March 2009

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As I alluded to in the posts about the music industry, I’m someone who has built my music collection on CD, in the CD era. One of the things that means is that I’ve ended up with a lot of music on “greatest hits” compilations of one sort or another.

Leaving aside CD’s vs downloadable music compilations make a lot of sense compared with CD versions of albums that were originally on vinyl — they’re generally the same price for twice as much music, and a generally higher quality material. As someone how has a lot of older music, I’m feel like I’ve benefited from collections as a source of cheap music.

That said, it’s interesting when I do end up with something that has the original track order from an LP. I was just listening to the re-released version of Tell Mama by Etta James. It’s fun and making me re-think my feelings about Etta James a bit.

I’ve always wanted to like Etta James, but found that I just don’t generally get into her music that easily. I feel like she’s a little bit too much of a performer in a way that I struggle with. I feel like, for some people, spending too much time on the road can lead to many performance habits, and a difficulty approaching the material with honesty and freshness. I feel that way about Pete Seager and Utah Phillips as well, for example. I like their material, I want to like them, but I feel like the performances are trying to spoonfeed me something pre-digested. I don’t want to accuse Etta James of dishonesty or lack of commitment in her performances, but I have generally felt like her performances are layered under a cloak of something.

In addition, I realize that I may have been expecting the wrong thing from her. Given here reputation, I associate her with high energy and sass, which is probably the wrong angle from which to approach her music.

In any case, it’s really interesting to listen to the start of sequence for the original album
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I realized, after the previous post, that it might be useful to quickly summarize the things I found informative about the book Appetite For Self Destruction. The previous post was written while I was in the middle of thinking through all of the various threads of the book but it may obscure some of the simple, important points that I learned.

First, that the era from, approximately, 85-95 was a boom time for record companies. The introduction of CDs helped them in two crucial ways. It raised the average price point of an album from $8-9 for an LP to $16-18 for a CD, and it gave consumers a reason to go out and buy new copies of old albums. Knowing this, it seems inevitable that the sales amounts for CDs would go down at some point.

Secondly, one of the key effects of the switch to CDs was the practical elimination of singles, as a medium. I didn’t talk about that much because I don’t have much personal insight into that, I never bought singles. Clearly, however, they were a major part of the industry that disappeared and Steve Knopper argues that was part of what motivated consumers to embrace file sharing.

Finally, the book provides ample evidence for something I had heard before, which is that the industry has a very difficult time coordinating on anything. Looking at point 1, you might think that record companies would have been well served in investing time and some of their windfall profits, into planning for the next step after the CD. Instead they spent that money on ever more lavish parties, promotions, and salaries, and contracts. Part of the reason for that is that planning for any change required complex negotiation among a number of figures many of whom didn’t like each other. As a very simple example of this Steve Knopper talks about the original introduction of the CD longbox, and how long it took to move from that to the jewel case despite the fact that nobody benefited from the longbox.

Over the weekend I read Appetite for Self-Destruction (The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry) by Steve Knopper.

(For some details behind the word “collapse” this is a good summary of the current condition of the industry.)

It wasn’t a completely satisfying book, it emphasizes the details of names, dates, and time lines over analysis. While it gives a very detailed picture of what has happened to bring the record industry to it’s current condition, it doesn’t provide definitive answers for why that happened, or what will or should happen next.

Perhaps because of that, however, I found it very interesting food for thought. In particular because it got me to think about the music business as an industry and to consider the ways in which the big labels make their money (for better or for worse) rather than thinking about it from the perspective of a music consumer or the difficulties that face small bands.
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I’d love to say that the opportunity for a Watchmen reference* was intentional, but it was just coincidence.

I just listened to Nina Simone’s version of Pirate Jenny yesterday. I see know that it is considered one of her classic songs, but I hadn’t heard it before.

Not only do I think it’s a fantastic track, it gives me a whole new appreciation for Nina Simone. I’ve always liked Nina Simone, of course, but she’s an artists for whom the esteem that I hold her in significantly outweighs the amount of time I spend time listening to her.
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I noticed a meme over at The Song In My Head Today, that’s an interesting challenge: list the top 15 most personally significant albums.

Here’s my go at it, I’ve included one box set, and a greatest hits compilation, but the list overall is an interesting reflection of the history of my tastes and relationship to music.

15 MOST SIGNIFICANT LIFE ALBUMS:

1: Ziggy Stardust — David Bowie
This wasn’t the first album that I fell in love with, but it was the first that I became absorbed in. I think I’ve mentioned before, that I started listening to Ziggy Stardust during a period of my life, immediately post-college when I was mostly unhappy and very uncertain in my life. I ended up finding Ziggy Stardust deeply reassuring. I would sit alone at night, listening to it on headphone and, while it didn’t exactly offer reassurance, it offered the chance to enter into a different mental space — one which didn’t require me to put aside my emotions, or allow me to wallow in the, but gave me a sense of perspective on my emotions by letting them sit alongside the melodrama of Ziggy Stardust.

It’s still one of my favorite albums ever. Not only did I listen to it with great intensity, but of the music I listened to in that period it has stood up better than anything else.

2: Love, Loneliness, Laundry — Leon Rosselson

This is the only album on the list for which I don’t and never have owned a copy; I listened to my parents’ Leon Rosselson albums growing up, probably mostly when I was in the 11-15 age range.

I grew up around a lot of music, but I didn’t actively listen to a lot of music before collge. Nevertheless, Rosselson’s music stands out as significant. I’ve said that seeing Leon Rosselson in concert when I was in High School changed my life. It was the first concert that I attened that I was actively emotionally engaged the entire time. In retrospect, it’s likely that I was going to acquire a taste for music listening at some point, but in point of fact it was that Leon Rosselson concert that marked a turning point. His music served as a bridge for me going from only being able to appreciate music that first engaged me intellectually, to developing a taste for the aesthetic pleasure in music.

I selected Love, Loneliness, Laundry as a representaive album because, in addition to the formative concert, the first mixtape that I made that I was happy with was of Leon Rosselson songs. In the process of putting that together I was struck by the fact that the second side of Love, Loneliness, Laundry is almost perfect with, “he Man Who Puffs the Big Cigar,” “We Sell Everything,” “Abiezer Coppe,” “Garden of Love,” and “Stand Up For Judas.”

3: High Low and In Between — Townes Van Zandt
My first great success as a “find.” I picked it up knowing nothing about it, and subsequently turned my friends and family on to Townes Van Zandt. I still pick up albums on the basis of nothing more than a positive intuition, hoping to get that lucky again, and that is still the high water mark of success.

4,5: Driver — Ferron / Sing for Freedom — Various
In college I had a Ferron Mixtape, a copy of Driver on CD, and a cassette copy of Sing For Freedrom all of which I listened to a lot. I absorbed the music from those two albums more than anything else I listened to at the time.

I don’t listen to either as much now, partially because there was a long break between my no longer having a cassette player and acquiring the albums on CD, but both are instantly familiar if I listen to them. Given that I have more music now, to divide my attention, I wouldn’t be surprised if I have listened to those albums more times than any other.

6: Citizen Steely Dan — Steely Dan
A box set, not a single album, but it belongs on this list because, unlike any other box set, I listened through all of the disks, and played them all repeatedly.

In many ways Steely Dan embodies characteristics that I find in my own experience of listen to music. They are clearly intellectual in their approach to music, but with a sincer appreciation for pop pleasures; the references to a range of other music are obvious, but they never resemble anyone other than themselves; and they have picky, selective tastes.

Has any band of their stature released fewer bad songs? The box set contains the entirety of seven albums, and three of the disks sound like greatest hits compilations, an the final one is merely consistently strong.

I went through a Steely Dan phase shortly after going through an Elvis Costello phase but, ultimately, I admire Elvis Costello’s accomplishments, but I feel more personally enamoured of Steely Dan’s virtues.

7: Curtis/Live! — Curtis Mayfield
Another find, if you can say that about any album that AMG describes as “one of the legendary live albums of all time.” I find it one of the most emotionally moving live recordings that I’ve ever heard. Particularly if you listen to it on a system that makes it easy to hear the comments from the crown and Mayfield’s responses. It is astonishing the degree to which Curtis Mayfield sounds intensely, intensely committed to the music he’s performing and, at the same time, open, responsive, and generous to the audience.

8: Learning to Flinch — Warren Zevon
The first time I felt at all “cool” in my musical tastes was having a friend in college borrow Learning to flinch and hearing the sound of them playing it at three times the volume I would have echo down the dorm hallways. It sounded good.

It’s also the album that introduced me to Warren Zevon, who I still regard quite highly.

9: Gordon — Barenaked Ladies
This is one of the rare examples of me listening to an album at the same time as my peers. I think it holds up as a good album, but it came out when I was in High School and the combination of cleverness, humor, and slightly maudlin emotions (e.g., “The Flag”) that meant that, for a short period, I an all of my friends were listening to it.

10: Power In Numbers — Jurassic Five
For me the gold standard for hip-hop albums. It is a genre with which I am not overly familar, but Power In Numbers is both an excellet album by any standards and ultimately inspired me to explore hip hop a little farther.

11: The Hits/The B-Sides — Prince
As noted above, I almost never listen to things when the come out, and I listened to almost zero popular music prior to ’93 or so. I don’t experience this as a lack, genrally, but it colors my relationship to 80s and 80s music, since my peer group has deep seated and vaugue opinions about the music, having absorbed it growing up.

To give a sense of how out of touch I was, I first heard “Raspberry Beret” at a friends house in 1999. Hearing that made me realize that Prince was good, and that I should get some of his music. Prior to that I had a vague sense that Prince was a figure held in mild disdain — though I’m not sure why since several of my friends will agree to liking Prince now.

For whatever reason that general period in time, and Prince specifically, marks the point at which I stopped consistently looking over my shoulder towards other people’s opinions about 80s music and started trusting my own taste. At this point, Prince isn’t my favorite from that ere (that would be The Pretenders), and I find myself alternately appreciative of Prince’s strengths as a songwriter and performer and frustrated at his equally evident weaknesses as a producer and, at other times, as a songwriter.

12: Red over Red — Trenchmouth
The upcoming album recorded by friends of mine last weekend. I think it will be great, but it’s also the only album for which I have had the opportinity to be present in the studio for some of the recording.

Expect to hear more about it.

13: The Beserkley Years / Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers
When I got this album, and put on “Here Come The Martian Martians” I couldn’t imagine music better targeted to my tastes. Jonathan Richman, at his best, is absurd, silly, musically creative (in a minimalist way) all with a certain emotional seriousness and intensity that suggests that the songs and, by extension, honoring one’s absurd and geeky impulses aren’t just a trifle.

14/15: Separate Ways — Teddy Thompon / Hair In My Eyes Like A Highland Steer — Corb Lund
Two of my favorite (relatively) contemporary albums. Both recommended to me through friends of friends. Both are albums by younger singer/songwriters who will hopefully continue to produce good work for years.

I’ve already written about Corb Lund.

Separate ways made an even larger impact on me at the time. For about a year afterwords I was recommending it to everyone I could, and getting copies as gifts for all of my friends and family. The combination of the music, the emotional intensity, and shear craft with which the entire album works together utterly impresses me.

Two things strike me about this list. The first is the unfortunate lack of female musicians. Unfortunately, when exploring new musical territory or genres I generally end up listening to prominent male musicians first, just because they’re easier to find. Writing this list to emphasize developments in my personal tastes skews the gender distribution even farther male than it would be. Laurie Anderson, in particular, belongs on the list, but there is no single album of hers that has particular significance.

Secondly I notice how often I use “intensity” or “emotional intensity” as a compliment. There isn’t much to say about that except that it is one of the things I look for in great performances.

Two tracks that I’ve been meaning to blog (in one case, for quite some time), about which I only have quick comments:

1: Reviewing a song off of Rain Holly Hughes commented

The arrangement feels like a whole orchestra; it’s amazing to realize it’s just Joe on piano and Dave Houghton’s drums, then a little touch of Graham Maby’s bass repeating the melody in the middle eight, and here and there a brush of doubled vocals.

The Summer In The City live album is remarkable for how rich a sound they get out of that trio of bass, drums, and piano, and this is a sample.

2: I wouldn’t want my previous post to make anyone think that I don’t like Gram Parsons, I do.

Apologies

For the break in posting, life has been busy.

But, I have exciting news! I spent last weekend hanging out with old friends of mine while they were recording an album.

It is an essentially amateur effort, recorded over a weekend, but I was very impressed with what I heard, and am looking forward to sharing some of that with you in a couple of months when it’s ready for release. Start thinking now about who in your life would appreciate a copy of an album of traditional music, mostly Irish and Sea Shanties performed with a “take no prisoners” attitude as a lovely summer solstice gift (guessing on the approximate time it takes to finalize and print a CD).

I hope to post some new music soon.

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