Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Alejandra O'Leary's All I Know

Alejandra O'Leary's new CD All I Know is a fun and miraculous thing, a straightforward rock album with subtle tinges of "New Wave"--remember that term?--that place these songs squarely in the early to mid-'80s. Her bright, charming and honest voice might remind you of anyone from Debbie Harry to Martha Davis to Terri Nunn, kittenish with one stiletto heel pushed into your thigh. Each of these 11 songs are extremely polished in a slightly edgy way a la Parallel Lines, more Black Jack than Bazooka. All I Know is, for lack of a less cliched term, a breath of fresh air because it reminds you how good this type of pop can be when delivered by the right people. The cover even features a very cool Klaus Voormann drawing--this is about creating an impressive musical pedigree.

I reviewed her last album with the Champions of the West, Heartspace Timepiece, back in 2014, and I found it a tricky album to review because it didn't make a notable first impression. I still felt like I was listening to someone obviously influenced by bands like The Motels and Blondie. I made the mistake playing in a car filled with people who weren't into it, so I was dismissive, but I came back later and started discovering all of Alejandra's intriguing secrets.

This album, however, was immediately engaging. She sounds assertive and relaxed in comparison to HT, and just a few minutes into the rousing and powerful opener, "Doubtless," you'll have a strong idea of who she is and where she wants to go. Much to her credit, she stays the course.

One side note: I talk a lot about Portland musicians and performers, mostly because I made a lot of contacts in the couple of years that I lived there. When I discovered that Alejandra is actually a resident of Portland, MAINE, I wondered if I caught that on the older review. I actually referred to her as a Detroit performer. Perhaps the recent move is what gives these songs more depth, more wisdom and more experience.

While she surrounds herself with great musicians (while assuming the bulk of the guitar duty on her own), but it's her voice that's always front and center. It can be perky and sexy and then suddenly there's a dramatic shift where she's singing directly at you and throwing her whole body into it. Her lyrics also contribute to this unique album--the words aren't unusually poetic on their own, but she sings with conviction and makes each song hers. (I know, that's been said about a million times about singers, but this time I mean it.) On "Lighthouse," for example, she gives a new lover the following instructions, which double as a warning:

I’m a spotlight following you.
Yeah I tell the night what to do.
I got me some powers by day
I’m gonna show you how
to strip them away.

At first it doesn't quite dig in, and then you hear her sing it and suddenly you realize she's talking about putting up walls while secretly hoping someone has a sledge hammer available. She has a lot of hidden depth, which is a pleasant surprise in an album so immediately likeable as this one.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Latest Vintage Turntables Available at Vinyl Nirvana

I haven't promoted the Vinyl Nirvana site in a while, but I figure it's time for a couple of reasons. First, when I started distributing The Wand tonearm from New Zealand, I instantly though about putting the 12" version on one of Dave Archambault's long-base Thorens TD-150s, which he calls the VN-150. (Pic above.) Second, my next column for the Vinyl Anachronist will talk about some of my favorite turntables of all time, and I instantly starting thinking about my old interview with Dave on Perfect Sound Forever where I asked about his favorite 'table and he picked the long-base Thorens he builds.

That puts me into a bit of a quandary, however. I really want to include his long-base Thorens on my list, which will be called something like "Ten Turntables to Lust After." But after putting all my favorites down I realized the list was too long and I had to start cutting some 'tables out, which was tough. I decided that one of the criteria for these turntables had to be "seat time"--I couldn't put the 'table on the list unless I had actually spent time listening to it. And I haven't actually heard the VN-150 yet.

Hopefully I can rectify that in the near future--I'm trying to send Dave one of The Wands ASAP, and since I moved to Central New York I'm actually just a few hours' drive from his workshop in New Hampshire. So while I want to put the VN-150 on the list because I DO lust after it, I'll actually have to give it some special honorable mention status until I can hear it.

But just look at this one. It's beautiful. I could easily imagine retiring with one of these. It's a super 'table that doesn't cost super 'table dollars--it retails for $3195 with the 12" SME M2-12R tonearm (which is $1800 by itself). You can also step down to the M2-12, or add the Origin Live DC200 outboard motor. This is just an outstanding 'table in so many ways.

I've also been lusting after Dave's "Midnight Edition" TD-160 Supers that he's been offering of late. A more modest analog rig than the long-base Thorens, this is nevertheless an excellent vintage 'table that can compete with modern 'tables at the same price point. The "midnight" refers to the black anodized top plate as well as the black powdercoat finish on the platter, which gives it an undeniably sexy look. It comes with a Moth RB-202 arm (OEM from Rega) for just $1579. I'd add an Ortofon 2M Blue for a couple hundred bucks and have an awesome vinyl rig for under $2000.

Visit the Vinyl Nirvana website for more restored vintage turntables--some of them start at under $700 and will offer you plenty of years of enjoyment.

"A clear sign of an ignorant misogynistic heathen."

Internet troll Scott Wittevrongel of Vista, California, just unloaded on me because he found out I smoked cigars. His exact quote was:

'As progressives go....you're an ignorant heathen. BTW, the long recognized
male habit of cigar smoking is also a clear sign of an ignorant misogynistic

In response, I merely want to post a few photos of some of my misogynistic cigar buddies.

This is my cigar buddy Ramona Brown, who runs Ramona Brown's Place fan page on Facebook as well as the Ramona Brown, the Cigar Lady website where she reviews cigars and promotes positive images of women who smoke cigars. She's clearly a misogynist.

This is Brenda Scott, a hard-working mother of five who works at American Airlines and still finds time to work with the charity HopeKids--which is important to her since her young son suffers from a heart defect. When she has a spare moment to herself, however, she enjoys indulging in the "long recognized male habit" of "ignorant misogynistic heathen."

This is Racquel Hill, a tobacconist at JR Cigars. One of the comments Scott Wittevrongel made to me in his rant was "Our new wave of millennial progressives is embarrassed by your old school ignorance." Racquel Hill is just 24 years old, but she hasn't told me yet that she's embarrassed by me. I guess that makes her a misogynist.

This is Denise Cruz Figueroa, one of the managers at Holt's Cigars in Philly. Holt's is one of the finest cigar stores in the country, and Denise is a tireless promoter of the cigar industry. The man standing next to her in the photo is Don Carlos Fuente, who passed away just a couple of weeks ago. I always tell Denise that she and I have almost identical taste in cigars as she's always tempting me with photos of our favorite sticks. I guess that makes her misogynistic.

This is Janny Garcia. She's part of a very famous cigar family, the Garcia family, that produces such brands as Don Pepin Garcia, Jaime Garcia, My Father's Cigars and her own special line, La Duena. Her family's factory also produces Tatuaje, which is one of my favorites. Heck, I have many Garcia faves. I met her once at a cigar event--she was smoking a cigar and I was smoking a cigar so I don't know if that makes us cigar "buddies" or not, but I still admire her contributions to the industry even if she is a misogynist.

This is Marquitta Grant Jackson, who has been friends with me on Facebook for many years. She's been spending a lot of time building up her brand, Dallas Cigar Art Queen, and her outspokenness and honesty and classiness has been entertaining me for a very long time. Too bad she's a misogynist.

Or, maybe...cigar smoking is not a misogynistic pursuit at all. Over the last few years I've heard a lot of dumb things about cigar smokers...that's we're neanderthals, that we're conservatives or rednecks (yeah, that describes me to a tee), that we're inconsiderate of others, blah blah blah. The funny thing, of course, is that saying cigar smoking is misogynistic is in and of itself a misogynistic statement because--as you see above--it fosters an attitude that it isn't ladylike to smoke cigars. Smoking cigars is for knuckle-dragging brutes, and that's what Scott Wittevrongel is ultimately calling all of these accomplished women.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Fall of Humanity, or What's a Nice Guy Like You Listening to Music Like This

I wasn't that surprised when my new smoking buddy told me he was a drummer in a heavy metal band. Michael Rafferty is beefy and mean-looking, the kind of a guy you'd expect behind a massive kit emitting drum fills that sound like machine gun fire. He'd make a great bouncer in one of those out-of-control roadhouses just beyond the city limits, the kind of a guy who runs up against Schwarzenegger in one of the Terminator movies and well, you get the point.

As you might expect, real-world Michael is quite different: intelligent, thoughtful, easy-going--and a fellow brother of the leaf. (That means he likes premium cigars.) I've been settling into my new life in Central New York, and I've become a regular at TisMart Cigar Store, which is located about two hundred yards from my front door. Michael's a regular, too, and one night last week we got to talking--about cigars, Syracuse and finally music. Michael told me about the band he formed with his brother Marcus, Fall of Humanity. But this isn't a band full of Syracuse kids hoping to make it big--Michael and his brother have been playing in bands for years. Michael even performed in Richard Linklater's awesome 2003 film, School of Rock, as a member of one of the other bands that compete in the climactic competition.

Toward the end of our conversation I asked him if he had a CD I could listen to, and he seemed a little surprised. "It's pretty 'heavy'" he warned, which is metalspeak for hoarse, screaming vocals and a relentless, machine-like rhythm. Now, I know I don't look like someone who enjoys metal. A work associate once told me that I looked like the kind of guy who went home and listened to classical music in his house all evening. Sometimes, I am that guy.

I'm pretty sure no one cares what a 54-year-old guy thinks about today's metal scene, so I'm not going to dig that deep into Fall of Humanity's eponymous EP. After all, I felt a little out of my element reviewing that We The Wild CD last month. My main objection to that CD was the vocals that alternated between an atonal croak and arena-rock harmonies. There's some of that on Fall of Humanity's CD as well, which is what Michael probably meant by "heavy." He steered me toward the EP's single, "Hate, Love, Sex & Greed," and is excited about the direction the band is headed in right now.

On this song, brother Marcus' vocals find the sweet spot between those two "heavy" extremes and that's where the band really shines. He's actually covering the notes while sounding powerfully apocalyptic at the same time. I'm also a big fan of "Eternal Hatred," which for me is just a tight locomotive of sound. This music sticks to a formula to be sure, but it's a formula that provides plenty of adrenaline for middle-aged guys who still want to rock out once in a while.

But the real reason to listen to this band is, of course, Michael's drumming. I'm not just saying that because I know the guy. It's just that my attraction to metal is always tied in with sensational drumming (think Danny Peary, for example), and Mike's drumming makes me wonder how he gets through a song without his arms falling off. It's the magnet, the anchor and the reason, all wrapped up in one. Respect, brother. His fills are fast and lean, and sometimes they seem to go on forever while still maintaining a perfect beat.

Anyway, I've been listening to this in my car all week. I probably look kind of stupid listening to it. "Should you be listening to classical music quietly in your home, sir?" Yeah, probably. But as I told Michael at the end of our last herf, "the older I get, the more I like this stuff. It's like I need it to feel alive."

And that's kind of it in a nutshell.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Two Quick Ones: Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool and case/lang/veirs on LP

Honestly, I was going to give each of these two LPs a full review a few weeks ago. I bought them both the day they were available on LP, and I wound up liking them both--a lot. But I got busy, and once again the stack of review music is growing at an alarming rate like a forgotten game of Jenga. Those few weeks passed by and reviewing Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool and case/land/veirs no longer became a priority. Both of these album have already been discussed thoroughly by the usual suspects, and I feel like I have nothing to add.

Well, maybe a little bit, in the form of a couple of "asides."

First of all, I have to apologize to Neko Case, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs for being so dismissive about their album when I first listened to it. After I'd listened to the entire album on Tidal for the first time I jumped on social media and complained that when Neko wasn't singing, I wasn't paying attention. That was kind of rude of me. First of all, the album is a "grower" and now I absolutely love it. These are mature, complex pop songs that reach far back into your skull and evoke all sorts of crazy beautiful thoughts. We're listening to three women who owned their artistic personas by making intelligent decisions about the music they wanted to make. case/lang/veirs is an illuminated summary--more on that word in a bit--of everything these wonderful singers have accomplished over the years.

I supposed my biases came into play. I absolutely adore Neko Case and want to have her babies, I like and respect k.d. lang (but only own one of her albums) and I'm only vaguely familiar with Laura Veir's catalog. Neko has that big, bold Patsy Cline thing going--put her in a chorus of thousands and you'll still hear her clearly. k.d. has always had that strength and authority going for her--she owns a song like Frank Sinatra owned songs. Laura is a bit more introspective. She's the smart girl in the glasses who has plenty of interesting things to say, but you have to get up close to hear them. So on first listen, I said "Wow, Neko!" Then I said, "Oh, there's k.d. lang." Finally, I asked "Which one was Laura Veirs again?"

After a few more listens, I take it all back. I even deleted my original comments on Facebook. The varying dynamics in their deliveries make unusual and beautiful harmonies. I'm almost glad I waited a few weeks to talk about this album, because now I think of it as a minor miracle--three singers at the top of their game making truly satisfying music together.

I had an opposite reaction to Radiohead's new album upon first listen. I checked it out the day it started streaming on Tidal and I instantly fell in love with it and thought it was their greatest album since OK Computer. I remember when Robert Hilburn, music critic for the L.A. Times, reviewed Talking Heads' 1983 album Speaking in Tongues. He called it a summary of everything the band had done up to that point--streamlined, polished and perfected. I feel the same way about A Moon Shaped Pool. If I took all my favorite Radiohead bits over the course of their career and massaged them into something new, it would probably come out like this album.

First of all, I am a Radiohead fan. But I'm also a fan that's been slowly losing interest. I can't think of a single song off In Rainbows that I've committed to memory. I never even bothered to buy The King of Limbs. For me it really comes down to Ok Computer, Kid A and about half of Hail to the Thief and I have all I need. But now there's this album. I dig every song on it. Every single song. I can't even say that about Ok Computer--back when I taped it on cassette for my car, I left off "Electioneering" and "Climbing up the Walls" because they're annoying. In fact, "Decks Dark" off the new album has officially replaced "Where I End & You Begin" as my favorite Radiohead song of all time. Its haunting, shifting melody has burrowed deeply into my brain. On some mornings I wake up with the song already playing in my mind.

After a few weeks of quietly digging this album--rumored to be the band's last--I finally felt compelled to write about it after seeing some friends of mine playing the "I don't get it" card on Facebook. Really? I thought. This is the Radiohead album that makes you wonder if they're the emperor's new clothes? I had to protest. A Moon Shaped Pool is filled to the brim with beauty, a quality that is sometimes secondary to the band's aesthetic. It's rife with beautiful moments that do add up to create an even greater whole.

Finally, I do want to give a shout out to Tidal. As the old-fashioned vinyl-lover, I've finally figured out how to integrate music streaming with my love for vinyl. Tidal has become a very effective screening tool for me, far superior to the FM programming we used back in the day. (That's why we all owned numerous albums where we liked one song and hated the rest of the album, by the way.) When I hear something good, I'll play it a couple of times through Tidal. If it's something I need to own, I get the LP. So far it's worked for these two albums, as well as the Avalanches' Wildflower that I reviewed for Positive Feedback Online a couple of weeks ago. I stumbled onto the latter by accident, thinking it was something else, and now it's one of my favorites in a very strong year for music.

In fact, as soon as this rain lets up I'm walking down the block to The Sound Garden and seeing if they have Michael Kiwanuki's Love & Hate on vinyl. I've been binging on that recording for the last couple of days. It passes the test. I must own it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Vinyl Anachronist Road Trip Playlist for Turo.com

I don't normally respond to marketing requests on my blog. This is my private little shed out in the back, down by the creek--I don't get any money for it and I write whatever I want. There are no editors here, no agendas, no assignments, no responsibilities. As I've said many times before, I do it to keep myself sane through writing whatever I want, and while I'm able to get my stuff published through a number of venues these days I still like coming here and flashing my privates, figuratively, to the rest of the world.

So when I received an email from the lovely Emma Powers of Turo.com--and I assume she's lovely with a name like that--I acquiesced for a couple of reasons. Turo is a new service in the vein of Airbrb and Uber, where you can rent out your car to someone for a specified amount of time. As someone who just used Uber for the first time a few weeks ago and was amazed at its simplicity and convenience, I'm digging these peer-to-peer services and wonder why someone hasn't thought of this until now.

Well, Turo is asking bloggers to submit their playlists as part of a marketing campaign, something to give people ideas on what to listen to while they're on road trips. That's a passion of mine--coming up with a proper playlist during one of my epic journeys through America, all in the name of good sound. I said yes to Emma.

So here's my playlist:

System of a Down--"Chop Suey" Wake up! Grab a brush and put a little makeup! Colleen puts this on at the beginning of every road trip that we take together. It's a wake up call, a jolt to get started early in the morning, something to get the blood pumping. Every time I listen to this song it gets me all pumped up through its crazy fast-slow-fast tempo, its over-the-top passion and gut-wrenching emotional pleas ("Why have you forsaken me?") and Serj Tankian's strong and strangely mature (for this type of music) singing voice. I love all types of music, obviously, from jazz to classic to electronica to whatever, but I don't listen to much of that in the car because I don't want to be lulled to sleep while traveling 85 mph down I-10 in West Texas. And no one's ever fallen asleep while listening to "Chop Suey."

Tool--"Vicarious" So how do you maintain this level of intensity through track 2? Tool. I tend to listen to SOAD and Tool hand in hand, a one-two punch, but where "Chop Suey" is blast from a shotgun, "Vicarious" is an epic journey that's more than seven minutes long. That allows me to settle into the driving groove while still keeping that rush of adrenaline going. Now my coffee has kicked in.

Yo La Tengo--"Moby Octopad" By my first two selections you probably think I'm a headbanger on the road, but I'm not. After ten minutes of freight train, I start to mellow out and I start playing my favorite road songs. Wasn't it Jack Black in High Fidelity who said that on track 3 on the first side of an album you have to take it down a notch? Well, "Moby Octopad" does slow it down a bit, but with a driving bass line and lots of feedback so the foot keeps tappin' on the gas pedal. I love the feel and the rhythm of this song--if I could have a single song accompany my entrance into a room, this would be it. And that piano sample in the second half of the song? Burt Bacharach.

Sufjan Stevens--"Come On! Feel the Illinoise! (Part I: The World's Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream)" After the Yo La Tengo transition, I'm more in the mood to feed my brain. This song, a more folksy epic, is a self-contained miracle because it is so complex and busy (with something like 20 or 25 musicians on stage), so constantly evolving and so heartfelt--this is where I start looking out the car window and noticing the beauty. This is music that makes you think and feel--there are so many textures and moods in this incredibly ambitious suite.

Radiohead--"Where I End & You Begin" After the Sufjan piece, I'm in the mood for complex and unusual arrangements, and that makes me think of this Radiohead song and its stunning use of one of my favorite musical instruments of all time, the ondes Martenot. Developed in the 1920s, this instrument is the first electronic keyboard ever made. It's a close cousin to the theremin--the performer wears a metal ring on the finger which excites frequencies along a metal band than runs underneath the keys. Jonny Greenwood is a proud owner of one of these rare instruments and you'll hear it from time to time on other Radiohead songs--but never will you hear the ondes Martenot sound more beautiful and mysterious. It sounds like a humpback whale weeping in the middle of the Atlantic, and I mean that in the nicest way.

Canned Heat--"On the Road Again" Most people would choose the Willie Nelson song with the same title, but not me. With its drone-like blues sound and mumbly yet wizened vocals, this classic rock song keeps up that dreamy, odd feeling as you drive through places you've never been before. "Well I'm so tired of crying/But I'm out on the road again." Been there, done that. I've always had this song swimming around in the back of my skull, but lately I've embraced it and brought it out into the light. It's got a pure blues vibe that no one else has ever matched.

Kate Bush--"King of the Mountain" The first time I listened to this song on my car stereo, I was driving through Monument Valley in Northern Arizona. Something about the expansiveness of this song, the muted reggae beat, Kate's beautiful voice and the majestic buttes on the horizon just clicked. Now, every time I'm driving through the desert this song pops into my head and doesn't leave. It's the soundtrack for every breathtaking vista you approach while on the road.

X-"The Hungry Wolf" Around this time I'm starting to hear Omar Sharif's voice saying to me, "You're drifting, English." It's time to focus. It's time for the home stretch. I've made great time so far, thanks to these tracks, but now it's time to sit and press my nose to the top of the steering wheel and get moving. It's been 35 years since X's Under the Big Black Sun came out and changed my life, and in 2016 I find myself disheartened that so many people I meet do not know this great band, nor this great song. This is seminal '80s Los Angeles punk, full of speed and anger and precision and really incredible harmonies--yes, harmonies in punk rock--between Exene and John Doe. We should be talking about X with the same urgency as all the other great rock bands that everyone knows. Buy this record. You'll see.

Sonic Youth--"Dirty Boots" This is the song that will take you all the way into the driveway of your destination. "Dirty Boots" is a moody, ambitious and complex punk song, the Sonic Youth version of prog rock, wise enough for Jelly Roll Morton references and powerful enough to spotlight one of the best dual guitar solos by Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore ever. A lot of my closest friends don't quite "get" Sonic Youth, but if you climb into the back seat of this song and ride along for a while, you'll get it. And when you finally get out at the end of your road trip, you'll feel like you've been somewhere and everywhere at the same time.

Monday, August 1, 2016

New Vinyl Anachronist Column Now Online at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever is now online! This one is about MQA, and how this promising digital breakthrough is already endangered by a fickle marketplace.

You can read it here.