Flipsides & Otherwise: FAO#17

faoA fellow enthusiast once advised this writer to “unplug the drip” of the music world in the wake of university years working in the student newspaper’s music section and upon the inaugural publication of a long-forgotten photocopied fanzine.  Maybe this friend was trying benevolently – albeit in vain – to stop another fanatic being tethered too tightly to the life-distorting circadian rhythms of record launches, gig schedules, meeting bands and the omnivorous consumption of related literature.  Ten years later – with innumerable reviews/features written for several outlets, way too many CDs, LPs and 45s blagged/bought, innumerable sweaty live shows attended – that advice still resonates enough to occasionally force a pause in the journalistic side of this scribe’s artistic interests.  The trouble is, even when taking a self-enforced sabbatical for a month or so, along comes a flood of things to crowd up the audio/visual field that find themselves in need of some near-pathological documentation.   Hence, another rather miscellaneous edition of this column, to mop up spillages from the drip that just keeps dripping…

One Event…

Record Store DayApril 18th 2009

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Record Store Day 2009

As a clarion-meets-emergency call to the music collecting community to save the western world’s dwindling independent record boutiques from internet-instigated implosion, this year’s Record Store Day seemed from several angles to be a resounding success.  With a deluge of special shop-only physical releases, extensive mainstream media coverage, in-store live appearances and the wider inclusion of UK participants, RSD definitely seemed to re-connect a lot of people with the positive aspects of bohemian retail outlets and hopefully postponed the dissolution of some stricken small businesses.  For this thirty-something hoarding stalwart – forced to trek to Spillers Records in near-neighbouring Cardiff due to the virtual evisceration of autonomous CD/vinyl emporiums in Bristol – it was fun, if slightly stressful, to revisit more youthful days nervously hunting-out something new, weird or exciting before the next likeminded buyer got there first.  Nicer still, was feeling part of something that futurologists are prematurely consigning to the dustbin of history; the concept of buying a carefully-packaged aural artefact.  Moreover, it helped a little to assuage, if only temporarily, some of the ecological guilt of plastic and polycarbonate manufacturing as well as the increasing problems of domestic storage capacity.

RSD 2009 wasn’t flawless of course.  Message board posters have rightly pointed-out the key downsides of the event, mainly centred upon the availability of the specially-commissioned limited edition singles and albums.  There have been allegations of desperate and/or unscrupulous individual stores holding-back their stashes to sell on eBay or for personal collections, which partly defeated the object of the day with a whiff of cliquey and competitive elitism.  Many were just frustrated to discover that the ridiculously small pressings were thinly-stretched to sell-out before less-militant attendees had got out of bed.  Such relatively minor niggles will hopefully be ironed-out for future Record Store Days, by at least doubling or even tripling the quantity of some exclusives and possibly holding-back some stock for stores/bands/labels to sell mail-order a few weeks later, to limit the frustration of fans no longer able to reach a real live store and not willing to be stung on auction sites or be drawn to illegitimate downlifting.  If the traditional music industry is to survive into the next decade, then a balance must be struck between canny marketing schemes and averting the alienation of loyalists still willing and able to procure music in corporeal form; Record Store Day should be part of that process.  Perhaps making it a new pan-global public holiday would also be a good thing… we can but dream.

 

3 x 10″ slices…

Last HarbourSaint Luminous Bride EP (Little Red Rabbit Records, 10″ vinyl/download)

Cheyenne Mize & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Among The Gold (Karate Body Records, 10″ vinyl/download)

50 Foot Wave – Power + Light (CASH Music, 10″ vinyl/download)

As the original populist size of gramophone-orientated shellac records, there is always something quaintly alluring about ten inch records, even in their more durable modern day vinyl incarnations.  With greater warmth of sound than the cramped grooves of a 7″ but not as intimidating in their girth as 12 inchers, the 10″ is probably the best semi-antique format for EP-length collections, as these three freshly-chipped slates attest.

Last Harbour - Saint Luminous Bride EP

Last Harbour - Saint Luminous Bride EP

Manchester-based collective Last Harbour are well-overdue a return to wax – some nine years since their wonderfully crackly 7″ debut EP – and it evidently suits the murky gravitas of this new 4-song suite.  The stormy opening titular-track (plucked from last year’s Dead Fires & The Lonely Spark album) could be a disease-ravaged pirate ship shanty if it were co-written by The Gun Club’s late-Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Henry’s Dream-era Nick Cave; the elegiac “The Rifleman & The Bird” bathes itself the ship-wrecking shores of Crime & The City Solution’s Paradise Discotheque; “Brothers” gradually layers-up dizzying volume with funereal melodrama; and the bewitching baroque instrumental “Hewn” closes proceedings with a hint of gentile comforting.  With a gorgeous hand-printed sleeve in a limited run of 350 copies, this is a compulsory acquisition for the most discerning of Last Harbour followers.

Cheyenne Mize & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy - Among The Gold EP

Cheyenne Mize & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy - Among The Gold

Whilst Will Oldham’s no-longer-so-new Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy alias is increasingly leading him into disingenuous self-parody, he can still slip out more interesting low-key curios to ensure the devotion of his Palace-years faith-keepers.  This 6-track selection of vintage ballads from the pre-rock years of 1864-1914, recorded sparsely with Arnett Hollow’s Cheyenne Mize, is wonderfully old-timey but without prowling anywhere near to the dangerous tracks of novelty.  In fact, Among The Gold is so delightfully unpretentious that it puts much of Oldham’s over-egged latter-day repertoire in the dog house, so hunt it down before its resale value hits silly bullion-like prices.

50 Foot Wave - Power + Light

50 Foot Wave - Power + Light

So hyper-prolific has Kristin Hersh become through her brave ‘pay-what-you-like-or-not-at-all’ download-led CASH Music endeavour, that it’s a relief to find something being put out to hold in your hands, to help make some sense of it all.  But then the choice of 50 Foot Wave’s post-hardcore-rock-opera “Power + Light” isn’t necessarily going to assist in unclouding the waters.  Split into seven movements across 25+ minutes and two sides of grooved plastic, “Power + Light” isn’t for the faint-hearted, but that’s not to dismiss its dirty and disorienting magnificence.  With composite shades of all her past work with the Throwing Muses, 50 Foot Wave and as a soloist, along with respectful nods to Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, this epic journey burns, scolds and occasionally soothes the soul.  With classic Hersh-penned motto-like lines such as “I’d rather be fucking than fighting” and “Grab me, grab your skeleton key and don’t forget to breathe” – that make perfect euphemistic but not literal sense – melding to a searing guitar/bass/drums-triangulating soundtrack with respite-giving cello interludes, “Power + Light” is something transcendental enough to be embraced as well as feared.

Two CD-EPs…

Superchunk – Leaves In The Gutter EP (Merge, CD/download)

Portal – Options EP (Make Mine Music, CD/download)

Superchunk - Leaves In The Gutter EP

Superchunk - Leaves In The Gutter EP

CD-EPs are now treated with more bemusement than their vinyl counterparts, but as we’ve seen/heard in previous issues of this column they remain a valid platform for short and highly-focused bursts of creativity.  Mac McCaughan seems acutely aware of this simple phenomenon with the currently-dormant Portastatic and the recently-revived Superchunk.  The latter’s long-awaited return with a 5-song studio set is heartily-welcomed to tie-in with Merge Record’s shared-twentieth birthday.  Frankly, you’re unlikely to find such redemptive old-school melodic-dissonance anywhere else this year.  From the loveable “Learned To Surf” and the post-punk magic of “Misfits & Mistakes” through the ragged blissful twists of “Screw It Up” and “Knock Knock Knock,” and on to closing acoustic reprise of “Learned To Surf,” Leaves In The Gutter is a treasure to be buried in 2009 that will long gleam underground.

Portal - Options EP

Portal - Options EP

The obvious attractions of the new collaborator-heavy Options EP from Make Mine Music label founder Scott Sinfield’s Portal outfit are inevitably the guest vocal appearances from Glen Johnson (Piano Magic, Future Conditional, Textile Ranch) and Angèle David-Guillou (Piano Magic, Klima) on two different bookending versions of the title-track.  But then how could Mahogany’s Lorraine Ellis and Epic 45’s Ben Holton (on the likeable but slightly forgettable “Slow Burner” “You’re Building Over My Childhood”, respectively) really match the twosome’s symbiotic super-powered melancholy?  Not a chance; because with bittersweet ’80s-slanted dark-electro, Johnson and David-Guillou have cornered the market.  The addition of peerless black-witted wordplay from Johnson’s pen secures the coup d’état even further on top of Sinfield’s burbling dreamy OMD-meets-New Order electro.  More than anything, you’ll be lusting in advance for the next Piano Magic album due later this later this year, which is no bad thing, even if it does subsume Sinfield’s own intriguing talents that warrant separate evaluation.

One new and nearly-missed album…

Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard – ‘Em Are I (Rough Trade Records, CD/vinyl/download)

Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard - 'Em Are I

Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard - 'Em Are I

Being somewhat of an anti-folk renaissance man, it’s easy to lose some concentration on Jeffrey Lewis’s core work amidst his comic books, on-line columns for the New York Times, literary events and 2007’s ingenious 12 Crass Songs covers project.  But then Lewis’s own multi-disciplined nonchalance does see him distracted from own songwriting to some degree, which is playfully apparent on this new self-composed collection.  Picking-up where 2005’s largely-great City & Eastern Songs long-player left-off, whilst bringing in the eclectic ethos of 12 Crass Songs and some wider worldly experiences (including a close brush with heartbreak), the obliquely-named ‘Em Are I is an endearing and often enjoyable mongrel of a record.  Bumping Pavement-style slacker-rock (“Slogans”) into rustic Violent Femmes-aping stomping  (“Whistle Past The Graveyard”) and rubbing plaintive cartoonish-existential balladry (“Bugs & Flowers” and “It’s Not Impossible”) against uplifting folk-pop sing-alongs (“Roll Bus Roll” and “Broken Broken Broken Heart”), the album is a happy distance from Lewis’s Moldy Peaches-shadowed beginnings.  Lyrically there are some mixed-blessings though; for every sharp couplet there is regularly a corresponding clunker.  But then Lewis makes no pretences about being Leonard Cohen, so it’s largely forgivable, especially when different aesthetic personalities on ‘Em Are I spring forth on each entertaining airing.

Some recent refreshing reading…

I Think I Hate My 45s (blog)

Anything But Silence (blog)

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I Think I Hate My 45s blog

Whilst the blogosphere – to use a loathsome buzzword – is awash with both blatant pro-celebrity self-publicity and woeful amateurism, there are indeed islands of informative and imaginative relief to make it worth wading through the mire.  Two such music-related blogs deserve some particular commendations for entertaining and inspiring this scribe when other on-screen text tires the eyes as well as the brain.  The first is the intrepid I Think I Hate My 45s blog, which documents one self-confessed vinyl addict’s mission to review his way through thousands of owned-but-underplayed 7″ singles in strictly ‘A-Z’ order.  Through a combination of self-deprecating wit, encyclopaedic knowledge and affectionate yet biting satire, this is a road trip through home crate-digging that should roll and roll, well until it hits the roadblock of ‘Z’ that is.

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Anything But Silence blog

Even better though, is undoubtedly the Anything But Silence blog from Glen Johnson (yes, him again).  Encompassing unique perspectives and musings on everything from the malfuncting mechanics of the music industry, personal heroes (Morrissey, New Order, Kraftwerk et al.), cassette-only labels, musical equipment, the joy of silence and long walks, the occasional downloadable sonic experiment with readers’ input… and so on.  Dripping with plangent passion, lacerating black comedy and invigorating intelligence, should Johnson ever quit the current day-job(s) there must be a brilliant book waiting to have his name on it.