Power or Pub Rock… screw the labels: Spoon – Hot Thoughts

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Very few bands garner my ever elusive “buy unheard” designation. That place where you drop cash on release day or do that advance order thing. With the popularity of music streaming sites and advance listens on popular music mag web pages, there isn’t much need for the mystery purchase. Regardless, Spoon remains one of the ‘only’ rock bands that actually matter. Whether it be their debut Girls Can Tell, the best-selling Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, my personal favorite Gimme Fiction, or even the half-hearted They Want My Soul, Spoon has remained not only one of the most consistently great bands of this new(ish) century, but also one of the most intriguing.

They don’t often give away the subjects of their songs, usually choosing to keep their cards close to the chest, but when they do… well damn! “Let them build a wall around us, I don’t care I’m going to tear it down…” are lyrics found on “Tear it Down” and coming from a bunch of Texans, it might as well be a declaration of war against ‘Forty-Five.’ Of course, the lyrics are veiled enough that one might see it another way… BUT COME ON – it was written during the f@#king Presidential Primaries.

The thing is, Britt Daniels could write just about anything and it would still allow you enough room to project just about anything you damn well please onto the lyrical theme. “Do I have to talk you into it?” is just open enough to be up for any interpretation. “For your love, my first caress/ your friends have came and went/ Coconut milk/ Coconut water/ You still like to tell me they’re the same/ and whom I to say.” “First Caress” could be a direct shot at a former lover, or a bunch of crap written in a journal that sounded good together… in all honesty it doesn’t matter, the end destination is a great ride.

Which is kinda (kinda isn’t a word, I know… but stay with me here) the point. Great rock ‘n’ roll can be open to interpretation; meaning everything to the writer and something completely different and equally important to the listener.  Yet, somehow these two places have common ground, and when I find Spoon to be at their greatest is when these diverging points mix seamlessly. The deeper meaning is secondary to the emotional reaction you have to it. Fuck the definitions and labels… how does it make you feel?

Now, if you are looking to pick this up on vinyl, then you have boat loads of choices… including a lucky lottery version. You can pre-order clear, purple and red. You can special order a pink copy from Urban Outfitters (1000 available). There is the regular black at your local record store….OR…

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If you did a pre-order from their label Matador, you may be one of the lucky !!!TWO!!!! to have received golden ticket green vinyl edition. One is being sold in the UK and the other in North America.

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I’d love to tell ya I’ve heard them all, but that just isn’t so. The pink Urban Outfitters is spinning on the turntable sounding like a mix between Duran Duran and a Texan version of Elton John (seriously… “I Ain’t The One” is just about as heartbreaking as “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”). Which is to say, it sounds fantastic and I’m assuming the others do too… but you know… you’ll have to buy it to find out.

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Test Pressing Heaven! or Big Star – Third / Sister Lovers

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If you have the idea of starting your listening day by discovering Big Star for the first time, don’t start with Sister Lovers / Third. Both #1 Record and Radio City are power-pop masterpieces that also serve as great introductions to the “Greatest Band You’ve Never Heard.”

On the other hand, Third is the opposite side of the coin. While definitely a masterpiece in its own right, it is bi-polar in its dramatic swings between happiness and absolute despair. It drops all pretensions and attempts of being a great rock ‘n’ roll album and instead mines the depths of failed relationships in their darkest moments, and then snaps back to honest sentiment and joy. In its own way Third is like Big Star’s version of the White Album requiring a bit of context to appreciate the artistry. It isn’t just the album themes either, Alex Chilton was literally in a mood for self-sabotage.

Ardent Studio creator John Fry who had been very influential in Big Star saw his relationship with Alex Chilton breaking down and things between them had become increasingly antagonistic. It has been reported as so bad that when Fry complimented “Downs” as having “pop potential,” Chilton all but ruined it; using a basketball as a snare drum, some ill timed steel drums and turning it into a “Revolution #9” moment. Whatever Fry heard is completely submerged beneath a sonic ramble and talking as replacement for singing.

Don’t let that idea confuse you, Third may not be a collection of songs filled with anger turned into sonic hooks, like say Fleetwood Mac; instead it becomes either unwavering in its depictions of loneliness and despair or a drunken arm around your shoulder full of sloppy proclamations. It has brutal honesty as its companion which means that things can get a little dicey. One moment can be heartbreakingly beautiful and poppy (“Thank You Friends”) and another can be devastatingly cruel (“Holocaust”). Even the Christmas track “Jesus Christ” has an echoing feel that keeps Chilton separated from his sentiment.

Third isn’t an easy listen. Watching things fall apart never is. Yet, it makes for amazing artistic expression; songs that relate to you on a more personal level, and take you to places of personal tragedy. Hope and comfort are found in the idea that others have also hurt as badly as you have.

Now, as for vinyl, you have some great choices. The first is obviously hitting the resale market where you can find original pressings in great shape. For whatever reason, Big Star fans seem to have taken great pains to care for their records. However, I wish you luck finding them at a decent cost. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t find any of the original 1975 test pressings on the market. There were only around 200 printed and given out as promotional material to record executives and radio stations. The 1978 official release by PVC Records sells well over a hundred dollars, with some resellers fetching over $200.

In 1985 PVC reissued Third with a new cover and title dubbing the album Big Star’s Third: Sister Lovers.

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This edition is much more reasonably priced in the $40 range at Discogs.

1988 saw yet another cover change and a new record company releasing Third on white vinyl. This German edition from Line Records shows up being priced around $30 dollars but add at least that same price in additional shipping, as it is primarily European resellers offering it.

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Ryko got into the Big Star game in 1992, releasing Third on CD with another cover and a few added bonus tracks. It can still be found used or new at regular prices.

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In 2007 Four Men With Beards released a 180 gram vinyl edition that restored the original cover. It can still be found at around $30 at the usual places.

Then there is the last Omnivore edition released first on Record Store Day in 2011 and then later direct order. This “Test Pressing Edition” was a perfect example of how a treasured record should be treated by a record company for fans. Rather than simply putting out a new printing, they used 180 gram audiophile vinyl, had it remastered by the same people who did the original, in the same studio (Ardent) and packaged it with all kinds of memorabilia. All classic records should be treated this way when possible. Quite simply, the vinyl kills my CD copy. The people at Ardent Studios treated Third like an ancient holy scripture and restored it to something worthy of the heavens. The RSD release was limited to 2000 copies but five lucky people out there got an unexpected gift – an actual 1975 test pressing enclosed in their package signed by Big Star’s Jody Stephens and Ardent Studios head John Fry. I didn’t see any of these for sale. However the RSD edition does sell for over a $100 on the resale market.

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That edition never made it to all fans, so Omnivore offered another 500 copies in 180 gram clear vinyl to those fortunate enough to see the news and order it direct. Prices for this edition are over a hundred dollars with some resellers asking well over $200.

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OK, all cliché and hyperbole aside, it sounds fantastic and is a prize possession within my record collection. The only thing that I would hold in higher esteem is an actual 1975 test pressing, and I’m not expecting to run into any of those.

Sarcastic SOB with Deadly Accurate Aim! or Nick Lowe – Jesus Of Cool

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There was a movement in the late 70’s that played directly to the most cynical of pop fans. It wasn’t punk or new wave, although some fans tried to lump them into that category; it wasn’t power-pop, except the music certainly was reminiscent of the tag. This music was literate and subversive while taking influences from 60’s pop bands like the Beatles, Beach Boys, Motown, Phil Spector and STAX, but lyrically it was far more sarcastic and very willing to bite the so-called “hand that feeds them.”

This is the world where Nick Lowe lived for a while. His single “Cruel To Be Kind” (from Labour Of Lust) could be played on AM radio, but most of his songs were strictly FM bound, or not to be played on radio at all. This was because Labour Of Lust, much like Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model, featured songs that attacked both radio and the music industry in general. Yet you had to love him for it. He was crafting perfectly awesome pop songs (back when pop wasn’t a word used to describe musical masturbation) without patronizing you with stupidity in the process. It was brilliant!

Unfortunately, the movement didn’t last long enough to forever remain in the hipster consciousness and it all but disappeared for a time. However, some great things have happened since the turn of the century. People who were influenced by these great sounds started singing the praises of these albums and independent record companies started picking up what the big guys had dropped. So here we are with several choices to grab not just a great album, but a substantial one.

If you’re crate digging in North America, finding Jesus Of Cool might be a little difficult as it was re-titled Pure Pop For Now People. Apparently, Columbia Records just had to screw with things for the American audience even exchanging one song (“Shake and Pop”) for another (“They Call It Rock”) and changing the running order entirely. Used copies will cost you under $10.

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It wasn’t until 1989 that a CD (as well as a vinyl re-release) version of the record was released by Demon Records in the UK. The CD had a different cover, while the vinyl returned to the original cover. The CD can be purchased under $10 used but the ’89 vinyl has one reseller asking over a $100 for a new copy.

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Spending that kind of money on a new copy really isn’t necessary, as some great things happened for the Jesus of Cool on its 30th anniversary. Complete remasters were done in 2008 on both sides of the Atlantic with a companion disc added to a gatefold cover. Yep Rock actually released two versions of the vinyl set. One was in standard black wax and the other came in red and yellow translucent vinyl. You can still find them at your finer record retailers and they shouldn’t set you back more than $30.

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The companion disc also includes an earlier version of “Cruel To Be Kind” that had not previously been released.

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In all, it’s an outstanding record you should give a try… after all, there is nothing quite like a sarcastic SOB with deadly accurate aim. Believe me his shot at fans of the Bay City Rollers is worth the price of admission all by itself.

 

 

One of the Most Awesome Records Ever or Big Star – Radio City

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They should have been shattered upon the rocks of apathy and cast into the dark pit of ambiguity, but instead they released a record every bit the equal of their debut. Big Star’s #1 Record was critically a success but poorly distributed resulting in sales that didn’t even come close to the high expectations the band had of themselves. The result saw a heart broken singer /songwriter Chris Bell quit the band altogether. Yet Alex Chilton took Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel into the world of yet another perfect power-pop record.

Ranked #403 on Rolling Stones “Top 500 Albums of All Time” Radio City was filled with great bursts of electric guitar reminiscent of the Kinks, vocal harmonies inspired by the Beach Boys, and lyrical stories that captured the artistic simplicity of Lennon / McCartney through a Memphis filter.

Songs like “September Gurls” “Back Of A Car” and I’m In Love With A Girl” didn’t just capture a moment in time; they spoke the universal truth of teen longing and confusion in dream crushing detail. “Sittin’ in the back of a car / music so loud can’t tell a thing / thinkin’ ‘bout what to say / can’t find the lines” from “Back Of A Car” has Chilton’s vocals expressing multiple emotions with such knowing intimacy you would swear you were witness to an event.

It is near insanity to think that this amazing and powerful record is still not given the recognition it deserves as it easily stands beside the all time great albums. Actually, you may accuse me of hyperbole, but #1 Record and Radio City combined is one of the best one-two punches to be released in all rock music.

In terms of vinyl, Radio City has several options available to you. The obvious choice is to go back to the original 1974 release. Used copies of the stereo edition will set you back at least $150 while the mono version sells for over $370.

A 1986 reissue of the album sells for a much more reasonable $20.00 with a German reissue on white vinyl going around $30.00. They also came with an alternate cover.

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There is a twelve year gap to 1998 when Stax first re-mastered Radio City. You can pick used copies in the twenty dollar range.

However, your best bets come from the five vinyl editions released since 2009. Stax released a regular vinyl edition, while Classic Records Proprietary issued a re-mastered 200 gram vinyl.  These are highly coveted and sell for anywhere between $50 and $150 on the reseller market.

In 2010, a red vinyl edition was released in the UK and Europe, and has an asking price of over $30.00.

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The last re-master is still the easiest to get, and sounds great. In 2014, 4 Men With Beards released Radio City on 180 gram vinyl and you can still find copies under $30.

So many choices, and yet I would advise you to just stroll over to your local independent record store and see what they have. The 2014 reissue is still widely available.

Learn To Pull The Trigger or Matthew Sweet – 100% Fun

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A life time ago it seems I was getting the opportunity to interview some of my favorite artists for the now defunct id Magazine. In this case, it was the summer of 1995 and I was in my new overheated cheap rent apartment having just finished university. Sitting beside the phone random chords were filling the air as I strummed my guitar for no one but myself to hear. Once the phone did ring I was talking with Matthew Sweet for the better part of 30 minutes about his recently released album 100% Fun.

I wish I could reprint the article, or even remember the questions and answers, but it was a different time. While I have the interview on disc, it is one of those old 2.5 inch plastic jobs that haven’t been used in computers since before the turn of the century. The actual interview was recorded on a mini cassette, but I have no working player to even hear it with. So all I can tell you is this… he was super nice and patient with me when I asked him for the chords to the song “Someone To Pull The Trigger” from his previous record Altered Beast.

I hadn’t been playing guitar for all that long and I really wanted to learn how to play this song, but unlike the current version of the internet, you couldn’t just Google or YouTube to get answers – so I asked.

Remarkably, he laughed and started giving me the chords in enough detail to allow for a beginner, even giving me alternate and easier ways to play them. I’m guessing I thanked him for both the interview and the guitar lesson, but honestly, I don’t remember how things ended other than I was sweating in an overheated south facing shit-hole with a lovely view of the Humber River, trying to learn how to play a Matthew Sweet song that I really loved.

As the summer continued, “Sick Of Myself” was in heavy rotation at CFNY (the Edge) and I found myself turning off the radio when the song ended and picking up my guitar for another shot at figuring out my one and only guitar lesson. Unfortunately, I think I stopped trying when I finally attempted to add my own vocals and scared all the birds away from my balcony.

Anyway, 100% Fun is a classic power-pop record full of chiming guitar, powerful hooks and sing-a-long choruses that hide a wee bit of darkness and self loathing in the overall lyrical content. It is a record I keep coming back to year after year, and is one of my favorite albums to hear on those long drives. It is being re-issued later this month on 180 gram wax by Music On Vinyl over in Europe. I’m sure you can order it at your favorite local record retailer or online store.

Sweet is also working on a new record that will hopefully arrive at my door before the annual Christmas specials have me contemplating an apartment on the moon.

THEY DID WHAT!!!! or Hollerado – 111 Songs

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Record Store Day 2015 provided lots of vinyl highlights, but with so much to choose from it can take a while for the dust to settle and appreciate what you might have got – and what you might have missed.

Fact is I missed the best damn thing released on Record Store Day. I saw it, but with so much stuff already in my hands I started counting my pennies and kept walking. However, curiosity got the better of me, and I streamed the single, and then realized what was really happening… this was “THE” thing to get. Sure Hollerado was releasing a single for “Firefly” in green glow in the dark vinyl that was epic looking, but the title 111 Songs wasn’t just a title – It was a statement of facts – there was actually a download card with the single for one hundred and eleven songs! How many bands give you over a hundred songs for the price of a vinyl single – no other band people… no other band ever!

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Hollerado is a power-pop outfit whose home base is ‘now’ Toronto (they formed in Ottawa) and have been putting out quality tunes since 2007. They’ve been runner ups for Junos (Canadian Music Award) on three occasions. Their last record White Paint is filled with some serious harmonies and presents a level of word play that is missing from most of the rock oriented bands that have recently presented themselves. They have spent the last few years touring with The Flaming Lips, Weezer, Passion Pit, The Dead Weather and a few others.

111 Songs is a gift for fans who pre-ordered their last record with one song written for each person and completed in less than two years. It is ultimately a huge workload all the more incredible as guitarist Nixon Boyd was battling testicular cancer (he’s fine now).

Anyway, I’ve been calling a few of my local record stores with no luck, but… it can still be ordered… YAY! While the band site, and record label do not have it, there is still a place.

So, if you like to rock out and toss your hair around to the sounds of something worth getting excited about – order this… (and as Stan Lee would say) Nuff said!

Top Three New Vinyl Releases of 2014 #2 – Brill Bruisers by The New Pornographers

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The New Pornographers

Last Gang Records

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http://lastgang.myshopify.com/collections/music-vinyl/products/brill-bruisers

 

I’ve been a fan for a number of years, but I will admit to not having as much faith in the New Pornographers for a couple records now. So believe me, when Brill Bruisers first started spinning on my turntable, I was ecstatic. There is nothing hit or miss about this album in both the music and presentation. It all out RAWKS!

For lack of better explanation and categorization, I’d call this the best power-pop record I’ve heard by the band yet. The promise of their first three records comes to total fruition with a glorious record that doesn’t lean on any one sound for very long.

In the past it often seemed like some songs would come off as weighing a little too heavily on the sound of one instrument to drive their song while others stayed in the background. It would only be certain songs where the mix encouraged everyone to put it all out at once (think “Mass Romantic”).  Brill Bruisers doesn’t do this. It is playful and gives everyone their due.

Think of this record like the 1970’s Montreal Canadians during their cup wins. The band is loaded with talent and now they’ve learned how to work beyond one or two people carrying the team at a time. Instead they are just one cohesive unit firing on all cylinders.  It is just that frickin’ brilliant

Now don’t ask me why that is, perhaps being apart on other projects has given them a new found joy when they get together. Or maybe they’re letting some ‘nerdier’ 70’s influence seep into their music (think ELO who they have recently been covering, or the obvious reference to the Brill building itself). Whatever the case, it is working for them.

So by itself the music is outstanding on this record… but it didn’t stop there. Having ordered it in advance direct from their website (actually, the same edition is out in your local record stores, you just don’t get your choice of colour), it arrived at my home in a glorious 12” inch cover depicting multi coloured neon fun. Then I rip into it, and find cool 70’s style 3D glasses, a large poster of the album cover. Put on the glasses and the poster shimmers in glorious “ChromaDepth 3D”. Pull the record out of the sleeve and the vinyl is a translucent light blue and just looks damn fine spinning on my stereo. Add to that the down load card and you get one awesome package.

Brill Bruisers is the very definition of why I like my music on vinyl. It isn’t just the songs that stand out, but the entire experience is expanded to be a visual and tactile art as well. Now if only they could have packed a club sandwich in with this and I would really be jumping up and down with joy.