Friday, December 23, 2011

Bing Crosby: Merry Christmas

Review # 58
Artist: Bing Crosby
Title: Merry Christmas
Format: LP
Label: Decca
Year: 1945
Songs: 12

Hello, readers. I managed to get one more review in before the holiday. If Christmas records aren't your thing (and I understand if they aren't, believe me), rest assured, this is the last Christmas LP review for 2011.

Bing Crosby's Merry Christmas is one of the best known Christmas records ever. Released on Decca Records in 1945 as a collection of 78rpm discs, the album has never been out of print, a statement which can be made of few records. And for good reason--it's a masterfully executed record. I had a friend who would listen to it all year around. Bing is in top crooning form, and the two orchestras that appear on this record both perform the songs in style, whether the song is somber, dour, or swinging. The Andrews Sisters provide backing vocals on side two and make the record just feel like a perfect slice of the music of the 1940s. It's both a great representation of the time and also timeless.

The record seems to be divided into a somber side and fun side. Side A of the record features earnest and sometimes dour songs, often with religious themes. Christmas is, of course, for most people a religious holiday, so "Silent Night" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"  aren't really surprising selections. The one that is a bit more unusual is "Faith of Our Fathers," which, aside from from really bringing down the mood, is pretty awful in what it advocates. The song is about "our fathers" who, in spite of being killed and tortured in dungeons, retained their Christian beliefs. Which I guess is all well and good if you're a strong Christian. But what's really terrible about it is that expresses the desire for these fathers' children (i.e. ourselves) to be similarly martyred: "Oh how sweet would be their children's fate if they, like them, could die for thee." Yikes. Martyrdom is not something I would ever wish on anyone. Wouldn't it be better to wish that no one, anywhere, ever has to go through "dungeons, fire and sword?" Wouldn't that be more in the spirit of the holiday? In any case, this particular song makes me want to turn off the record and put on the Subhumans' "Religious Wars" instead.

On the other hand though, side A also includes Crosby's version of "White Christmas," which is arguably the definitive version of this song. A dour holiday classic in which the narrator dreams of a snowy Christmas, just like the ones he used to know. Having spent my early childhood in a place where winter consistently meant snow and white Christmases were not the exception, I can understand. This song always evokes memories of building a snowman in the front yard, jumping off my parents' deck into deep piles of snow, and then coming inside to sit by the fire and drink hot cider. Here in Seattle, this sort of thing is a lot less common, and although I've lived in western Washington for over two decades now, I've never stopped missing those snowy winters that Bing longs for in this song.

Before I get any soppier, let's turn briefly to side B, the "fun" side of the record. This side of the record is upbeat, through and through. Many of the songs, as previously mentioned feature the Andrews Sisters, and most of the songs also feature a different orchestra from side A. While I'm not familiar with other work by either one, the Vic Schoen orchestra on side B really shines. They give us swinging, jazzy versions of songs like "Jingle Bells" and "Santa Clause is Coming to Town" that are reminiscent of Count Basie's work. Side B features what I would probably consider the best version of "Jingle Bells" I've ever heard, rivalled perhaps only by Frank Sinatra's version. The Andrews Sisters' unique backing vocals really make this one distinctive and fun.

If you're one of those folks who hates Christmas music, you probably won't be able to get behind this record. And that's fine. I don't really know why I like it, but I do. And if you're going to listen to Christmas music, it's hard to beat Bing Crosby's Merry Christmas.

I'll leave off here with link to "White Christmas," the song this record is probably best known for.

Happy Holidays to you and yours from 30,000 Songs.

Total songs listened: 731

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Christmas with the Chipmunks

Review # 57
Artist: Alvin and the Chipmunks
Title: Christmas with the Chipmunks
Format: LP
Label: Liberty Records
Year: 1962
Songs: 12

Long before computer animated chipmunks were singing Lady Gaga songs in endless, terrible film sequels, Alvin, Simon, Theodore, and Dave Seville were already holiday favorites in America. The Chipmunks first Christmas LP was a tremendously successful record, for a novelty act. Its best known track "The Chipmunk Song" (better known in some circles as "Christmas Don't Be Late" or simply "that songs where Alvin wants a hula hoop") was the Chipmunks' only #1 single, and won three Grammy awards (best comedy record, best children's record, and best engineering on a non-classical record) in 1958. The record has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and has been reissued and repackaged numerous times in multiple formats. Beloved by many as a piece of classic kitsch and maligned by others as a shrill, corny irritation, Christmas with the Chipmunks may be the best known novelty record of all time.

Readers who have been with this blog since the beginning may have by now noted that I have an awful lot of Chipmunks LPs, so it should come as no surprise that I like this record. I love kitcshy, silly, novelty music, and if you are like me in that respect, Christmas with the Chipmunks is just ridiculous upbeat fun all the way through. As was the case in Urban Chipmunk, this record sees Dave Seville trying to make the rambunctious chipmunks toe the line as a respectable singing group, while our rodent friends (and especially Alvin) have other ideas. Alvin's penchant for turning the songs' lyrics into dramatic monologues repeatedly gets him in trouble for "over-acting," with Dave frequently admonishing Alvin and co. to "just sing!" This conflict arises right away on the song's opening number "Here Comes Santa Claus," and continues to be an issue on "Over the River and Through the Woods" and "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." Why Dave puts up with the chipmunks is unclear. After so many conflicts like this, and given the debatable merits of the chipmunks' vocal abilities, one is left wondering why Dave carries on trying to make them a proper musical act.

Unlike other Chipmunk records, this album sees Dave playing a more active role in singing the songs himself. He takes the lead on "Silver Bells" and sings "White Christmas" entirely on his own, aside from a conversation with Alvin in which he bemoans the lack of snow this year. Rest assured, Dave's sorrow is short lived, as Alvin chimes in at the end of the song to alert him to some festive precipitation. This record also features a cameo from none other than Rudolph (the red-nosed reindeer) who sings the song about himself in the first person. The voice is a clear imitation of the Rankin & Bass Christmas special, and sounds in particular like the part of the story in which Rudolph is trying to cover his embarrassing nose with a piece of clay and constantly sounds like he has a cold.

Probably the best known track on this record is the aforementioned "Chipmunk Song." This is both the only original song on the record, and the one in which Dave (aka Ross Bagdasarian) makes the greatest effort to actually differentiate his voice as he performs each of the three chipmunk voices. My record player has a 16 rpm setting (although I've never seen a record that plays at this speed), and it's fun to play this song at that speed, because you can hear three tracks of Dave, talking and singing very slowly and trying to make his voice sound like three different voices, in combination with the "real" Dave voice, which slowed to half speed sounds like some terrible beast. My friend referred to this as the "Three Dave Seville's and a Bear" version of the song. While this song is one I like to hear at normal speed at least once every December, having the vinyl gives me the added benefit hearing what the Chipmunks' voices sounded like when Dave/Ross actually recorded them.

If by some unlikely chance you haven't heard "The Chipmunk Song" before, you can listen to it here, complete with old, cheap children's animation that shows you what shenanigans our rodent friends got up to while recording this unlikely number one hit.

Total songs listened: 719

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Beach Boys: The Beach Boys' Christmas Album

Review # 56
Artist: The Beach Boys
Title: The Beach Boys' Christmas Album
Format: LP
Label: Capitol Records
Year: 1964
Songs: 12

Happy Holidays, 30,000 Songs readers!

Sorry about the long delay since my last post. I've been travelling and otherwise very busy for a while and only today have I had enough time for it to occur to me to write a post. I'm going to try to do a couple of holiday record reviews this week, and return with some classic hardcore next week.

The Beach Boys' Christmas Album is a record that my wife and I picked up at the Fremont Sunday Market around this time last year. This record is full of the Beach Boys' distinctive harmonies as they perform original songs like "Little Saint Nick" and "The Man With All the Toys" and Christmas classics like "Santa Claus is Comin' To Town" and "Frosty the Snowman."  I'm not the biggest Beach Boys fan, truth be told, but I like them in small doses. Maybe that's part of why I really like side one of this record, but by the end of side two have had enough. Side one is full of upbeat tunes, mostly their originals, that showcase the harmony intensive take on the Chuck Berry sound that made the band famous. If you like the Beach Boys and don't hate Christmas music, there's really nothing not to like here. These are all the songs you hear on oldies radio stations in December.

Side two, aside from maybe just being more Beach Boys songs than I need in a row, is just less fun. They save all the slow numbers for this side of the record--it begins with a version of "We Three Kings" that drags so much, it feels like my record player is on the wrong speed.  It's twice as long as anything on side one and juuuuuusssst drrrraaaaaaaaags. Even the version of "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," a song which is typically an upbeat number, on side two of this record feels sort of flat or sad or something. It's sandwiched between "Blue Christmas" and "White Christmas," and I think is meant to pick up the mood a bit between those two rather dour Christmas songs, but it doesn't really clear the bar.

The one moment on side two that really cracks me up is the very end. Like many Christmas albums, this one ends with a rendition of New Year's favorite "Auld Lang Syne." At the very end of the song, the band gets turned down in the mix and Dennis Wilson gets on the mic to wish all the listeners at home a happy holiday season. And he stumbles over his words: "we hope you will treasure it the way we do, and if you hap... happen to be listening to this album right now...." Now, this could hap... happen to anybody, but seriously, why didn't they do another take? Did they have a midnight deadline to get the record done in order to get it in stores in time from Christmas? By 1964, there really isn't an excuse for this sort of thing from a famous band on a major record label. They weren't exactly recording on wax cylinders. It just feels too sloppy for the Beach Boys, and it makes me laugh, every time.

Check it out: "Auld Lang Syne"

Total songs listened: 707

Friday, December 2, 2011

Dock Boggs: False Hearted Lover's Blues

Review # 55
Artist: Dock Boggs
Title: False Hearted Lover's Blues
Format: LP
Label: Monk Records
Year: 2009
Songs: 10

Dock Boggs is one of my all time favorite musicians in the American folk tradition, and False Hearted Lover's Blues is a collection of his recordings from the late 1920s. Boggs recorded a number of albums for Smithsonian's Folkways label in the 1960s when folk music became popular again, and those are fine records and better recorded, but there's just no substitute for hearing the original recordings. These are little slices of a culture and way of life in America that have largely disappeared. Boggs's somewhat abrasive voice combined with an aggressive, often fast, style of banjo playing conjure echos of a time when ramblers walked the dirt back roads of America, drinking corn whiskey. These songs have an ominous sound to them, and the lyrics tell of lost love, broken hearts, bad decisions, ruined lives, nights in jail, and ultimately, death. In "Country Blues" for instance, Boggs laments the bad decisions of a rambling lifestyle, as he envisions his own funeral. The spine-chilling "Pretty Polly" tells the story of another rambler who, after breaking his lover's heart, kills her and buries her body in some desolate place. It's not entirely clear, but he may bury her alive. Afterwards, he goes down to the river, "where deep waters flow," and there the song ends. Again, it's not clear, but he may drown himself in the river for what he's done. You won't find "You Are My Sunshine" or "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" in Boggs's catalogue.

I think most people who aren't well acquainted with American folk music have an idea of it as a tame, friendly acoustic music, children's songs, or political protest music. They think of sanitized Americana like Peter, Paul and Marry basically. Maybe they think of early Bob Dylan, or even Woody Guthrie if they're slightly better informed. Folk music can be all of these things, but much of the earliest music recorded in America isn't like that at all. These songs created images of the darker side of American rural life--hardship, loneliness, violence, alcoholism. "Hard luck," in these songs isn't your computer crashing or getting a flat tire, it's your brother getting shot, or spending your life in prison for robbing someone in alley and accidentally killing them. The lyrics to Boggs's songs have more in common with gangster rap than they do with children's music or even the protest music of the 1960s.

These recordings vary a fair amount, in terms of recording quality. Taken from 78 rpm records if I'm not mistaken, some of these songs probably sound as good as they ever did, while others obviously were damaged. The last couple of tracks are very scratchy and sound like they run a little slow. Monk Records (a German label, I believe, which is sort of odd) seems to have done the best they could in cleaning these recordings up, but you can only do so much with damaged records from almost 100 years ago. Even so, if you are a fan of classic American folk music, this record is indispensable. Boggs's songs (and variations of other folk tunes, like "Sammie Where You Been So Long," which has much in common with  Bascom Lamar Lunsford's "I Wish I Was A Mole in the Ground") are classics. His approach to banjo playing is exciting to listen to, and clearly influenced many who came after him. The Folkways stuff recorded 40 years after this has many of these qualities. They're more accessible, perhaps. But if you want to hear some real, authentic American folk music, there are few better examples than False Hearted Lover's Blues.

Here's Boggs's version of "Pretty Polly."

Total songs listened: 695

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Blondie: Blondie

Review # 54
Artist: Blondie
Title: Blondie
Format: LP
Label: Chrysalis
Year: 1976
Songs: 11

Everybody has heard Blondie. Their hit songs like "One Way or Another" and "Heart of Glass," along with Debbie Harry's quasi-sex symbol status, cemented a place for the band in the history of rock music. But before Blondie was a hit, they were just a good little punk/new wave band with some catchy tunes. Their self-titled debut LP captures this lesser-known era of the band's music.

Originally released on Private Stock Records in 1976, this record contains the band's first single, "X Offender," along with several other irreverent catchy songs. In the early days of the punk and new wave scene, before the Sex Pistols LP had even debuted, definitions of what was considered punk were more flexible. For Blondie, it meant high energy, bouncy pop songs, often with a retro feel to them. "X Offender" and"Little Girl Lies" sound like a really good 1960s garage band, with organ, straight up rock 'n roll guitar riffs, and hand claps. "In the Flesh," one of the better known songs on the record, sounds like something out of the late 1950s or early 1960s. "In the Sun" is evocative of 1960s surfer bands like the Beach Boys or Jan and Dean. At other times, the organ also contributes to an almost carnival feel to some songs, like "A Shark In Jet's Clothing." The record finishes with a sci-fi film homage, "The Attack of the Giant Ants," which features a maddeningly catchy "la la la" chorus that I should find annoying but love anyway.  All in all, this is a melodic, fun, and catchy record.

Blondie lost most of their punk credibility when they released  the disco hit "Heart of Glass." I think you'd be hard pressed to find many punk bands that cite them as a major influence anymore. Even so, the influence of this particular record is hard to deny. Several of the melodies on this record can be heard echoing on other records that came out in subsequent years. While I can't say for certain that they borrowed it from this record, the similarities between, for example, "Look Good in Blue" and the Jam's "The Butterfly Collector" are hard to miss. It's worth noting, too, that "Heart of Glass" was not the departure that some people made it out to be. Listen to "Man Overboard" and you can hear the disco influence showing up not so subtly on this first LP.

I'm not a huge Blondie fan, but this is definitely my favorite of their albums. Blondie's punk cred might be assailable, but the quality of this record isn't.

If you haven't hear "X Offender," you should check it out.

Total songs listened: 685

Monday, November 21, 2011

New Record! Alternative: Demos 1982

Review # 53
Artist: Alternative
Title: Demos 1982
Format: LP
Label: Antisociety
Year: 2011(?)
Songs: 15

This record is a new release of the long out-of-print 1982 demo of British anarcho-punk band The Alternative. Unlike many of the other more obscure bands from this era who's recordings have become nearly impossible to track down in a physical form, this band has also remained fairly elusive on the internet as well. You can find MP3s by Hit Parade, Honey Bane, and Hagar the Womb if you look hard enough, but try searching the internet for "Alternative punk band MP3s" or some other variation of that.  You'll look all day before you find anything by them.

So, if you're a collector of British anarcho-punk like I am, it's good that this is back in print. Like my previous review, this is a band that, if you've heard them at all, you've probably heard on the Overground Records anarcho-punk series, which included their song "Where Are Your Hiroshimas?" A version of that song is also found on this record. I'm not really sure why it was the one chosen for the Overground series as it's far from my favorite on the record, being a bit overly shrill and repetitious for my taste. Be that as it may, unless you are a really serious punk historian and archivist, you're probably fine with just having the Overground comp in this case.

I'm not saying this record is bad, to be clear. But the recording quality is pretty awful in places. Both tinny and warbley at times, I think you have to have an ear that's accustomed to lo-fi diy punk recordings to get much out of this.  There's something I actually like about recordings that sound like this--they come off as more organic and authentic in some way. Having started playing music in the age when the best most diy bands could hope for was a half decent cassette four track demo, there's something that feels right to me about cheap analogue basement recordings, but I know that for most people, especially those younger than me, this isn't the case. There's no reason for any recording to sound like this in the 21st century.

What about the music? Well, it's good anarcho-punk, if you like that sort of thing. But there's nothing here that's so indispensable for the casual punk fan that it would be worth it to force yourself to listen to recordings that don't sound good. Alternative sounds like slightly more melodic Crass. There's some good bass and guitar work, but nothing that goes outside the confines of the anarcho-punk style. "Antichrist" and "Moral Bondage" in particular have some nice guitar hooks, and "Who's Sussed" has some nice melodic bass parts, but if you've heard contemporaries of this band, there are no real surprises here. Likewise the messages of the songs, which are anti-war, anti-organized religion, anti-nationalism, anti-nuclear weapons, etc. Kind of predictable.

I'm afraid I've come off more negative about this record than I am.  I actually like it quite a bit. But, as I mentioned in my last review, I'll pick up nearly anything from this particular milieu of the punk scene. To me, it's the happy medium between the musical stylings of the first wave of British punk bands, which I tend tend to prefer to crust bands from a musical standpoint, and political content of crust, which is often more thoughtful than the first wave bands. But if I was going to recommend one record from this era, I can't say I'd consider this.  It's for collectors of anarcho punk. If you can find their EP (good luck), the recordings are a lot better, but still, Alternative still doesn't really stand out from their contemporaries that much.

Total songs listened: 674

Thursday, November 10, 2011

New Record! The A-Heads: Discography 1982-2009

Review # 52
Artist: The A-Heads
Title: Discography 1982-2009
Format: LP
Label: Mass Media Records
Year: 2011
Songs: 11

So I made a trip to Singles Going Steady last week and ended up with two new records by bands that start with "A." So we'll be backtracking for the next couple of reviews. The other records were "S" and "Z" records respectively, so we'll get to them in turn.

Tonight, I'm listening to the A-Heads discography. I pick up more or less anything I come across by the UK anarcho punk bands of the early 1980s, and so, in spite of only really knowing one song by this band, I bought this. If you've heard the A-Heads at all, you've probably heard the song "Forgotten Hero," which has appeared on a number of anarcho punk compilations, including the excellent 4 cd series from Overground Records. It's a haunting anti-war song that, like many A-Heads songs, uses a narrative form to make a point about a socio-politcal issue. This is a form that works well for them. The band doesn't seem to have as coherent or overt a political analysis as some of the bands from the anarcho scene. Their songs are anti-war and anti-prejudice, and there are critiques of the mental health system and meditations on drug addiction. But, for a band called the A-Heads, there's surprisingly little on this record that resembles a full on anarchist critique, and nary a slogan to be found. I'm not sure if the band was just less political, or if they just preferred a lyrical form that doesn't hit the listener over the head with their politics, but in terms of lyrical content, this stands apart from many of their contemporaries.

Musically, this is mid-tempo 1980s punk with melodic female vocals. Some of it would have fit in just fine with the (mostly hostile) British street punk scene just as well as the anarcho scene--it's catchy, melodic, and sometimes snotty, with moments of crunchy guitars but nothing that crosses into crust territory. That makes this record a lot of fun, actually. Although "Forgotten Hero" is pretty dark, most of the rest of the record you can bounce around to. Even songs with dark themes like "Dying Man" and "Isolated" are pretty fun, musically (if you like '80s punk, at least). Probably my favorite song, musically, is "No Rule," which starts quieter and then shifts gears to become more aggressive and punky. I like that sort of thing.

An interesting note about the A-Heads-- it appears they are still active. The lyric sheet lists a current lineup and, while the individual tracks aren't dated, the title of the record suggests that at least something on this record was recorded in 2009. The record label logo on the back of the record says "stay punk, stay awake, never give up." It would appear the A-Heads take that slogan to heart. Right on, folks.

Here's "Hell Cell" if you want to check out the A-Heads.

Total songs listened: 659

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bikini Kill/Huggy Bear: Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah/Our Troubled Youth

Review # 51
Artist: Bikini Kill/Huggy Bear
Title: Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah/Our Troubled Youth
Format: LP
Label: Kill Rock Stars/Catcall
Year: 1992
Songs: 15

This record is a split LP featuring, on one side, Bikini Kill's second official release Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah and on the other, Huggy Bear's Our Troubled Youth. It was one of the first records I bought from an independent label, back in the days when getting my hands on stuff like this either meant a ferry ride to Seattle or, more commonly, sending a check in the mail to a record label's mail order service with a list of alternative choices in case what I wanted wasn't in stock at the time. In the 1990s, in the days before music was widely available on the internet, being punk rock in a small town was a lot more challenging. I'd send out my checks and then wait eagerly for the mail carrier to bring me a little slice of counterculture, out in the wasteland that was Poulsbo, Washington. This was part of one of those mail order purchases, recommended to me by one of the two people I knew who liked music that didn't get played on the radio, and it was very prized when it first came into my possession as one of only two or three punk LPs I owned.

But enough about me. Let's talk about the record itself, starting with the Bikini Kill side. Recorded on a 4 track, this record shows that it is possible for the band to be more raw and furious than they were on their first record. Musically speaking, this is just stripped-down punk recorded using basic technology in what sounds like a garage. The songs are heavier and more aggressive than the first record, and also a little better crafted. It captures the ethos and energy of the best hardcore bands.  It's compelling. Lyrically, the record is an even more uncompromising declaration of independence than the debut.  Every song screams out in self-confident defiance "We Don't Need You." By the time this record came out, people were becoming very polarized by Bikini Kill. Attracted or repelled by their uncompromising feminist stance, lyrics, and live presentation, most in the punk community were either with them or against them.  In "White Boy," Kathleen responds to the controversy: "I'm so sorry if I'm alienating some of you. Your whole fucking culture alienates me.... I'm so sorry that I think." Even as a white boy myself, being young and alienated in a small town that seemed at times to be closing in on me and in a school that largely seemed to encourage mediocrity, Bikini Kill's strident stance resonated. It should also be mentioned here that this record includes a less polished version of the band's well known single "Rebel Girl," which I think is superior to the 7" version.

In comparison, the Huggy Bear side of the record was a little harder for me to get my head around. The music is more varied, ranging from hardcore to garage rock to spooky bits that sound like a little like a horror movie soundtrack with someone ranting over them ("Jupiter Re-Entry" and "Nu Song") to the catchy pop of "Aqua Girl Star." It's pretty interesting listening, and "Aqua Girl Star" always gets stuck in my head every time I play this side of the record. To my budding punk tastes, though, some of this was a little hard to figure out, although it grew on me with successive plays. The politics were also harder to relate to. Many of the lyrics, and the poetic manifesto included inside the record sleeve, are pretty forceful about sexual identity issues, labeling the music "Queercore for the Queercorps." I wasn't someone who had an issue with people being gay, but as a straight 17 year old, I wasn't sure how to relate to music that dealt with these issues. They were topics that were simply not talked about by anyone I knew, and this record deal with them in an open and forceful way. I wasn't threatened by Huggy Bear per se, but just sort of confused by it, and vaguely uncomfortable with it for reasons I didn't quite understand. Today, there's nothing here I haven't heard in some form lots of time before, but at the time it was showing me something I hadn't seen before. It was educational and my perspective was broadened by it.

Taken together, the two sides of this record compliment each other nicely. Some of the music sounds a little dated at the end of the year 2011, but some of it could be released today and sound fresh. As far as the lyrical content, the messages here are as relevant today as they were nearly 20 years ago when they were first committed to vinyl. For the sake of alienated kids everywhere, I hope this record stays in circulation for a long time.

Here's the opening track of the Bikini Kill side, "White Boy" and my favorite track from the Huggy Bear side, "Aqua Girl Star."

Total songs listend: 648

Monday, October 31, 2011

Manheim Steamroller: Halloween

Review # 50
Artist: Manheim Steamroller
Title: Halloween
Format: CD (x2)
Label: American Gramaphone (sic)
Year: 2003
Songs/tracks: 23

So I'm obviously getting out of order here, but in honor of the holiday, I thought I'd go ahead and review this. It's the only thing in my collection that can really be described as a Halloween album. There's some Misfits stuff, but as good as that is at Halloween, I'll listen to them any time of year, so I won't call it holiday music and I'll get to them in their proper alphabetical turn. Some other stuff is debateable, like the Ghostbusters soundtrack or a record of someone reading Edgar Allen Poe stories, but this is the only self-labled Halloween record in my collection

If you've ever heard of Manheim Steamroller before, it's almost certainly because of their new-agey synthesizer heavy Christmas albums, popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Christmas records are pretty corny, but they're also tied up with a lot of fond memories from my childhood, because my parents had the first two. So, while I don't like them, I like them anyway, if that makes any sense. The band has released several non-holiday albums in their Fresh Aire series which I frequently see at thrift stores, but I've never heard any of them and I don't think many people have. I was very surprised a few years ago when I learned that they were both still producing music and had a Halloween album (indeed, looking at Wikipedia, it appears they have more than one).

A few years back, my friends and I used to play what we called "Junk Poker," a game which was identical to regular poker, except instead of betting money or chips, we all brought piles of knickknacks we had laying around to use as bets. Part of the fun was negotiating the value of the different items ("Is that a raise or a call?" "No, I think you need to put more on the table than that," etc.). The night would finish up and someone would have cleaned their basement while someone else would be going home with a pile of items of varying quality and value, some of which might show up again the next time we played. I ended up with some cool stuff this way, and also was forced to make some runs to Goodwill to donate huge piles of other people's junk on some occasions. This cd was something I won in one of those games, and mostly out of curiosity, I kept it.

This album is comprised of two discs: one featuring "spooky" synthesizer music, and the other featuring 10 tracks of atmospheric sound effects (sometimes with occasional synthesizer notes). And before you ask, yes, I did listen to both discs from beginning to end for this review.

Let's start with the sound effect disc. It's fairly typical of Halloween sound effects collections. You could play it at your haunted house/Halloween party and nobody would give you a hard time about it. The disc features ten tracks of sound effects that include "Alien Spaceship," "Ghost Voices," and three variations on "Enchanted Forrest" which, to me, all sound exactly the same and all use the exact same echoing wolf howl several times. Spooky backward whispering in "The Other Side" makes it the creepiest of all the tracks, while the funniest is definitely "the Mountain King." I don't know if the king is supposed sound scary, but he sounds more like he's got really severe gas pains. He grunts and groans in what sounds like tremendous discomfort for over three and a half minutes. It's quite hilarious. "The Mountain King" was the only track on this disc that actually distracted me from working on my dissertation because I couldn't stop laughing at that poor mountain king. Someone should get him some Gas-X.

The music disc is just bad.  It starts with "rockin'" version of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the famous organ music you hear in so many Halloween related movies, but played on a synthesizer without enough sustain. Then the synth drums kick in and it gets very silly very fast. This disc is mostly made up of tunes you'd probably be familiar with, "deranged" by Chip Davis of Manheim Steamroller. Their version of "The Flying Dutchman" stands out because it's super dramatic. It reminds me of low budget version of Lord of the Rings Soundtrack.There's also a Nutcracker-esque version of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme song, "Rite of Twilight," which riffs on Twilight Zone theme, and version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" from Fantasia, all played in that silly synthesizer-heavy style that made Manheim Steamroller so popular in the late '80s. The disc also features few original tunes by Chip Davis like "Rock & Roll Graveyard," which is even worse than the covers. I guess if you're seriously a fan of their Christmas music and are planning to throw a Halloween party, you might like this, but otherwise, Manheim Steamroller's Halloween is really only good for a few chuckles, as far as I'm concerned. Also, they apparently don't know how to spell "gramophone."

Happy Halloween!

Total songs listened: 633

Friday, October 21, 2011

Frank Friday! Frank Sinatra Sings Rogers and Hart

Review # 49
Artist: Frank Sinatra
Title: Frank Sinatra Sings Rogers and Hart
Format: LP
Label: Capitol
Year: 1962
Songs: 12

I've liked Frank Sinatra for a long, long time. But it wasn't until my great uncle and aunt had both died, roughly ten years ago now, that I started buying his records. My Aunt Mary and Uncle Jim were both near and dear to me, and both big Sinatra fans. I remember hearing Sinatra playing at their house from back when I was a little kid, especially at Christmas time. They saw Sinatra in concert more than once. The organist even played "My Way" at my uncle's funeral. After they were gone, I started buying Sinatra LPs. I'm not sure exactly why it was, but it made me feel closer to them. And it made music I already liked feel more special. Over the years, I have developed a relationship with Sinatra's music independent of my memories of Mary and Jim, but I still think of them often when I listen to Sinatra. This is where it all started: Frank Sinatra Sings Rogers and Hart was the first Sinatra record I picked up. Not because of the songs on it or anything, but just because it was the first one I saw at a thrift store once I decided to buy some Sinatra records. For a little while, it was the only one I had. I would frequently come home late from punk rock shows, feeling perhaps a bit tipsy, and want some music to listen to that wasn't loud while I made a grilled cheese sandwich or something. So I would often give this record a play. Because this was a common occurrence, and this record had no other Sinatra competition for a time, this is probably the Sinatra record I've played most.

I've got lots of other ones now of course, but this is still one my favorites. This record is the perfect mix of classic Sinatra swing, "The Lady is Tramp" and "Blue Moon" being probably the best known songs on the record, and the more wistful and sentimental Sinatra tunes that always get me. Songs like "Spring is Here," "It Never Entered My Mind," "Glad to Be Unhappy," and "It's Easy to Remember," are perfect for late nights or Sunday mornings when you're feeling a little sad and you want to accept it with some dignity. They aren't songs for being desperate or depressed, they're songs for being sad in the mature way of someone who knows that life has it's ups and downs and sometimes when you're in one of the down periods you've just to accept that it hurts. Frank has a lot of tunes like that, but this record is nice because it mixes them up with some more upbeat numbers as well.You get the ups with the downs.

The funny thing about my love for this record is, a lot of these tunes are from musicals. I mostly hate musicals, and I mostly don't like the music from them. I've always found them unforgivably corny and annoying, which is saying something because I like a lot of corny (and some would say, annoying) stuff. But, you just can't deny that Rogers and Hart wrote some good tunes, and when they're sung by the master vocalist that was Frank Sinatra, they sound good to my ear.

Check out "Spring is Here," one of my favorites from this record.

Total songs listened: 610

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Bikini Kill: Bikini Kill

Review # 48
Artist: Bikini Kill
Title: Bikini Kill
Format: 12" EP
Label: Kill Rock Stars
Year: 1992
Songs: 6

The self-titled debut of riot girl pioneers Bikini Kill is nothing less than amazing. For those not in the know, Bikini Kill was one of the first bands to set sail under the banner of the riot girl movement, a new kind of punk rock of, by, and largely for women. The band's uncompromising feminist stances earned them the undying devotion of thousands of young women in the 1990s (and on) and the scorn and disdain of many who found their message and music too abrasive, confusing, or threatening to their worldviews. Bikini Kill was started as a zine in Olympia, Washington by singer Kathleen Hanna (who would later go on to form the now famous feminist dance-rock band Le Tigre), Kathi Wilcox (bass) and Tobi Vail (drums). The zine project would, in short order, become a band with the addition of Billy Karen (guitar).

This record is the band's opening salvo, a manifesto put to catchy yet abrasive punk rock. From the opening of the record, "Double Dare Ya," when Kathleen shouts: "we're Bikini Kill, and we want revolution, girl-style, now," the passionate defiance of this record is evident. The songs herein deal primarily with women's rights ("rights, rights rights? You have them you know") but also connect society's treatment of women with other inequalities, like racism and the abuse of animals. It's hard to say what the standout songs on this record are because they're all brilliant. From the melodic "Carnival" to the fierce anger of "Suck My Left One," this record is a volley of righteous anger, backed up by energetic punk rock that confidently walks the line between hardcore and more melodic sounds. The most unusual song on the record is undoubtedly "Thurston (hearts) the Who," a live track in which the band plays repetitious progression while one member reads what sounds like a negative review of one of their concerts and another sings about pettiness in the music scene. The whole thing ends with a cacophony of screams. It's not easy to listen to, but the concept is cool and inventive, and fits well with the defiant attitude that characterizes the whole record.

Most of the other songs on the record were recorded by Fugazi and Minor Threat's Ian Mackaye, which only serves to make this record cooler. The importance of the Bikini Kill self-titled debut would be hard to exaggerate. It was a rallying cry for women (and their allies) who were sick of sexism in the music scene and the world in general, and it was a manifesto for an important musical movement, of which Bikini Kill would quickly become the best recognized participants.

It's just awesome. Check out "Double Dare Ya" to hear how it all began.

Total songs listened: 598

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Jello Biafra with NoMeansNo: The Sky is Falling and I Want My Mommy

Review # 47
Artist: Jello Biafra with NoMeansNo
Title:The Sky is Falling and I Want My Mommy
Format: LP
Label: Alternative Tentacles
Year: 1991
Songs: 8

Former Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra has been involved in several projects since the disintegration of the punk pioneers that were the DKs. Some of these have been collaborations with other bands (e.g. Mojo Nixon), and of all of those, this is probably my favorite. It's probably in part because NoMeansNo was the first real punk rock band I ever saw, and as such, hold a special place in my heart. I'll go into that more when I review some NoMeansNo records, but suffice as to say, I'm biased in favor of this particular release.

Personal biases aside, there are a lot aspects of this record that make it an outstanding collaboration. To begin with, Jello is in top form. If you like his vocals and lyrics, there's nothing not to like here.  He manages, as he often does, to write songs which are both topical and durable. They often deal with specific events taking place at the time they were written (for example, the use of plutonium on space shuttles, one of the first issues to catch my attention as a budding young activist in high school) but also contain insightful and often sarcastic lines that are, sadly, just as relevant today as they were 20 years ago. My personal favorite from this record: "your lack of curiosity is the key to our success," a line which could characterize the thinking of most politicians and corporate executives today. As always Jello is snarky, political, sarcastic, and frantic, all delivered in his trademark high-pitched lisp. "Our whole economy is based on fear and death!" he shouts in "Sharks in the Gene Pool. "How long can this go on? And we live here!" Topics on this record range from consumerism, media critiques, the military industrial complex, to the war on drugs. Jello pulls out all the stops.

NoMeansNo is in good form here as well. If you aren't familiar with this long-running Canadian punk band, they play some of the most interesting and innovative hardcore music ever recorded. From the intense chunky rhythms of the title track, to the insane riffage of "Ride the Plume" and "Chew," to the frantic, almost "Flight of the Bumblebee" like guitar lines on "Sharks in the Gene Pool," there is not a bad song on this record. "Bruce's Diary" is among the most interesting tracks, with a catchy tune and a horn section providing an almost loungey feel at times. The album concludes with "The Myth is Real -- Let's Eat," which is perhaps the most Dead Kennedy-esque song on the record, but still holds firm to NoMeansNo's own style. It's just great.

This record is an absolute must for any fan of either the Dead Kennedys or NoMeansNo. My only complaint is that there is no booklet or poster with lyrics on it, but I got this second-hand, so it may just be that the previous owner misplaced it. Maybe it's just because I'm so happy to be reviewing punk rock again after so many other kinds of records, but this record is just fantastic.

Total songs listened: 592

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Beverly Hills Cop: Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack

Review # 46
Artist: Various
Title: Beverly Hills Cop -- Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack
Format: LP
Label: MCA Records
Year: 1984
Songs: 10

I have never seen any of the Beverly Hills Cop movies, and don't feel any compelling need to. I bought this record at a thrift store some years ago for one reason only--as a kid, I loved the Harold Faltermeyer song "Axel F," which you might know as just the theme from Beverly Hills Cop, or you may have seen used in recent computer-animated music video, currently popular on YouTube, "performed" by "Crazy Frog." I can't really make sense of that, and will let you find that yourself if you want to see it because I find it sort of irritating and don't want to link to it. Whatever.

Axel F is a piece of super cheesy dramatic 1980s synth pop that used to come on the radio in the car when I was little, and I'd look out the window and imagine I was on my way to do something really cool and dramatic. Maybe I was on the way to... fight the Joker... or... I don't know, really. It just made me feel bad-ass to listen to this song and the look out the window of the car (especially at night, on long road trips) when I was six years old or so and imagine that there was adventure waiting for me at my destination. As a result, when I saw this record in a 25 cent bin, the I decided to pick it up. Can't say I play it much but the beginning of "Axel F," the last song on this LP, still resonates something deep inside my being that make me feel happy.

So that's why I own this record.  What about the rest of it? Well, if you aren't familiar with this soundtrack, it's mostly some pretty silly 1980s pop music, much of it synthesizer driven. But it's not really the kind I like.  If you pick this record up, which is very easy to do in thrift stores across America, you get such hits as "New Attitude" by Patti LaBelle, "The Heat is On," by Glenn Frey of the Eagles, and "BHC (I Can't Stop)" by Rick James, to name a few of the better known tunes and artists found on this record. This isn't the weird nerdy new-wavey '80s pop that resonates with me. It's more dancey and mainstream. I think it's safe to say that for the most part, the only song I ever play on this record is "Axel F."

That said, upon listening to this record for the blog, I did find myself enjoying the song "Gratitude" by Danny Elfman. Elfman is perhaps best known for writing the theme song for The Simpsons as well as music for Tim Burton's Batman and The Nightmare Before Christmas. In addition to scoring movies though, Elfman was also a member of the new wave band Oingo Boingo, and also produced some solo material that was somewhat in that vein. "Gratitude" is a fun synthy pop song that falls more into the weird, more creative kind of silly 1980s stuff that I enjoy. At moments, the songs reminds me a little bit of certain eras of David Bowie's work, and definitely stands out from the rest of this record as far as I'm concerned.

Coming up next, a return to punk rock records, with one of the greatest punk rock team-up albums ever recorded.

Total songs listened: 584

Monday, October 3, 2011

Chuck Berry: Chuck Berry's Golden Hits

Review # 45
Artist: Chuck Berry
Title: Chuck Berry's Golden Hits
Format: LP
Label: Mercury
Year: 1967
Songs: 11

If you like rock music at all, it's hard to imagine not liking Chuck Berry or the songs on this record. This is a collection of classic Chuck Berry tunes, like "Memphis," "Maybellene," and of course, "Rock and Roll Music" and "Johnny B. Goode." These are classic songs by a man who deserves substantial credit as one of the creators of rock music. The fast pace, backbeat, and relentless guitar of Chuck Berry's best songs are the heart of rock and roll. It's hard to know what popular music would have become without Berry's music. There almost certainly never would never have been anything called punk rock.

All of that said (and I didn't realize this when I bought it), this record doesn't feature the original 1950s versions of these classic songs. In fact, the only song featured here in it's original version is new song Berry recorded for the record called "Club Nitty Gritty." Not coincidentally, this is the only song from this record I'd never heard before. All of these songs were re-recorded for Mercury Records in 1967 specifically for this release. The original stand-up bass has been replaced by an electric one, and they've also added some tambourine. What's missing is some of the energy. Don't get me wrong, these are still some peppy songs, and I wouldn't call the recordings bad by any means, but some of the magic that makes Berry's music so enduring is missing from these versions. I wouldn't quite say they feel forced, but I could imagine it being very hard to have the same enthusiasm for recording a song ten years or more after the original recording sessions, and I think the lower enthusiasm levels show here. The new bass lines are also more complex and a little higher in the mix, and sometimes distract from the songs.

If I'd known these weren't the original versions of this, I might not have bought this record. It's not that it's bad, but I would have rather spent the money on the originals.

I misspoke in the last review: I actually have one more record that was pushed to the back that I'll need to review before we cross back into punk rock territory after several weeks away.

Total songs listened: 574

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Melachrino Strings and Orchestra: The Ballads of Irving Berlin

Review #44
Artist: The Melachrino Strings and Orchestra
Title: The Ballads of Irving Berlin
Format: LP
Label: RCA Victor
Year: 1964
Songs: 12

Filed under "B" for Berlin (because I will never be looking for "Melachrino Strings" when I'm looking for something to listen to), this is yet another of the free records from my dad. This one I kept because I like Irving Berlin songs, even though I had no idea what the Melachrino Strings and Orchestra versions would sound like.

Turns out the answer is "sort of boring." It's all instrumental and, not surprisingly, mostly strings (although the somewhat strange cover featuring a woman in the woods surrounded mostly by wind instruments might suggest otherwise). This reminds me of a sort of nondescript score to a late 1950s or early 1960s film. Maybe something with Audrey Hepburn in it. It has that sort of feel to it. I guess it's something you might play at a certain type of cocktail party or something. Don't get me wrong, the tunes are still good (standouts are the medley featuring "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" and "Cheek to Cheek"), but these are just not the most compelling versions.

One thing that is pretty entertaining is the plug for "dyanagroove" records on the back of the cover, in which it is explained why dynagroove records are superior to other varieties: "highly ingenious computers--'electronic brains'--have been introduced to audio for the first time. These remarkable new electronic devices and processes grew out of an intense research program which produced notable advances in virtually every step of the recording science."

I'm sure they did. The "electronic brains" of 1964 were very sophisticated indeed, as was, I'm sure, the blurb writer's understanding of the music recording process.

Ok, just one more record before I review some punk rock again!

Total songs listened: 563

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pat Benatar: In the Heat of the Night

Review # 43
Artist: Pat Benatar
Title: In the Heat of the Night
Format: LP
Label: Chrysalis
Year: 1979
Songs: 10

I'm back for more Pat Benatar, with her album preceding the one I wrote about in review #42. I wouldn't describe this as greatly different from the follow-up, although I do think "Heartbreaker" is a better tune than "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," so as far as the radio hit goes, this record has one up on Crimes of Passion. Otherwise, this is more cheesey, over the top songs about love and lust, as well as some cliches about how gritty urban life can be that are the lyrical equivalent of the smokey pool hall featured in so many music videos in the 1980s.

All of that said, I actually like  this record a little better than Crimes of Passion, the reason for this being that it's actually a little MORE over-the-top and cheesey. If I'm going to listen to over-produced hard rock from the late 70s and and early 80s, I want as much silliness and false bravado as possible, because that what makes this music fun to listen to from time to time. There's definitely a bit more of this going on here than on the follow-up. From the "I've got a bad attitude" feel of "No You Don't," the swagger of "Heartbreaker," the soaring emotionality of the power ballad "Don't Let It Show," and the sex-symbol posturing of "Rated X," this album is about drama, bravado, and cheese from beginning to end. It's got less thematic complexity than high school poetry but it's a lot more fun to listen to.

I would also be remiss here not to mention the ridiculous outfit that Benatar wears on the album cover, best appreciated on the back of the sleeve, where she is positioned "seductively" with one foot up on a radiator heater in a pose that looks nearly as uncomfortable as it does unnatural. The halter-top and puffy pants combo (or is it overalls?) is really a piece of work. With the heavy eye-liner, she sort of vaguely resembles a goth version Jasmine from Disney's Aladdin. Don't you mess around with her.

In short, this is some good cheese if you're in the mood for that. It is innovative one way--this record nailed 80s cheese in 1979. Perhaps it was influential in this respect, as the cliches found herein were repeated frequently in the decade that followed.

Total songs listened: 551

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pat Benatar: Crimes of Passion

Review # 42
Artist: Pat Benatar
Title: Crimes of Passion
Format: LP
Label: Chrysalis
Year: 1980
Songs: 10

Another free record I've never listened to all the way through before today, Pat Benatar's Crimes of Passion is mostly the kind of fun '80s hard rock cheese that I enjoy for a couple of songs and then wish something else would come on. This came to my collection via a friend's uncle. I think he must have lived in Japan for a time, because this, like several of the other records I ended up with when my old housemate moved out, is the Japanese version.  It only differs in that there's a band of paper around the jacket with Japanese characters on it, so it's not really all that special or different, but sort of interesting I suppose.

The record is made up mostly of songs of love and lust, with Benatar's powerful voice dramatically singing some fairly ill conceived lyrics (e.g. "You're a real tough cookie with a bad history, of breaking little hearts like the one in me..." is that reall the best rhyme they could come up with?) over a competent metal-ish band. The one thematic exception to this is "Hell is for Children," a song about child abuse which was apparently somewhat controversial in its time. While not the best written song, the delivery of it feels a little more heartfelt than some of the other material, and it is interesting as the one topical song on a record otherwise known for chart hits like "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" and "Treat Me Right."

I don't really have a lot to say about this record, because I don't feel that strongly about it one way or the other. While the musicianship is competent, nothing really stands out as excellent or particularly innovative, but I don't hate it either.  It's mostly just kind of silly and might be fun to play (at least part of) at a party some time.

Here's "Hell is For Children," if you haven't heard it and want to check out the one somewhat serious song on the record.

Total songs listened: 541

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Jeff Beck: Truth

Review # 41
Artist: Jeff Beck
Title: Truth
Format: LP
Label: Epic
Year: 1968
Songs: 10

Jeff Beck's Truth is a record I got free in a big pile of LPs from my dad. I decided to keep this because I had heard the artist's name around for years and didn't really know what he was about. I didn't get around to listening to it today.

Jeff Beck, if you don't already know, was a member of the Yardbirds, and this record sounds a fair amount like some of the Yardbirds output, including a cover of "Shapes of Things," a Yardbirds song from which, I would have to conclude, the melody for Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" chorus was more of less ripped off  completely. But that's neither here nor there.

This LP features ten songs that can mostly be characterized as that late 1960s heavy blues that would provide the foundation for heavy metal rock. Along with the Yardbirds, I would compare this to some Led Zeppelin I've heard, but without so much of the screechy singing (vocals here being provided by Rod Stewart, who I must begrudgingly admit doesn't really sound too bad on this record). Jeff Beck's guitar is the centerpiece of this collection of songs, made up of both original songs and much older numbers such as "Old Man River" and even "Greensleeves." And there's no doubt that Beck is a phenomenal guitarists. I think he'd hold up fine in a three-way battle between himself, Hendrix, and Jimmy Page. The proficiency evident on this records is unquestionable if you know anything about guitar playing.

That said, this record doesn't do anything deep for me. I love classic blues, but this kind of heavy proto-metal blues has just never been something I've been able to get into. It kind of makes me feel tired. Truth avoids many of the pitfalls of music like this that I often criticize--it doesn't have the obnoxious screeching vocals of a Led Zeppelin album, and there doesn't seem to be too much of what I would describe as guitar wankery that seems to exist only for the self gratification of the guitarist (perhaps a little, though). So it doesn't irritate me like some bands from the genre often do. But it doesn't resonate with me either. At the end of the day, I guess this is just a subjective aesthetic preference, because there's nothing wrong with this record at all if you like music that sounds like this. I would go so far as to say it is one of the better ones I've heard, in the genre. But try as I might, I don't really like it very much.

Total songs listened: 531

Monday, September 19, 2011

New Record! Count Basie: The Best of Count Basie

Review # 40
Artist: Count Basie and his orchestra
Title: The Best of Count Basie
Format: LP (X2)
Label: Decca
Year: ?
Songs: 24

Hello readers! I'm back from my honeymoon and back to reviewing records! Today I'm listening to a record I bought shortly before I left but didn't get a chance to listen to until today, Decca's double LP best of collection for Count Basie. I picked this up on the advice of my buddy Colin, who seldom steers me wrong on anything. This was no exception. While a number of the tracks on this overlap with the previously reviewed French Count Basie LP (See review # 27), this was still a good purchase at $3.

For one thing, unlike the French best of collection I reviewed previously, this record has extensive liner notes I can actually read, written by Stanley Dance. The cover of this LP is gatefold, and within are several pictures of Basie and his band as well as several pages detailing how the group formed and their rise from a locally successful band in Kansas City to a jazz phenomenon in Chicago. There's also some discussion of Basie's style of arranging tunes. Basie, according to the writer, was the master of stripping down songs to their basic elements and riffing on these simplified versions. Thus, even when he played other people's songs, they became his own as he took the bits that he liked, stripped them down, and built up from there, not unlike the folk tradition of borrowing melodic or lyrical lines from other songs and making them one's own. My knowledge of jazz isn't deep enough that I could have come to this conclusion on my own, but after reading this and listening to the record, I can really hear it. Basie's version of "Honeysuckle Rose," for instance, is recognizable as a version of that song, but has little in common in with other versions I've heard, leaving out some of the most recognizable bits of the song, and transforming the others into something  that, while not entirely different, feels like a Basie composition. The liner notes also include a chronology of the band's personnel.

The music here is also fantastic. The record includes hits like "One O'Clock Jump" and "Swinging The Blues" that make me wish I could play jazz. These tunes are mostly instrumental, but Jimmy Rushing contributes his bellowing, bluesy vocal to a handful of the songs, and Helen Humes also appears on "Blame it on My Last Affair," adding an Ella Fitzgerald-esqe vocal.These two LPs are filled with foot-tapping swing jazz numbers that are full of energy and are just plain cool. The timing is perfect, the band all clearly consummate professionals, yet at the same time they manage to sound like they're just out there having the time of their lives. I could listen to this collection of songs all day long. If you're getting into jazz and don't have any Count Basie in your collection, I think this double LP would be hard to beat.

Here's "Honeysuckle Rose." See if you can hear what Dance is talking about with regard to Basie's arrangements.

Total songs listened: 521

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Review: 39
Artist: The Beatles
Title: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Format: LP
Label: Capitol Records
Year: 1967
Songs: 12

What can I say about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band that hasn't been said 50 times already? This record is regarded as one of the best rock albums of all time. It's complex, inventive, and full of memorable songs. It is arguably one of the first concept albums (although the extent to which it actually is a concept album is debated to this day). There are dozens of rumors surrounding it, some involving the conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney had died, others surrounding the Beatles' supposed intention to change their name to Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. More capable writers than I have tread all of this ground numerous times, so I will not.

Likewise, I'm sure that most (or all) potential readers of this blog have heard this record many times (who hasn't?) so there's no need for me to describe the songs themselves in detail. Again, there's nothing for me to say that the interested reader doesn't already know or couldn't find in one of the many books and documentaries about the Beatles. So, I will not do this either.

Instead, I'd like to share some thoughts about how this record came into my life and the importance it has held for me over the last 15 years.

When I was a teenager, as I've written already (see my review of Hey Jude), the Beatles were the band that made me want to listen to rock music. At first though, I really preferred their early stuff. My musical pallet was not very sophisticated yet, and the catchy pop-rock of the first five or so Beatles records made more sense to me than the complex and unusual sounds found on the later records I had heard, like Revolver and Abbey Road. Then in the summer of 1996 I was going to garage sales with my dad in Spokane, Washington, and came across a Sgt. Pepper LP in a $1 box. I had never heard this record yet up to this point in my life. I didn't even have a record player at the time, but my parents' friends did, so that evening I recorded it on to one side of a cassette tape. The sounds I heard on this LP as I lay next to the speakers on the floor of their basement blew me away. I had never heard anything like it. I was captivated. I lay giving it my full attention until it was over, then played it again. It was perfect pop, but mixed with some of the strangest sounds I had ever heard. It was only a few days later that I got Magical Mystery Tour on cd from the library. I recorded this on the other side of the cassette and for several weeks, it didn't leave my tape player. I just turned the tape over and over, soaking in these two records. They became deeply embedded in my musical psyche and also became the standard by which, for some years, all other music was judged, and none could live up to.

After I heard this record, I was forever converted to a fan of the later Beatles records, and started trying to find other things that sounded like Sgt. Pepper. It was not long after this that I figured out Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel. These new sounds expanded my mental horizons and changed my worldview. It was a dollar well spent. I still own that same copy of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I still hear new sounds each time I play it.

That wraps up the Beatles LPs. The rest of their catalogue I have on cds and a couple of 7 inches, so next time we'll be moving on to different musical terrain as I cross the 500 song line. But it will probably be a couple of weeks before I have time to post again. Starting in late September, look for a return to several posts a week.

Until then, I'll sign off with this clip from the Yellow Submarine film in which the Beatles win the day and defeat the Blue Meanies by singing "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

Total songs listened: 497

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Beatles: Rare Beatles

Review # 38
Artist: The Beatles
Title: Rare Beatles
Format: LP
Label: Phoenix Records
Songs: 10

Never heard of this record? Neither had I until a few months ago when I was perusing the clearance bins at Jive Time Records. This is one of several available bootlegs of the Beatles from the days when they were an unsigned band from Liverpool that traveled to Hamburg to play the seedy clubs along the Reeperbahn in hopes of making a little money. Specifically, this was recorded at live show during the Beatles' second stint in Germany. Having shed their original bass player, Stuart Sutcliffe, on their first trip to Hamburg, the band's lineup in 1961 (or 1962? I'm finding conflicting information about this) when this recording was made was John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and drummer Pete Best.

But not on the night this record was recorded.

According to the sleeve, on the night Ted Taylor decided to bring his tape recorder to a Beatles show, Pete Best was out for the night. Sitting in for him was the drummer for band called Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. His name was Richard Starkey, or as the world would come to know him, Ringo Starr. This recording, then, is of the first performance of what would become the most famous band ever.

So, you may be thinking (especially if you aren't a hardcore Beatles fan), "that's cool I guess, but how is the music?" Well, it's a live recording of very early Beatles material. It has all the strengths and weaknesses of such recordings you may have heard before--the energy is great, the performance is spot on, the recording quality leaves something to be desired. However, compared to other non-professional live recordings of the Beatles I've heard before, this one is at least as good and maybe slightly better in terms of recording quality. Later, in the cd section, I'll be reviewing the more widely known 1962 Live At the Star Club disc, and while it's been a little while since I've listened to that, I'm pretty sure Rare Beatles sounds a little better. The production is a little rough, but you could do worse.

What's cool about this disc though, aside from the historical value, is that some of the songs on here are tunes I've never heard the Beatles perform on any other release. The record includes Fats Waller's novelty tune "Your Feets Too Big" and Tommy Roe's "Sheila," as well as better known tunes that would remain in the Beatles' repertoire, such as "'Till There Was You," which would appear on the bands second LP a few years later.

There's also some fun banter between band members, and occasionally the sounds of an enthusiastic crowd, both of which make it easier to imagine that you are there watching the Beatles play this historic show.

If your a big fan of the Beatles, and you can find this record, I recommend it. The first show with Ringo is pretty cool to have on record. For casual fans, this probably isn't worth the time and cost of seeking out.
Total songs listened: 485

Thursday, August 25, 2011

New Record! Arctic Flowers: Reveries

Review # 37
Artist: Arctic Flowers
Title: Reveries
Format: LP
Label: Inimical Records
Year: 2011
Songs: 8

After a long hiatus, 30,000 Songs is back in action! Life has kept me too busy to review (or even listen to many) records in the last few weeks.  But now, I have a short window before, well, before that happens again for a while, actually. But for more fun reasons. Anyway, those who have been with the blog since its inception might recall that in the original outline for the project, I said that if I acquired a new record that fit in somewhere I'd already passed, I'd review it upon acquisition. I actually bought this a few weeks ago, but again, no time.

But now, without further ado, the new LP by Portland's Arctic Flowers. I first saw Arctic Flowers opening for the Subhumans (I think? Might have been Citizen Fish? I can't really remember) last year, and I was frankly blown away. Arctic Flowers play anarcho-punk, not crust. Female vocals that mostly sing and occasionally shout, but never really scream, compliment dark, melodic guitar lines and a warm, undistorted bass. The drummer makes full use of his toms and in doing so fills out the sound nicely.

The band are clearly influenced by the British anarcho-punk of the 1980s, but are much more in the tradition of Lack of Knowledge, Zounds, Omega Tribe, Rubella Ballet (who's song "Arctic Flowers" is presumably the source of the band's name) or the other bands from that scene that developed their musicianship by incorporating post-punk influences than the likes of Crass or Conflict. There definitely sounds like there's some post-punk influences here, and occasionally even some moments that are reminiscent of emo back when that genre still had something to offer. The guitar, for example, reminds me in places of old Sunny Day Real Estate. At other times I'm also reminded of the quieter moments on the third WitchHunt LP. This is definitely punk rock, but it demonstrates a wider array of influences than the average punk band and probably has something to offer even those who aren't big punk fans (though probably not for those who dislike punk). It's powerful, but not as assaultive as a lot of the music from the genre and there's some really competent and innovative musicianship going on here.

The lyrics here are a blend of personal and political, delivered in a manner that's compelling, haunting, and passionate by a woman who knows how to use her voice in more than one way. The production is warm yet crisp, with a few effects used on the vocals that add to the haunting, post-punky feel of the record. It's hard to pick out highlights because the whole record is so good, but I guess I'd point to the title track, the opening track ("Double Edged") and "Cri de Coeur" (which apparently means "an impassioned outcry") as my favorites. This may well be my favorite record of 2011. If you like any punk rock at all, you should check this band out.

The record is new enough that I can' really find any tracks from it online. It's not hard to find some of their earlier stuff from their first demo if you want to, which would give you sort of an idea of what to expect, but those tracks are less polished and mature efforts, and, not being from this record, I won't post them here. It's not on iTunes either, so you'll have to track this down on your own, or better yet, go see the band live. Just like in the old days.

Total songs reviewed: 475

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour

Review #36
Artist: The Beatles
Title: Magical Mystery Tour
Format: LP
Label: Capitol Records
Year: 1967
Songs: 11

The Magical Mystery Tour LP is the only American Beatles release that has become the canonical version. This record, if you aren't familiar, features the music from their very unusual film of the same title, as well as a number of tracks previously released as singles. The British version of this was actually a double ep that only featured the songs from the film and excluded the singles. With every other Beatles record, when the cd versions came out, they were all the original British versions. But not Magical Mystery Tour.

Perhaps that's because this is such an excellent collection of songs. In fact, for a long time, this was my favorite Beatles record. From the infectious pop of the title track, to the strange abrasiveness of "I Am the Walrus," to basically all of the singles that make up side B, this record is both fun and interesting from beginning to end.  As a teenager, I declared Harrison's "Blue Jay Way" to be one of the Beatles' only bad songs.  But I've since warmed to it.

The absolute highlight of this record, in my view, are two songs on side B that were originally released as a single together, "Penny Lane," and "Strawberry Fields Forever." In my last post, I described the "Hey Jude/Revolution" single as the pinnacle of the Beatles' catalogue. If that is so, then this single is a close second. These songs, both about actual places from the band's history, are classics that really showcase Lennon and McCartney's differing but complimentary styles. "Penny Lane" is a pure McCartney pop gem. Catchy and fun, but also well crafted and innovative in its own way, "Penny Lane" is one of McCartney's best compositions. "Strawberry Fields Forever," by contrast, is clearly Lennon's work--slightly dark in its sound, with lyrics at once absurd and profound, and unusual instrumentation and production to give the song a surreal and slightly spooky quality. Both are fantastic in their own way and for some reason feel as if they were always destined to be paired, in spite of the their differing sounds.

"Strawberry Fields Forever" is also a crucial piece Paul is dead conspiracy lore. Near the end of the song, a muffled John Lennon can be heard saying "Cranberry Sauce." This was misheard as "I buried Paul" and taken to be yet another piece of evidence that McCartney had died and been replaced by a look alike.  But don't get me started on that.

The LP version of this record is especially worth having for Beatles enthusiasts and collectors because inside it's gatefold cover it includes an illustrated storybook of the film, complete with very 1960s artwork, and also some photographic stills from the movie. Good fun.

In short, Magical Mystery Tour is a great record. The movie is not for just anyone--it's pretty weird and also dull at times (I like it anyway) but the record is essential.

Here's the title track, with video as it appeared in the film.

Total songs listened: 467

Friday, July 22, 2011

Frank Friday! Frank Sinatra: Come Dance With Me

Review #35
Artist: Frank Sinatra
Title: Come Dance With Me
Format: LP
Label: Capitol Records
Songs: 12

For pure fun Sinatra tunes, it's hard to beat Come Dance With Me. This is one of my favorite records to put on when I have people over for dinner. It's upbeat swinging Frank Sinatra in top form. There's not a bad performance on this record (although I'm not terribly fond of "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" as a piece of music), and while I personally am a fan of Frank's more melancholy numbers, this is a great record for entertaining guests because it stays up-tempo all the way through, slowing down only for it's closing tune, "The Last Dance."

The most interesting thing about this record is that it's a bit of a concept album. Most of the songs on the record are about (or at least mention) dancing. In addition to the title track and "The Last Dance" it features, among others, swinging renditions of "Dancing in the Dark," "I Could Have Danced All Night," and of course, "Cheek to Cheek." It's kind of a cool idea and somewhat ahead of it's time to connect the songs on the record thematically like this.

Sinatra's performance is spot on on this record. The man was in many ways in his prime when this recorded, and the vocals have that uniquely Frank-Sinatra-cool attitude that characterizes the best of his swing material. Backing him up are trumpeter Billy May and his orchestra, who collaborated with Sinatra on several other records, some which will appear later on this blog.  May and his band play good, solid swing, which should come as no surprise given that Billy May was part of Glenn Miller's band for a while and also worked with, among others, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole. Interestingly, along with other film and television work, Billy May also composed some of the music for the 1960s Batman television show.

This to me isn't Sinatra's most compelling record, but it's definitely one of his most fun.

Come dance with Frank Sinatra.

Total songs listened: 456

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Beatles: Introducing the Beatles

Review # 34
Artist: The Beatles
Title: Introducing the Beatles
Format: LP
Label: Vee-Jay
Year: 1964
Songs: 12

I don't have too much to say about this one because, in some sense, I've already reviewed it. Like The Early Beatles, this is a U.S. release of the songs that appeared on the Beatles' first UK LP, Please Please Me. Released on Vee-Jay records in 1964, this record was the first release of Beatles material in the United States, preceding Meet the Beatles (the U.S. equivalent of the band's sophomore effort With the Beatles) by a few weeks. Capitol Records had initially been uninterested in releasing these songs, as the Beatles were still an unknown commodity in the U.S. a that time. Introducing the Beatles was available for a fairly short time because it soon became apparent to the folks at Capitol that they wanted these songs on their label after all. Thus, this is a highly sought after collector's item, especially if you can find a stereo version.

My copy is almost certainly a counterfeit.  This record was already a scarce and desirable commodity by the late 1960s, and bootleg versions of it were produced throughout the 60s and 70s. I did a little research on how you can tell the fakes and found 1) if it says it's stereo (mine does), it's probably a fake because so few stereo copies were made, 2) if you can't see George's shadow, it's probably a fake (you can't see it on mine, but the sleeve is so worn that it's hard to tell), and 3) if the title and the band name are on opposite sides of the spindle hole, it's probably fake (as is the case with mine). But, that's what you get for a  $1.29 at a thrift store. It's still cool to have a copy.

Interestingly, the Vee-Jay record featuring the songs from Please Please Me is actually more similar to the British release than is the Capitol version.  The songs on Introducing the Beatles are actually in the same order as on Please Please Me, however, like the Capitol release, tracks have been removed (in this case "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You"). Another oddity on this record is that the songwriting credits on the original songs all go to "McCartney-Lennon" rather than "Lennon-McCartney" as they would appear on every other Beatles' album.

Total songs listened: 444

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Alex Stenweiss Obituary

Hey everyone,

My friend Colin sent this to me and it seemed appropriate to post here, even though it's not a review.

The originator the album cover recently passed away.  The idea that a visual accompanies a collection of songs is taken for granted today, but once upon a time it was a revolutionary idea.

Check it out.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Beatles: Hey Jude

Review # 33
Artist: The Beatles
Title: Hey Jude
Format: LP
Label: Apple Records
Year: 1970
Songs: 10

In what must have been February or early March of 1996, I was shopping for a birthday present for my dad. He had recently bought a truck that had tape deck in it, which his previous vehicle hadn't had, so I decided to get him a tape to play on his drives to and from work. At the time, all I listened to really was novelty bands and didn't really know anything about music. So I went to the music section at our local big box store and started looking for something I thought he'd like. I ended up picking up a copy of the Beatles' Hey Jude album. But before I gave it to him, I opened it up and played it myself. Life would never be the same.

I made a copy of the cassette and played it incessantly for about a week, and then set out to grow my collection at first mostly by getting stuff from the library and copying it, but eventually by buying all the Beatles' cds. By the summer of that year, I had gone from listening to nothing but novelty bands to nothing but the Beatles, who in turn opened the door to the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkle, the Doors and other contemporaries. That same summer, I found my dad's old guitar in the garage and began the process of learning to play. I quit buying comic books and stared buying cds and musical equipment. By the fall of that year, I was making my first (failed) attempt at putting together a band. And it all started with Hey Jude.

Hey Jude is mostly a compilation of Beatles singles spanning from 1966 to the band's dissolution, plus two songs from the Hard Day's Night soundtrack.  This was not really a proper Beatles' album in the sense that the band never intended it to exist as a full length collection of songs, and I don't believe it was ever available in the UK. Today it's not available at all, although most of the songs from it can be found on Past Masters Volume 2, a more comprehensive collection of singles.  Interestingly, the sleeve for this record features photographs from the Beatles' last ever photo shoot together, which took place at John's house in August of 1969.

In spite of this record's lack of cannonicity, it is in any case an excellent collection, featuring some of my all time favorite songs, including the title track and "Revolution," two songs that appeared on the same single and which John and Paul are said to have butted heads over which was to be the A-Side.  John, apparently, considered "Revolution" to be one of the best songs he'd ever written (I can't disagree), and was none too keen on it taking the back seat to a song Paul had written for his ex-wife Cynthia and son Julian, who he was at that time leaving for Yoko Ono. Paul felt very passionate about "Hey Jude" (originally "Hey Jules") as well, and understandably so.  These two songs, in many ways to me, represent the absolute peak of the Beatles. To this day I vacillate as to which I prefer. They're both A-sides, as far as I'm concerned.

Other highlights include the fast (and in some ways downright punkish) "Paperback Writer," "Lady Madonna," and the passionate "Don't Let Me Down," although it's hard to even narrow it down because to me, every song on this record is fantastic.

Two amazing tracks:

Hey Jude & Revolution

Total songs listened: 432

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Beatles: The Early Beatles

Review # 32
Artist: The Beatles
Title: The Early Beatles
Format: LP
Label: Capitol Records
Year: 1965
Songs: 11

The Beatles' first album, Please Please Me, was a big hit in the UK in 1963. But it didn't come out in the US until 1964, and even then it came out on a small label and under a different name. It was not until 1965 that the Beatles' US label, Capitol Records (a holding of EMI, the label the band recorded on in the UK) would release these songs as The Early Beatles. Following a practice I mentioned in a previous review, three songs were left off the original British album album ("Misery," "There's A Place," and "I Saw Her Standing There"), allowing them to be released on other records or as singles. The 11 remaining songs were also re-ordered. So, while the songs here are the same as on Please Please Me, this is truly a different album.

Recorded in 1962, these songs capture the Beatles as they were in the early days of their career: a good little rock band with a few new ideas and a lot of talent, but still in a nascent stage. They knew how to harmonize and how to play rock 'n roll in style that was heavily influenced by their 1950s favorites like Buddy Holly. They had written a few catchy tunes. But they were not yet legends, by any means. They were just a good band made up of four young guys from Liverpool. In the early 1960s, it was still not common practice for bands to play mostly their own material, and as such, while there are a number of Lennon-McCartney tunes on this record, there are also several covers, such as "Boys," originally performed by the Shirelles and sung here by Ringo in one of the odder moments of record. It's catchy and fun, but both lyrically and musically clearly a song written for a girl group, and the decision to record it for their first album is an interesting one. Some of the lyrics are changed to suggest a heterosexual relationship ("my GIRL says when I kiss her lips...") but it still includes a chorus in which Ringo sings about boys over and over, which you couldn't really change without it being a different song. Perhaps foreshadowing the cultural boundary pushing the Beatles would do in the years to come, they are not held back from performing this song in spite of what might be perceived by some as a trangression gender norms (or, maybe I'm reading too much into this because I'm a grad student).

Probably the best known tunes on this record are the title track, "Please Please Me," and the Beatles' cover of "Twist and Shout," originally recorded by the Isley Brothers. These songs, more than the others on the record, point to the solidifying of the Beatles' early sound and would continue to be part of their live set for years to come.

An interesting note: everyone talks about how bad the CD versions of the Beatles records sound, leading to the albums all being remastered and reissued quite recently. Having grown up largely on the cds, I could never really hear the "bad" sound, because I had little basis for comparison. But I listened closely for it as I played the LP version of The Early Beatles and there is actually quite a difference. The harmonies and backing vocals in particular stand out much more clearly on the vinyl version and the sound is just richer (although that may be partially a feature of my record player, a big wooden console unit that makes everything sound better).

Everyone's heard most of these songs I think, but here's the Beatles' version of "Boys," in case you haven't.

Total songs listened: 422