Friday, February 26, 2010

Why Record Stores Matter

The other day a friendly gentleman approached the counter holding a record and wearing a smile. He held up a Charlie Parker 10” record on the Savoy label and said something to the effect of “this is my record.” According to the gentleman this record, this VERY record was purchased by him when it came out in 1948. Sometime in the ensuing 60 years he sold the record (he thought in California in the 70’s). Now, here in 2010 he is poking around one of the few places in the country it could possibly be, and lo and behold there it is. He points to his name written on the jacket, and a bunch of doodles on the back that he drew. “Yep it’s mine.” He purchased the record and left happily.

Now when this story came to me through an employee and I just about flipped out. This is exactly what I’ve been saying for years. The great tradition of second hand stores in this country act as more than just retail outlets - they are estuaries that collect the cultural castoffs, the flotsam and jetsam of our society, and then like putting a plain rock in a tumbler and having it come out a jewel, these items resurface later as little time capsules that not only still perform their original duties (in this case giving us the genius of Charlie Parker) but they also carry with them the smells, the feel, the secret messages of the life, or lives of those whose hands they passed through. In this case, the record was purchased 62 years ago - think of the worlds the original purchaser has come through since originally plopping down a buck or two for the record. Think of the all the lives that might have touched it since he sold it, and the journey the record itself took to find itself at Twist and Shout in 2010, and then back in its original owners’ hands. Think of all the life that the record was close to. It sat in living rooms while the world changed - it sat there during the Korean War, Vietnam, Woodstock, Watergate, Disco, 9/11, countless financial ups and downs. Not to mention the individual lives of the people who owned and loved it - Marriage? Divorce? Kids? Maybe a kid sold it to us after his father died. Maybe someone learned to play sax by listening to that record over and over. Maybe it was the last record someone listened to before leaving home. 

The image that keeps coming back to me is that of a message in a bottle. Someone throws it into the ocean in hopes that it will travel miles and come ashore to someone’s hands. It might contain a mystery, or a great love affair, or a buried treasure, but it is a romantic notion. That the bottle you throw in the ocean could wash up on shore next to YOU, years later, is almost too much to believe. But there it was, in the hands of the guy who originally bought it, with his original doodles on the back - just amazing. This is why we have and continue to need record stores. Where else could this happen?

--Paul Epstein

Monday, February 22, 2010

I'd Love to Turn You On #3: Screaming Blue Messiahs - Gun-Shy

We spend so much of our time buying, selling and listening to the latest releases that we sometimes forget to plumb the depths. Every one of us here got in to record store thing, at some level, because we have a deep interest and curiosity about all kinds of music. Most of us are collectors to some degree or another, and one of the abiding joys of collecting is to pull out the rare, beautiful, little known or downright obscure album and turn on a friend. Sometimes it's a classic that needs to be shined up and put back on the top shelf. With that in mind we are going to revive a column we used to include in our newsletters called, appropriately enough, I'd Love To Turn You On. This will give our super collectors and musical academicians to wax poetic about their favorite albums (or movie or book for that matter).

Some Rock n Roll bands are a given, a fixture. They are ensconced in your older brother's record collection. They pose, grinning, holding framed gold records. They sport sunglasses on the covers of music magazines. Then there are bands you see coming over the pop culture horizon. They take on familiar shapes, they are musically amiable. Another link in the chain of pop trendiness. But...sometimes a Rock n Roll band comes out of the blue. They jump up fully formed, Athena-like, out of the Rock God's head. The Screaming Blue Messiahs were just such a band.

Of course they came from somewhere. The Messiahs' background was specifically London, circa Pub Rock o'clock. But Gun-Shy was the 1986 debut LP, long out of print, but now reinstated courtesy of the Wounded Bird label. And what a debut! You would be hard pressed to find another first release sporting as much weird wit and power. Gun-Shy is one of those records that simply gets down to hemming nor hawing about.

First track “Wild Blue Yonder” is a pretty good indication of what the group is all about. Bill Carter's guitar sports a nagging, ragged riff, Kenny Harris plays his drums wildly loose-limbed behind Chris Thompson's rumbling bass line. What really grabs your attention, though, is Carter's half menacing, half comic vocal. You can hear similarities to Joe Strummer, but he is definitely one of those Rock front men who are a unique presence, driving the band by force of personality. The Messiahs were a loud, aggressive band, but the stoic, bald Carter dominated all proceedings.

Several Gun-Shy tracks display a rockabilly influence (albeit warped), coupled with Carter's Americana lyrical fixations. On the sole cover, they soak Hank Williams' “You're Gonna Change” in reverb. Raucous tunes “President Kennedy's Mile” and “Twin Cadillac Valentine” invoke a brew of cultural tropes; guns, cars and biblical wrath. Elsewhere, as on “Smash the Market Place,” the Messiahs’ stellar rhythm section make the rock downright danceable, not unlike mid-period Clash. On paper, I fear all these different elements - pop, dance, punk, twang, hard rock - sound of a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Trust me though, on Gun-Shy (and the equally great subsequent albums Bikini Red and Totally Religious) The Screaming Blue Messiahs created potently exciting Rock music.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Preservation-An Album To Benefit Preservation Hall & The Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program

With the attention on the great city of New Orleans that has surfaced since the tragedy of Katrina and now the celebration of the amazing Super Bowl victory of The Saints, the time seems perfect for this release. The music of New Orleans has rightfully been singled out as the city's greatest contribution to culture, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band are emblematic of one of the more important facets of that music. Their traditional, perfectionist take on brass band jazz sets the standard and keeps the tradition beautifully preserved for future generations. Preservation pairs the band with a variety of contemporary artists to glorious results. The list of artists is varied, drawing from rock, folk, bluegrass and world music to create a whole that shines a light on the joyous feelings the Preservation Hall Jazz Band bring to whatever they are playing.

Kicking off with Andrew Bird and moving to Paolo Nutini (two pretty distinctive modern artists) it is immediately apparent that the guest artists involved will be playing it the Preservation way, not the other way around. With very few exceptions, everyone plays it straight and lets Preservation Hall be the star of the show. Highlights of the modern artists include Yim Yames of My Morning Jacket doing "Louisiana Fairytale," a revved up Ani Difranco's take on "Freight Train" and Steve Earle's appropriate take on "T'aint Nobody's Business." On the more traditional side, Dr. John is perfectly greasy on "Winin' Boy," The Blind Boys Of Alabama raise spirits on "There is a Light," Bluegrass legend Del McCoury fits like hand in glove on "After You've Gone," Pete Seeger and his son Tao Rodriguez-Seeger are warmly familiar on "Blue Skies" and a Louis Armstrong vocal is lifted for a new version of "Rockin' Chair" that couldn't sound more right.

For me, the real winners of this consistently winning set were Tom Waits and Angelique Kidjo. Waits tackles "Tootie Was My Big Fine Thing" and it is absolutely classic Waits. He is truly a genius who can make anything familiar weird, and vice-versa. Angelique Kidjo pairs with New Orleans Trumpeter (and son of Preservation Member Walter Blanchard) Terence Blanchard to deliver a spellbinding version of "La Vie En Rose." Her exotic voice offers the perfect contrast to the rock solid Americana background provided by Preservation.

Two other things worthy of note:
There is a deluxe version that comes with a second disc that contains an additional 6 songs, including another essential Waits contribution "Corinne Died On The Battlefield," and a second Yim Yames contribution-the spooky "St. James Infirmary." Very worth while in my opinion.

On release day - Tuesday we will be celebrating this great release by having two authentic King Cakes shipped up from New Orleans. Come by starting at 3:00 pm, have some King Cake, listen to the album and feel some pride for one of the things that makes America great.
Click Here for more information about King Cakes and Mardi Gras

Paul Epstein

Friday, February 12, 2010

I'd Love to Turn You On #2: Charles Mingus - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

We spend so much of our time buying, selling and listening to the latest releases that we sometimes forget to plumb the depths. Every one of us here got in to record store thing, at some level, because we have a deep interest and curiosity about all kinds of music. Most of us are collectors to some degree or another, and one of the abiding joys of collecting is to pull out the rare, beautiful, little known or downright obscure album and turn on a friend. Sometimes it's a classic that needs to be shined up and put back on the top shelf. With that in mind we are going to revive a column we used to include in our newsletters called, appropriately enough, I'd Love To Turn You On. This will give our super collectors and musical academicians to wax poetic about their favorite albums (or movie or book for that matter).

When I was a teenager and started getting into jazz, I was told to check out Charles Mingus. The title The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady stuck out in my mind—it was very evocative, but of what? After a shift at Twist & Shout, where I had just started working, I took a copy to the listening station and put it on. The first track of the album-length composition started off with a repeated drum figure, then the full band came in with some of the most hauntingly beautiful harmonies I'd ever heard. This was all I needed to hear—I bought the disc and went home. Over the next few months, I listened to it repeatedly. I turned my friends onto it. We all sat around listening to this amazing music over and over again. I came to know it so well that I could sing along to all the solos and hear the tape edits. Still, it was mysterious and maintained its power. How was this music created?

That was almost 10 years ago. As my relationship with music has changed and grown, a lot of it that I once loved has lost importance. Mingus music and Black Saint in particular have not. Charlie Mariano's alto saxophone solos still send chills down my spine, even as I understand more how they are constructed. The rhythm section interplay between Mingus and drummer Dannie Richmond seems even richer to me now that I've experienced such interaction first hand. This album is an inexhaustible document. It is music that transcends genre—as Mingus asserts in the liner notes, it “is part of a very old idea that someday all good music will return from its assorted labels which inhibit it with fashions [and] styles...” I feel the reason for this transcendence is its emotional content. It is not an attempt at “making jazz” or merely a cerebral exercise.

Much of the parts that I used to think of as “hooks” are, I can see now, improvised by the musicians. But they are a result of Mingus' compositional choices—selecting a band, rehearsing with them, setting up situations that call out for these sorts of responses. Mingus again: “Charles Mariano knew tears of sound were what was the intended thought in the background and what also was meant to come out of his alto solo. No words or example were needed to convey this idea to Charles Mariano. Only his love of living and knowing life...”

There's not much else to say about this album except, check it out. It was formative and, I suppose, life-changing for me. I've talked to all kinds of people—huge jazz fans and people who barely listen to jazz—who feel the same way.
--Ian Douglas-Moore

Friday, February 5, 2010

Soul Power

How times have changed! While watching this riveting movie one is just overwhelmed by how very different the times were in 1974 when the greatest fighter of all time, Muhammad Ali, went to Zaire to reclaim his heavyweight crown from George Foreman. At the same time a small group of impresarios and investors decided it would be a good idea hold a three-day concert to coincide with the fight. They would bring some of the biggest names in American soul music and mix them together with the cream of African and Latin musicians and bring the ghetto to the jungle as it were. Great idea, right? Well it does turn out to be a very musically rewarding experience, but the best laid plans as they say. The first 45 minutes of the film chronicle the political and financial jockeying to make the concert happen. It becomes clear that the ego of Don King drives things forward, while the poor schnook who represents the investors becomes paler by the minute as the Ali/Foreman fight faces trouble. The concert as it turns out has a life of its own as headliner James Brown is put in front of the press, and Ali does his thing. Ali’s presence looms large throughout the movie as he antagonizes Foreman, the U.S. press corps and anyone else who will listen. He is a marvel of physical perfection and mental acuity. Compared to what he is like today, it is remarkable and sad. He truly was the greatest. If you want to see his whole side of this story check out the excellent film When We Were Kings which is entirely about the fight itself. The main event here though is the music. In a way it feels like the African-American version of Woodstock. The scenes of the artists on the plane over to Africa really convey how meaningful the whole event to them. We see James Brown and Lloyd (Mr. Personality) Price embracing and saying “We’re going home.” The struggle for civil rights was not a distant memory to these men but a recent wound.

The performances are, without exception, breathtaking. The musical portion kicks off with The Spinners who are immaculate as they groove through “One Of A Kind Love Affair.” They are soul personified in their lightning sequined outfits and synchronized dance steps. The artists come fast and furious, and none disappoint. In fact there wasn’t one performance that didn’t make me wish to see the whole set. BB King is at the height of his powers, Bill Withers sends chills with a solo acoustic performance. The Crusaders are one of the real highlights with a very young Larry Carlton being notable as the lone white guy on stage. All the African performers are magnificent. It is a rare and inspiring treat to see a radiant Miriam Makeba defining exotic beauty, or Franco leading his OK Jazz band through a tight workout or Tabu Ley dancing and singing with unbelievable charisma.

The musical highlights just build as The Fania Allstars featuring Celia Cruz and Hector Lavoe completely tear it up. The full stadium of Africans erupts in joy as Cruz proves why she is one of the most explosive performers the world has ever known. The musical and emotional peak has to be Soul Brother Number One, James Brown, who is such a commanding presence it almost seems impossible. His performance of “The Big Payback” is as good as it gets. He has put on a little weight since his 60’s heyday but his dancing is clearly where Michael Jackson got much of his inspiration and his singing is unearthly. One can’t even fathom where Brown’s style came from - it is so unique and personal. He is truly unlike any other singer - ever. Brown is given the last 15 minutes of the movie, which is appropriate because obviously his image and music made a great impression on the African audience. In fact throughout the movie, everyone - Ali, the other Musicians, the investors, everyone - seems to be in awe of James Brown. As the movie ends you just yearn to see more of the footage of James Brown and each of these amazing musicians in this once-in-a-lifetime gathering.
Paul Epstein