, his guitar playing is amazing throughout the album. The finger-picked acoustic playing is beautiful and weird at the same time; the electric leads are virtuosic but understated.

I also really like the way rhythm is played with on nearly every song. The finger-picking that underlies "Two Doves" constantly threatens to change the time signature, but then pops back into place at the last second. In the last minute or so of "Remade Horizon," which features a chorus that I think says "Yeah I wanna/Remake the horizon," the hi-hat pattern gets chopped up so that it seems like the drummer's losing the beat, but then comes back in again at the right place. It reminds me of similar things that some contemporary hip hop producers are doing with their drum loops. At other points, the band plays with rhythmic dissonances between the guitars and vocals, or builds tension by setting up a swing feel and then having the drums switch to straight time for a few seconds.

Longstreth is tying together all these threads of various musics - African guitar and melismatic singing, minimalist-like rhythmic patterns and phasing, hip hop production techniques, proggy extended structures, various singer-songwriter-isms, rock music - and creating his own personal, powerful statements. I don't always understand what he's doing, but I can tell he knows, and I'm always intrigued.

- Ian Douglas-Moore

Summer concert season is underway

Summer concert season is upon us and mine’s officially kicked off in great form with two shows this week that simply slew me – The New York Dolls Sunday night at the Bluebird and Leonard Cohen last night at Red Rocks. When I’ve brought either of these up to some of my more uncultured friends the reaction has been along the lines of: “Oh, they’re still around/alive?” But yeah, they’re both riding on solid new records and touring like it mattered.

The New York Dolls were possibly the bigger surprise, seeing as Cohen’s shows have been A) bigger and B) generating significant good press and reviews. So when I say I luved it, you’d best believe I luved it, L-U-V. Not only were original members David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain totally consummate performers – as were the great younger musicians they’re working with (especially that drummer!) – but they were both charismatic as hell, playing rock and roll like they live it 24-7 – which in fact they just may. They dug into a set that was pretty evenly split between their two 1970’s classics – New York Dolls and In Too Much Too Soon – and their two recent albums, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This and the brand-new ‘Cause I Sez So. Word on the street has it that the two new albums aren’t so hot, but I beg to differ. Not only do they still have significant hook value – catchy riffs didn’t leave the band when Johnny Thunders did – but Johansen’s lyrics are possibly better than ever. I haven’t fully absorbed the new one, which sounds good on one listen, but One Day is pretty damn good to my ears. Regardless, they came on with new songs and old ones interspersed, paying homage even in the new tunes to the 50’s and early 60’s rock and roll classics that were their foodstuff growing up but of course slanting them to a modern sensibility – in fact, my partner who attended with me and didn’t know more than three of their songs couldn’t tell the vintage of songs by listening, only by crowd reaction. I say this to point out that if you don't come in biased toward thinking they're gonna suck, you'll probably be able to really hear the new ones as the fine songs they are. If they make it around again, I strongly suggest catching the show.

Leonard Cohen, on the other hand, will almost certainly not be mounting another tour like the one that wrapped up at Red Rocks Thursday after being rained out on Tuesday. The man is 74 years old, but in energy, in on-stage demeanor, he came on like a man 20 years younger, running on to the stage, dancing/skipping his way off to the encores. His charisma as a serious performer, pulling from his lengthy catalog of classic songs was every bit as strong as Johansen’s trash-rock, glam sensuality. Cohen and his crack band were absolutely stunning, hitting just about every high point of his music spanning back to his 1968 debut and going right up to 2001’s Ten New Songs. Highlights were almost too many to include – but I’ll try. Javier Mas’s intro to “Who By Fire” – itself a terrific performance – made me wonder just how good a full concert of him playing his banduria could be. "Hallelujah" had the entire crowd singing along, and pretty much any time Cohen crouched down by his monitors to deliver a line with more intimacy - as in "Bird on the Wire" or "I'm Your Man" - worked us all over. And no matter how many times he gave the spotlight to others and introduced his terrific band, Cohen was the star. Sounding great, looking fit and energetic, and bringing his autumnal voice that seems to automatically impart wisdom even to his oldest material, he sounded absolutely fantastic throughout the show. Though he’s got a reputation as a gloomy songwriter, he highlighted the humor that makes Cohen much more palatable to me than most songwriters who work in similar areas. For those who were unable to attend – and given that it’s unlikely he’ll tour again – the Live In London CD or DVD packages provide a reasonable facsimile of the experience – very similar song selection and performance quality, but it’s just not the same as being there in the same venue. Live music rules.