Warning: This album might make kids want to form a band… or Hinds – Leave Me Alone

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It doesn’t hurt to have hi profile friends (Black Keys, Libertines, the Strokes, Black Lips) and to be opening for some very popular bands. Then to get major label distribution (Sony) so that your music gets promoted and is easily available once the word is out is even better. However, the only thing that will really result in lasting appeal are a great bunch of songs. You either write them, have them written for you, or have things crafted so densely under production that singing the dictionary sounds like a hit ready for the mini-pops to cover. The later is usually what you see when youth get major label money and the results are generally fan bases popular amongst the pre-teen kids waiting for the next single by Selena Gomez or Cody Simpson.

It isn’t often that you see the exact opposite play out, but ‘holy crap’ it has and the effort has produced an outstanding record. Riding out of a sunrise with a sound that crosses the lo-fi glory of Sebadoh with the energy of the 5.6.7.8’s and the dreamscape of Best Coast, Hinds have created an LP that can relate as much to early rock ‘n’ roll as it does to modern alternative/indie sounds. All that and they’re still on an indie (with major distribution).

What is most appealing with Leave Me Alone are the moments that have the dual vocals of Carlotta Cosials and Ana Garcia Perrote playing off one another in a playful case of a mutual admiration society. The album opens with “Garden” which has them teaming up with vocals that are not the usual ‘call and answer’ or traded lines found in duets as much as a ‘sing-a-long’ jam with friends just having a great time. Live you often see bands have these moments but capturing it in a studio environment is rare. Which makes it all the more remarkable that they pull it off on a full albums worth of material.

Hinds do have a few tunes that capture the whole ‘dark and brooding’ thing, but their overall enthusiasm seems to jangle right past despair with a good nod and a wink. Thing is, it’s really hard to be in a negative mood listening to Hines… like a good friend they show up when you’re down and say nothing more than “get off your ass and let me buy you a drink” and everything feels better.

Great rock ‘n’ roll records don’t have to be complicated affairs. They don’t need to have producers with a track record, a billion dollar studio, or a video directed by a Hollywood ‘A list-er’. Leave Me Alone is a reminder that great music can come from kids with nothing more than the standard guitar, bass and drum mixed with a few crappy amps and a willingness to let the songs speak for themselves. In fact, I’m willing to bet that a few kids will hear this record and start bands of their own, and that would be about the highest compliment any band can get.

The Volume is a Little Lower: Goodbye Glenn Frey

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Identity and youth is such a strange thing. What one is willing to grasp on to in order to fill a void can seem like a whim but have implications that last a lifetime. For whatever reason, the music of the Eagles was what attached itself to me, and I in return, clung to them for more years than they themselves remained together in their initial run.

I remember hearing them from the crackling transistor AM radios that my older siblings owned and through the fuzz of the car stereo on the trips up north as a child. There was something that made them stick. I wasn’t even 10 when Hotel California was released, but it was the first album that I didn’t just want to buy, but somehow be a part of. More than the Beatles or the Stones, the Eagles were who I identified with. Of course, as a kid it was an oversimplified Scooby Doo type community I craved, but at that age you’re allowed to project those desires into your favourite tunes.

As I became a teen, my notebooks and textbooks would have the lyrics of their songs hand written into the covers. I knew that J.D. Souther was a frequent collaborator and that Jackson Browne had co-written “Take It Easy.” I was familiar with previous bands too; that Randy Meisner had once been in a band called Poco, that Bernie Leadon had been a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers, that Joe Walsh had opened for the Who as a part of The James Gang and mostly, that Glenn Frey and Don Henley were members of Linda Ronstadt and ultimately the masterminds behind my favourite band.

This wasn’t in the days of Google and Wikipedia. Every bit of information you got about the artists you loved was from careful study of an LP’s liner notes; gathered from magazine articles you were lucky enough to have picked up; or even books you searched for in the library… which was strange, because I only seemed to be there for this very reason. I learned about these artists from the radio itself. For years, I was tuning into Q107’s Six O’Clock Rock Report to get any little scrap of information about all my favourite bands. Before I even hit high school, I was a huge music fan with a doctorate in The Eagles. I could wax poetic about tons upon tons of rock bands; bore you with details about groups from the Beatles to Barnstorm, but the kings of the Southern California sound were my first love.

To that end, the passing of Glenn Frey hits home and hits hard. No, I never met him, and to be honest, his image as seen through History of The Eagles is that of someone who is wrapped in arrogance… but that doesn’t mean much to me. What mattered was that he helped provide a soundtrack to my life. His music gave me a reason to socialize and interact in a world that I felt desperately alone in during those early formative years. When I later lost interest in their music, it was still that initial connection that drove me to take a further interest in the sounds of other bands. Even as a music journalist, I would hear artists through a lens, that for better or worse was established with the same enthusiasm I had for The Eagles when I was child. As an adult now, I can both sing their praises and slam them in a single breath… but the truth is; every record from their debut to Eagles Live is sitting just a few inches from my turntable. In the basement, where an old stereo with a cassette deck is ready to resume work with a single button push, my old Eagles/Don Henley/Glenn Frey/Joe Walsh and James Gang cassettes wait to roll.

Earlier in the week, as I was discussing the death of David Bowie with an acquaintance, I said to him that “I’m hitting a crappy age.” It’s a time when the heroes, friends and mentors of our childhood start to disappear; a time when we seemingly attend more funerals than celebrations. Glenn Frey will live on through his family and his music… but platitudes seem rather empty at the moment. Today another part of my youth died, and no matter how much I wish for it, life will never sound the same. Still great sounding, but the volume is forever a little lower.

RIP Glenn Frey

Beck… without the Beck? Or Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World Soundtrack

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Writing songs for fake bands can turn out some pretty good tunes. The Monkees and Spinal Tap built careers around that shtick, and let’s not forget the memorable Citizen Dick in Singles and… well, it’s a very long list. One of my favourite is Sex Bob-Omb from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. While I admit to being a fan of the movie, it’s the soundtrack that I became pretty obsessive over for a few months back in the day. First it contained that awesome Plumtree song “Scott Pilgrim” that had originally inspired the books. Then you had some top notch Canadian content with Metric and Broken Social Scene stealing their… um, scenes; by appearing as rival band Crash & the Boys. However, it was the Beck songs written for Sex Bob-Omb that had my son and I singing along on the summer road trips.

By writing garage inspired tunes for a fictional act, Beck took a step back towards a more lo-fi sound and created an EP worth of memorable tunes. The energy and enthusiasm expressed in the soundtrack material was similar to what had drawn me to Beck on Mellow Gold. It was playfulness with words mixed with catchy hooks and surrounded by pawn shop guitar sound. (Seriously folks, check out Beck’s live appearances with that wonderful cheap piece of shit 60’s Silvertone. The sound is raunchy, broken and incredibly brilliant. Honestly, I own one myself and love it.)

With the deluxe edition, you get both the Sex Bob-Omb recordings and Beck versions. While the two are quite similar to one another, Beck has a nonchalance in the delivery that allows lines like “Jesus in the rear view / and the highway patrol is up ahead / in my garbage truck…truck” to move past silly and into ‘fun rock-out’ territory. Unfortunately, ‘deluxe’ was digital download only, so the extra three Beck recordings are not on vinyl or CD.

The original vinyl pressing from 2010 was on red translucent wax. Due to demand, there was a 2013 reissue that is identical to the initial release. You can still find copies out and about at record retailers, so don’t go nuts in the reseller market and pay ridiculous prices.

Being a Beck fan, I picked up the LP and just bought the three extra tracks from itunes. It isn’t my usual thing, but when your kids are singing along to your ipod mix on the trip to see the grandparents… well, it feels like money well spent.

Aimee Mann: She isn’t the Ramones… but she is pretty damn cool! (A first concert story)

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Back in university there was only one major thing I was envious about regarding my roommate/friend – his first concert. The first band he ever saw live was the Ramones; only the ‘coolest’ band to have ever graced the planet earth. Oh, you can mention ‘better’ or ‘more popular’ bands like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Smiths, the Cure, etc and so forth… but unless you can tell me you saw James Brown live at the Apollo, or the B 52’s in an Athens dive as your first show, he had you beat.

Of course, his first concert outshone mine easily. I’m embarrassed to say, but that first for me was in the freezing cold at Nathan Phillips Square featuring Platinum Blonde. Sure, there are many bands that could rank worse as a first show, and it wasn’t a bad night either, but “It Doesn’t Really Matter” isn’t exactly “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” A few years later, with one four year old at my feet, and another child on the way, I vowed to make sure that my kids would get a cool first concert; something ‘worthy’ of telling college roommates about in a childish game of ‘mine is better than yours.’

So it was that in 2008, a couple things had lined themselves up. Local record store Sonic Boom (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World filmed a couple scenes in there) had acoustic concerts every so often in the basement of their Bloor Street location. I attended a Nada Surf show with the ‘former roomy’ and when it finished I saw the bands singer/songwriter Matthew Caws hanging out with some kids. Not ‘kids’ as in a middle-aged definition of people of the teenaged variety… but honest to goodness children. Not being the most perceptive of individuals, it only dawned on me right then, that… well, um, a record store is a safe and… dare I add, perhaps even ‘cool’ place to see a concert.

!!!LIGHTBULB!!!!

Five months after watching Nada Surf, and barely 8 weeks after my second child was born a quick e-mail announced that Aimee Mann was going to be playing a set at Sonic Boom. Since the early 90’s I had become a pretty big fan of Mann’s music. She had put together a consistent string of outstanding records that caught a great balance between power-pop (Big Star), new-wave (Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe), and the alt-rock scene of the times. Bachelor #2 was a staple in my house as the new millennium began and 2005’s concept album The Forgotten Arm seemed to be just more proof that she should be a household name. In other words, Mann had become an essential part of my life’s soundtrack. Alas, critical praise doesn’t always result in record sales. Of course, and from a purely selfish perspective, it also meant that seeing a ‘bucket list’ artist in a strange different style venue was about to happen.

So it was that during the early evening May 9th, 08 my wife and I took the boys out to see Aimee Mann. Needless to say, the youngest was in a car seat hanging out with my wife just in case he expressed any discomfort with the noise level. However, my 4 year old and I were sitting cross-legged in front of the small riser where he began to ask me a thousand questions about the small soundboard and the instruments on stage. He had a poster clutched in his hands and was smiling from ear to ear. Since his birth he had seen me playing guitar and singing songs and was now completely enthralled by the prospect of seeing a real music artist. Mann didn’t disappoint. Playing a few selections from @#%&*! Smilers, which was due for release a couple weeks later, she had everyone in a great mood. By the end of the set my son was convinced that Mann was the world’s greatest songwriter, and that she was smiling at him between songs. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him she was looking at where she was placing the capo on her guitar… and that the neck of the instrument was pointed in his direction.)

After the set, we waited around for about 30 minutes to see if we could get the poster signed. I’m not usually one for signatures, but I figured a momentous occasion like a first concert would be a great opportunity for my kids to have a keepsake. So we looked at the vinyl and cassettes which shared the basement with the stage, and kept an eye on the door for her exit. Unfortunately, whoever was interviewing her after the show was getting a really good chat, because she just never came out of the backroom in time for my son to get it signed. The baby needed to get home, and so we jumped into the rusty old minivan with a poster, our memories and a great first concert story.

Eighteen months later, my first born would get his second concert poster signed by a confused looking J. Mascis and a very gracious Lou Barlow after a Dinosaur Jr. acoustic set at Sonic Boom. (I mean come on, how many times do alt-rock legends get five year-olds walking up for an autograph.) Since then we’ve been to a bunch of small sets or shows. Both my boys (now just about to turn 12 and 8) enjoy going to shows at Sugar Beach where they can play in the sand before a band breaks into song.

Over the years, I’ve seen Mann perform a couple times, each time more impressive than the last and yet she still remains on my bucket list for a couple reasons. One, I’d eventually like to get to one of her annual Christmas shows. But, even more importantly, I’d like to have the kids go to a full concert that they’ll actually remember without daddy reminding them of when playing music on the stereo. When she last came to Toronto with The Both we were away on holidays and missed the chance. All joking about bragging rights aside, taking my kids to a concert isn’t about bravado, it is about bonding. Doing those things that allow memories to grow and be sustained.

So my old roommate has the Ramones… and that is pretty cool. But, on some future day when they’re at college and a friend asks “what was your first show?” both my children will be able to give a sly grin and reply – “Aimee Mann… and I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet.” The older one can even add “and, it’s on youtube. You can see my dad and I on the floor waiting for the music to start.”

Thanks for the memory Aimee

WTF!!!! Columbia House is Back!?!

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Not sure if this is confirmation of the continuing popularity of vinyl, or a sign that the four horsemen will be riding into town to hail the apocalypse, but Columbia House has announced they are coming back.

Only four months after declaring bankruptcy, Columbia House is set to return in 2016 as a vinyl order delivery service. While vinyl is a mere 7% of the current music market, it is the only physical medium of recorded music that has seen sales grow. In 2015 vinyl accounted for one-third of the physical market and saw sales escalate by 52%.

In their glory days Columbia House did over a billion dollars in annual sales, spurred on by their “buy 8 CD’s for a penny” promotions. They fell rapidly out of favor with the rise of digital downloading and streaming over the last few years.

However, even with CD and DVD sales falling, many retailers have embraced the vinyl resurgence and opened whole sections to meet the demand. Here in Toronto, you can find record retailers as well as clothing stores such as Urban Outfitters jumping into the market and in some cases offering exclusive titles.

Let’s wait and see what incentives Columbia House is planning to offer the public upon its return. It should be interesting.

Barrettbites Top Ten Spectacular Vinyl Releases of 2015

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Try as I might to live in denial of it, the music world has evolved into this digital place where music is consumed by means of digital downloads and streams in the millions. Still, there are those amongst us for whom vinyl has remained the preferred method of listening and enjoying our cherished music collection. The tactile nature of removing wax from a sleeve, gently dropping a needle on a spinning disc, sitting back in a chair and, finally investigating the album cover for bits of information that will further connect, and maybe even enhance the joy received when the music seeps into your consciousness.

For those of us caught up in vinyl, sometimes we are given opportunities to get rare and collectible records that are not only artistic expressions by the artists, but also the people who are creating the vinyl itself. Coloured vinyl not only sounds as great as the standard black, but stands out in the crowd for its unique look combined with awesome tunes. Here are ten outstanding examples of 2015 releases that took that extra step in not only releasing music, but providing incredible presentation too.

Lou Barlow – Brace The Wave

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Alternative lo-fi stalwart Lou Barlow (Sebadoh & Dinosaur Jr.) put out a solo work this year that not only sounded great, but also looked the part. Brace The Wave crashed the psyche with Barlow’s patented confusion and self loathing, dropping lines like “remember we were hipsters sleeping with our cats / young and thin and fucking crazy.” The album was desolate and beautiful in directing pain into expression. The vinyl itself had two variant editions. The first was sea foam green and the second was a combination of sea foam green and pink wax limited to 500 hand numbered copies. Needless to say, that 2nd option sold out quickly.

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

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Seemingly a part of everyone’s best of 2015 list, Barnett topped that by landing four Grammy nominations a few days back. Sometimes… is the kind of record that you just can’t help but play over and over again, as wit and rock join forces. In a rather unique move, the album was released with 4 variant editions being sold in different geographical regions. North Americans had orange coloured vinyl combined with a 7” and turntable slip mat. Australia and New Zealand had heavyweight white vinyl. The UK got two variants which included versions that were 2 LPS’s of orange translucent vinyl or two yellow translucent LP’s.

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

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Not to be outdone by Courtney Barnett, not only does Sound & Color end up on every year end list and receive four Grammy nominations, but it also lands one of those nominations in the Album Of The Year category. Upon its initial release, Alabama Shakes put out a clear variant edition for mass release and a more exclusive white coloured edition on sale at Urban Outfitters outlets.

City & Colour – If I Should Go Before You

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Combining folk, soul, country and rock, Dallas Green and Co. put out a record that changes direction much like the seasons. It seems appropriate that they would also release four different variant editions for their fans. The first, sold through their website and at shows was on ‘black smoke’ vinyl. The second, also sold on their home page, was a very ‘holiday season’ looking two disc set on red followed by green vinyl. Only 300 were issued. The next set, limited to 1000 copies, was exclusive to Newbury Comics on two pieces of ‘coke bottle’ green 180 gram vinyl. Finally, from band’s store was the ‘Beauty Bundle’ box set. Limited to 1000 copies, it included two pieces of ‘bone’ colored 180 gram vinyl that plays at 45rpm, as well as a bunch of other goodies for the hardcore fan willing to drop $80.00.

Calexico – Edge Of The Sun

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Such is the landscape that Calexico creates in its musical atmosphere, it just isn’t enough for them to write a bunch of singular songs that are placed together to create an album. They carefully craft a soundtrack which puts together music to evoke an emotional response. Their blend of Mariachi-Americana brings up a south-west location, but the camera then pans towards the setting sun and you’re hooked. Set on two pieces of 180 gram vinyl, their single variant edition has one turquoise while the other is mint green coloured. Looks and sounds great.

Juliana Hatfield Three – Whatever, My Love

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A natural follow up to 1993’s Become What You Are, (which it is), Whatever, My Love flows with much more ease than any of Hatfield’s more recent work. Released through American Laundromat Records, Whatever, My Love had a printing of only 500 vinyl copies, split between a clear version (125) and a purple splatter variant (375).

Langhorne Slim & The Law – The Spirit Moves

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Slim is a bit of an eclectic master, with themes of joy and misery intermingling with equal passion. Essentially, he is fearless in bending songs around multiple influences. Horns play on a number of tracks and in a different way each time. On “Spirit Moves” he uses them as a counter melody, similar to Johnny Cash’s classic “Ring Of Fire” and then brings them back later for “Life’s A Bell” as a Memphis Horns/Stax/Otis Redding tool for emotional emphasis. With the ever present acoustic instruments, some songs drift towards sounds reminiscent of Nick Drake and Cat Stevens, but the album as a whole pulls everything back into that unique Langhorne Slim vision. The variant vinyl is ‘coke bottle’ clear matching the tone of the album cover.

Django Django – Born Under Saturn

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Riding slow moving waves of psychedelic electronica mixed with surf rock, Django Django deliver a record that is a thrill for your ears. Born Under Saturn is like taking a drive (as a passenger) in a convertible with a blindfold on; you don’t know where the hell you’re going but the journey sure feels incredible. They also had one of the most outstanding looking pieces of vinyl for their alternate editions having orange translucent vinyl with white splatter effect giving it a look of fireworks going off.

Metric – Pagans In Vegas

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Haines sticks mostly to the themes of broken relationships and rising back up after a fall. While this album might seem like a bit of rock ‘n’ roll cliché at times, Metric pulls off the desired impact of connecting us to the music. So when Haines’ vocals demand “the stars above” on early single “The Shade (I Want It All)”, the listener feels entitled to it as well. Metric put out two alternate vinyl versions of Pagans In Vegas. Sold through the band’s own web store, the first variant was on 1180 gram audiophile vinyl and limited to 1200 copies. The other, sold through Newbury Comics, was on white coloured vinyl and limited to 1000 copies.

Alvvays – Eponymous

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While this Alvvays debut record was technically a 2014 release, its steady rise in prominence has made it a 2015 staple. Led by the single “Archie, Marry Me”, Alvvays has created an album that is a damn fine ‘90’s – esque’ alt-rock record. In addition to the standard black vinyl sold through record stores, the band released four other versions. Included in the mix was electric blue, clear, orange and a pale blue splatter.

Blast From The Christmas Past… or Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas

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With the holiday season in mind, what better time to look back at one of the greatest Christmas records; Guaraldi created something so magical that one cannot imagine the animated special without the music. The best moments of a Charlie Brown Christmas is where the animation and the music link arm in arm to create a perfect mood.

“Merry Christmas Charlie Brown” yell the Peanuts their heads all look to the sky and the holes that are their cartoon mouths move to the sound of “Hark, The Hearld Angels Sing.” It is one of my favorite Christmas special moments – but why should you own the soundtrack – and why on vinyl?

First, the music not only holds up without the cartoon, but it actually stands out as something special alone. Guaraldi’s greatest triumph as an artist was always his ability to convey emotion through music. In just over 40 minutes he captures the varied feelings brought out during the season. There is a sense of not only joy and wonder, but also empathy, sadness, and even humour. It is music that can be enjoyed with a set of headphones or put in the back ground as you enjoy a glass of Riesling with a few friends. It is an awesome sit down record that seems as familiar as reminiscing with an old friend during the holiday season.

So, the real question… why vinyl?

Glad you asked.

With only a decent turntable, the sonics hold up against the CD. In fact, it sounds a bit better. Having played them against one another, certain piano runs just have a warmer and more dynamic feel. It sounds like someone is in the room playing rather than a couple of speakers.

Next, while a CD is a pretty good gift, a limited edition coloured vinyl album is a really cool and collectable gift. Hecky darn, it’s an amazing and sentimental Christmas gift. Really it is the kind of thing that someone remembers exactly who gave it to them over the years, and will be pulled out with a big smile on their face.

Most record stores are carrying a green translucent vinyl edition that both looks and sounds great. However, if you are looking for something a little more… collectible, Newbury Comics has two variant editions. The first was released last year and is a red and white split vinyl that was limited to 1500 copies and sells for close to $40 USD. The second was put out for this year’s holiday season on pink ribbon candy coloured wax and limited to 1000 copies. Even better, it’s priced at a much more palatable $21.99 USD.

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Trust me, if I didn’t have it already, I would be ecstatic to find it under the tree.