June 30, 2012

Playlist Week of 6-30-12

Hotter 'n Hell

* J.S. Bach: Sonatas For Flute & Harpsichord (Beaucoudray/Christie) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Telemann: Suiten (English Concert/Pinnock) (Archiv Produktion CD)
* Holloway/ter Linden/Mortensen: Garrison Church, Copenhagen 4-08-08 (FM 2CDR)
* Stockhausen: Kontakte (Tenney/Winant) (Ecstatic Peace! CD)
* Stockhausen: Mantra (Mikashoff/Bevan/Ørsted) (New Albion CD)
* Pat Metheny Group: We Live Here (Geffen CD)
* Grateful Dead: Berkeley Community Theatre, Berkeley, CA 4-19-86 (SBD 2CDR)
* The Thirteenth Floor Elevators: The Psychedelic Sounds of… (International Artists/Charly CD)
* The Thirteenth Floor Elevators: Easter Everywhere (International Artists/Charly CD)
* The Band: Music From Big Pink (Capitol/Mobile Fidelity LP)
* Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Black Sabbath: Paranoid (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Deep Purple: Burn (Warner Bros. LP)
* Yes: Relayer (Atlantic/Rhino CD)
* Yes: Going For The One (Atlantic/Rhino CD)
* Camel: (Music Inspired By) The Snow Goose (Decca/EMI CD)
* David Bowie: The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (Bowie/EMI LP/DVD)
* Talking Heads: Remain In Light (Sire/Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Talk Talk: The Colour Of Spring (EMI LP/DVD)
* Talk Talk: Spirit Of Eden (EMI LP/DVD)
* Talk Talk: Laughing Stock (Polydor CD)†
* Tortoise: Tortoise (Thrill Jockey CD)†/‡
* Chris Forsyth: Kenzo Deluxe (Northern Spy FLAC)
* Opeth: Orchid (Candlelight CD)†/‡
* Katatonia: Last Fair Deal Gone Down (10th Anniversary Edition) (Peaceville CD/CDEP)†
* Katatonia: Viva Emptiness (Peaceville CD)†
* Katatonia: The Great Cold Distance (Peaceville CD)†
* Anathema: Weather Systems (The End CD)†
* Agalloch: The Mantle (The End CD)†/‡
* Agalloch: Ashes Against The Grain (The End CD)†
* Mastodon: Crack The Skye (Reprise 2-45RPM LP)
* Mastodon: The Hunter (Reprise 2-45RPM LP)
* Baroness: Red Album (Relapse CD)
* Baroness: Blue Record (Relapse CD)
* Earth: Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I (Southern Lord CD)
* Earth: Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light II (Southern Lord CD)
* Pelican: Australasia (Hydra Head 2-45RPM LP)
* Pelican: The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon The Thaw (Hydra Head CD)
* Pelican: What We All Come To Need (Southern Lord CD)(†)
* Pelican: Ataraxia/Taraxis (Southern Lord EP)
* White Hills: White Hills (Thrill Jockey CD)
* White Hills: H-p1 (Thrill Jocket CD)†
* White Hills: Frying On This Rock (Thrill Jockey LP)
* The Black Keys: Brothers (Nonesuch 2LP)
* Astra: The Weirding (Rise Above/Metal Blade CD)
* Astra: The Black Chord (Rise Above/Metal Blade CD)


It’s hotter ‘n hell here in Nashville—I think my brain has melted…

June 24, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: The Empty Foxhole Café, Philadelphia, PA 4-29-77 (AUD 2CDR)

Taking its name from the 1967 album by Ornette Coleman, The Empty Foxhole Café was a student-run venue at the University of Pennsylvania, located in the basement of St. Mary’s Church at 39th & Locust Streets, at the time a particularly run-down area of Philadelphia. It housed an actual theater with a large stage, nice acoustics and student volunteers would serve natural foods between sets—hey, it was the ‘Seventies! Weekends were mostly reserved for avant-garde artists such as Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp and The Art Ensemble of Chicago, who are all known to have performed there. The Arkestra made an appearance at The Empty Foxhole on April 29, 1977 and a two-hour audience recording circulates amongst collectors (see Campbell & Trent, p.234).

As usual with these things, sound quality is problematic, to say the least. Once again, Sun Ra’s searing electric organ dominates all the other instruments—but however good (or bad) the original (monophonic) tape might have sounded, what we have here is many cassette generations removed, with severe wow-and flutter issues and, most egregiously, a Dolby mismatch or two, resulting in elevated hiss and distortion that was clearly not present on the original recording. To make matters worse, this horribly degraded tape was then sloppily transferred to digital, evidenced by audible clicks and digital distortion present throughout, getting progressively worse and worse as it goes along. Ouch! That said, there is, as usual, some great (and not so great) music buried beneath all the noise—you just have to struggle to hear it.

The set opens with another “Strange Strings”-styled improvisation with kora, thumb-pianos, log drums and other myriad percussion instruments rattling away but it’s sadly impossible to make out exactly what’s going on. And it goes on for quite a while, moving through a variety of rhythmic feels while Vincent Chancey provides some lugubrious French horn and someone (probably Richard “Radu” Williams) (Id.) taking a rare bass solo. Just as the crowd becomes audibly restless, the horns split the sonic universe with a raucous space chord and one of the Space Ethnic Voices starts singing, “Make Way For the Sunshine.” But then June Tyson comes in with “(The World Is Waiting) For The Sunrise” and the two songs are sung at the same time in weird, polytonal counterpoint—very interesting! After Sonny’s big entrance, Danny Ray Thompson takes up the bari-sax riff for “Discipline 27” and it’s another hot rendition with an extended freakout section, Marshall Allen and Danny Davis duking it out on altos and Craig Harris going his own way on trombone. So far, so good.

Then Sonny moves to the Rocksichord for “How Am I To Know?” but his stomp-box phase-shifter is shorting out: it crackles, pops and cuts off and on of its own accord. The Arkestra carries on, though, with Rusty Morgan singing lead (Id.) and Gilmore taking a splendidly idiomatic solo that gets a nice round of applause. But Ra is clearly frustrated with the Rocksichord and abandons it altogether to join in the singing, only to let the song sort of peter out. Oh well. “Love In Outerspace” is the usual thing: a bit tedious at over fourteen minutes, but no doubt a delightful visual spectacle. The next thirty minutes are devoted to the big-band classics, “Lightnin’,” “Yeah Man!,” “Take The ‘A’-Train,” “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Red Room” and it’s an oddly uneven performance. John Gilmore displays his stunning virtuosity on the B-flat clarinet (a/k/a “The Misery Stick”) on “Yeah Man!” and delivers a typically rousing tenor saxophone solo on Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose”—yet he seems bored with “Take The ‘A’-Train” and unusually breathless on “Red Room.” We do get to hear the laconic Akh Tal Ebah take a rare trumpet solo on “Take The ‘A’-Train” while Ahmed Abdullah, is elsewhere his usual showy self. But by and large, this is not the Arkestra at its best: the ensembles are ragged and the band sounds unsure of the arrangements at times. It doesn’t help matters much that the sound quality is so terrible, no doubt clouding my opinion of the musicyour mileage may vary.

Moving on: Allen and Ra duet on an untitled ballad, possibly through-composed: similar in feel to “Taking a Chance on Chancey” and other French horn duets we’ve heard, Sonny is outlining definite harmonies while Allen freely extrapolates on alto saxophone—whatever it is, it’s just lovely. “King Porter Stomp” brings us back to the Swing Era and Gilmore sounds more inspired here, taking a small motivic figure introduced by Harris’s trombone solo and running with it. “The Mayan Temples” settles into a gentle, spacey groove with flutes on top and Ra taking a pleasantly ruminative electronic solo—but the recording is marred by numerous technical difficulties, including an inconvenient tape flip and a faulty microphone cable. And so it goes…”Outer Spaceways Incorporated” is resurrected and reimagined as a weirdly asymmetric, mid-tempo swinger with a complexly hocketed vocal arrangement and Sonny pontificating amidst an increasingly enervating din. Whoah! I’m not sure if we’ve heard this arrangement before (or if we’ll hear it again), but it is an unusually refreshing take on this sometimes overdone singalong.

Finally, we get “The Shadow World,” which is always welcome. And, as usual, it’s a barn-burner: fast and tight with frenzied horns and pummeling percussion. Ra takes one of his patented “mad scientist” organ solos where he sounds like he has three hands, summoning up an astonishing variety of otherworldly textures, from percussive, high-pitched tinkling to swooning portamentos to roaring whirlwinds of low-register noise—all at the same time. This is Ra at his most outrageous — yet he is firmly in control of every nuance possible from his crude electronic keyboards. A string of horn solos follows, both accompanied and a cappella, with James Jacson delivering another lengthy and impressive display instrumental facility on the difficult and unwieldy bassoon—but then Harris destroys the mood with an overly cute, bluesy pastiche on trombone. He manages to elicit some bemused chuckles from the audience but our recordist is clearly not impressed; running short on tape, he shuts off the machine until mid-way through Gilmore’s solo. Although Gilmore sounds great, the effect is ruined and—to add insult to injury—horrific digital distortion starts to creep in, completely overwhelming everything by the return of the head. Ugh. The tape mercifully ends there.

So, here we have another crummy “bootleg” with enough tidbits of interesting music to be worthwhile only to the most fanatical Sun Ra collector. One wishes the original master tape would resurface and be given a fresh transfer as it would sound a lot better than this inferior facsimile. Given what we currently have, most listeners will find the sound quality utterly repellent and should not even bother hunting it down — the rest of you know who you are.

June 23, 2012

Playlist Week of 6-23-12

Can - The Lost Tapes

* Corelli: Trio Sonatas (English Concert/Pinnock, et al.) (Archiv Produktion CD)
* Geminiani: Concerti Grossi (After Corelli, Op.5) (AAM/Manze) (d.1) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Geminiani: Cello Sonatas, Op.5 (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics CD)
* Venice Baroque Orchestra (Marcon/Carmignola): Concerto Veneziano (Archiv Produktion CD)
* Venice Baroque Orchestra (Marcon/Carmignola): Concerto Italiano (Archiv Produktion CD)
* Stravinsky: Piano Works (Sangiorgio) (Collins Classics CD)
* Sun Ra: Empty Foxhole Café, Philadelphia, PA 4-29-77 (AUD 2CDR)
* Sun Ra: Solo Piano, Volume 1 (Improvising Artists, Inc. CD)
* Sun Ra: St. Louis Blues: Solo Piano, Volume 2 (Improvising Artists, Inc. CD)
* Sun Ra: WKCR Studios, Philadelphia, PA 7-08-77 (FM CDR)
* Anthony Braxton Septet +1: GTM (Iridium) 2007 Vol.2 Set 1 (New Braxton House FLAC>CDR)
* Mary Halvorson Quintet: Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12 CD)
* Mary Halvorson Quintet: Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12 CD)
* Tomas Fujiwara & The Hook Up: The Air Is Different (482 Music CD)
* Earl Klugh: Finger Paintings (Blue Note/Mobile Fidelity LP)
* George Benson: Weekend In L.A. (Warner Bros. 2LP)
* Elixer: Hegalian Zone (ION CD)†/‡
* Sly & The Family Stone: There’s A Riot Going On (Epic/Sundazed LP
* Sly & The Family Stone: Fresh (Epic/Sundazed LP)
* Grateful Dead: Memorial Coliseum, Portland, OR 5-19-74 (selections) (SBD 3CDR)
* The Band: Music From Big Pink (Capitol/Mobile Fidelity LP)
* Deep Purple: Machine Head (Warner Bros. LP)
* Can: Ege Bamyasi (Spoon/Mute SACD)
* Can: Future Days (Spoon/Mute SACD)
* Can: The Lost Tapes 1968-1975 (Spoon/Mute 3CD)
* Can: Canobits (d.1-3) (SBD/boot 4CDR)
* My Bloody Valentine: EP’s 1988-1991 (d.1) (Sony 2CD)†/‡
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino 2LP)
* Akron/Family: Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free (Dead Oceans 2LP)
* Anathema: We’re Here Because We’re Here (KScope CD/DVD)†
* Anathema: Weather Systems (The End 2LP/CD)(†)
* Mike Scheidt: Stay Awake (Thrill Jockey LP)
* White Hills: H-p1 (Thrill Jockey CD)(†)
* White Hills: Frying On This Rock (Thrill Jockey LP)
* Pelican: What We All Come To Need (Southern Lord CD)(†/‡)
* Pelican: Ataraxia/Taraxis (Southern Lord EP)
* Astra: The Black Chord (Rise Above/Metal Blade CD)(†/‡)



The German band, Can, has always been one of those bands that more people have heard of than actually heard. Like the old bon mot about the Velvet Underground, not many people bought Can’s records at the time of their release but every one of them formed their own band. Their influence has been pervasive since the 1970s and can be heard in everything from Miles Davis’s On The Corner-era recordings to New Wave and punk rock bands like the Talking Heads, the Fall, Sonic Youth, et al.—not to mention the whole ambient/electronica scene and its offshoots. Then there are the so-called “post-rock” bands like Radiohead, Tortoise, Animal Collective and their ilk, who obviously spent a lot of time studying Can’s classic albums during their formative years. Can were “post-rock” long before anyone coined the term and those records sound as fresh today as they did back in the ‘70s—the problem has always been trying to find them. Poorly served during the nascent CD-era, it wasn’t until the definitive SACD remasters of 2004-2006 that their catalog has been widely available—and now, with the release of The Lost Tapes 1968-1975, a truly complete picture of the Can’s music and methodology can be discerned.

Founding members, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and bassist Holger Czukay, were former students of ultra-modernist composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and deeply immersed in the avant-garde classical world centered in Darmstadt, West Germany—but the burgeoning rock, funk and free-jazz scenes of the late-60s “corrupted” them; in a 2004 interview, Schmidt stated: 
I wanted to do something in which all contemporary music becomes one thing. Contemporary music in Europe especially, the new music was classical music, was Boulez, Stockhausen and all that. I studied all that, I studied Stockhausen but nobody talked about rock music like Sly Stone, James Brown or the Velvet Underground as being contemporary music. Then there was jazz and all these elements were our contemporary music, it was new. It was, in a way, much newer than the new classical music which claimed to be 'the new music’ (quoted (with broken link) on Wikipedia). 
With the addition of out-jazz drummer Jaki Liebezeit and Czukay’s 19-year-old student, Michael Karoli on guitar, the band (originally called Inner Space) enlisted their friend, Malcolm Mooney, as vocalist. Mooney  an African-American sculptor then living in Munich, immediately suggested changing their name to The Can (later shorted to just Can) and together they set about recording material for their first album.  Mooney was prolifically creative but mentally unstable—at times dangerously confrontational—and his paranoiac rantings defined their early, Velvet Underground-meets-James Brown aesthetic. But after experiencing a complete nervous breakdown in late-1969, Mooney returned to the United States at the advice of his psychiatrist and was replaced by Damo Suzuki, a Japanese musician Czukay and Liebezeit found busking outside a local café. It was with Suzuki that Can would refine their polyglot musical style and record their most highly revered albums, Tago Mago (1971), Ege Bamyasi (1972) and Future Days (1973). After Suzuki’s abrupt departure to marry his girlfriend (and become a Jehovah’s Witness), Can soldiered on as quartet with Karoli and Schmidt assuming vocal duties. Their subsequent albums were inconsistent but Can continued to be a formidable live band, even as Czukay started drifting away, gradually replaced by former Traffic band-members Rosko Gee and Rebop Kwaku Baah on bass and percussion. The band finally called it quits in 1979, only to reunite with Mooney and Czukay for a disco-infused album (Rite Time) and a few concerts in 1989. In the meantime, Can’s reputation as a genre-defining band has only continued to grow.

Eschewing conventional song structures, Can’s music was built up out of hours of improvisation and rudimentary overdubbing—amazingly, their classic albums were made without the benefit of modern multitrack technology, relying instead on a pair of humble 2-track stereo reel-to-reel machines and “bouncing” tracks into order to make room for additional overdubs. These recordings were then meticulously edited together (using a razor blade and splicing tape) to compile the finished song, a collage technique borrowed from Stockhausen’s electronic music and musique concrète. Propelled by Liebezeits’s powerfully motoric drumming, Can’s music could be both dreamily hypnotic and teeth-grindingly intense at the same time. Mooney tended to worriedly repeat a phrase to scarily absurd lengths while the more ethereal Suzuki would croon, shout or whisper, the mostly unintelligible, multilingual lyrics subsumed into the overall sound-world. In concert, the band pursued “spontaneous compositions,” long, spacey jams that would occasionally yield to familiar songs and riffs, only to erupt into bouts of ferociously skronky noise. But forget about verse-chorus-verse structures—this wildly experimental music is all about texture. No wonder the band never had any hit records! But they did find some financial success scoring soundtracks for film and television, a couple of which scraped the bottom of the charts in their native country.

Given their unorthodox working methods (and a penchant for recording every gig), many reels of tape were accumulated during the course of their career and much speculation about their contents has ensued over the years, fueled by a series of bootleg releases purportedly sourced directly from the Can archives. Aside from Unlimited Edition, a double-LP compilation of outtakes and rarities released in 1976 and Delay 1968, their posthumous, previously unreleased first album (originally titled, Prepared To Meet Thy Pnoom), not much has seen the light of day. In 1999, the super-limited edition Can Box was released, containing two DVDs, two live CDs and a book—but it is now way out of print and impossible to find. The DVDs, however, were reissued in 2004 (as The Can DVD) and is still available (and highly recommended). It seemed that was the end of it until 2007, when the contents of Can’s studio in Cologne were transferred to the Rock ‘n’ Pop Museum in Gronau—all except for the tapes, which were moved to the basement of Schmidt’s flat in Cologne. At the prompting of his son-in-law, producer Jono Podmore, the reluctant Schmidt was finally convinced to sort through it all. “This archive was a travesty of archival organization,” says Schmidt in his liner notes to The Lost Tapes: 
We always recorded everything. But in the early years we didn’t have money to buy so many new tapes, so we would often re-record over them, months and sometimes years later. We would keep the bits that we considered worth keeping and recorded over the rest. Thereby we ended up with lots of isolated fragments from different periods. Not easy to make sense of and find chronological connections within this mess. 
In February 2009, the tapes were taken to Sonopress in Gutersloh where they were cleaned, restored and transferred to the digital domain, a process that took over a year to complete, yielding about fifty hours of music. Of this, three CDs worth were edited and compiled, with deliberations between Schmidt and Podmore about the track list and running order continuing up until the final mastering in February 2012. Finally released on June 19, The Lost Tapes is a treasure trove of spectacular, previously unreleased Can music from the peak period of their career.

Packaged in a nifty ten-inch square container made to look like an old reel-to-reel tape box, The Lost Tapes boasts not only seven unheard studio tracks with Mooney (and eight with Suzuki), but a bunch of film soundtracks, some cool ambient instrumentals and five incendiary live recordings from 1972-75. Some of the material shows the genesis and development of such classic tracks as “Mother Sky,” “Vitamin C,” and “Spoon,” offering a fascinating glimpse into their working methods in the studio. Interestingly, some of these songs began as film soundtracks which were later reconfigured for later albums. Ultimately, The Lost Tapes will probably only appeal to the hardcore Can freak—but that shouldn’t stop the merely curious from picking it up. Sure, their seminal albums are essential; but unlike most archival releases, The Lost Tapes wouldn’t be a bad place to begin for a newbie—it’s just that good! 

TheSpectator once wrote about Can in 1973: “If you consider yourself in any sense involved with modern music, you cannot overlook them”—and that statement is a true today as it was back then. The Lost Tapes is a crucial document of one of rock music’s most visionary and influential bands and should not be missed. The sticker on the shrink wrap says, “limited edition”—I don’t know what that means exactly, but I’d recommend grabbing it before it disappears for good. Over three hours of primo Can plus a lavishly illustrated book all for less than thirty bucks—heck, you can hardly go wrong!

June 17, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Smuckers, New York, NY 4-17-77 (AUD CDR)

A month later, we find the Arkestra back in New York, appearing at Smuckers on April 17, 1977 and, at least compared to the Showboat Lounge tape, this amateur recording is a hi-fi sonic spectacular! Recorded in stereo (still something of a rarity at the time), it has a pleasing ambience and excellent instrumental balance, with the drums and cymbals coming through crisp and clear but without being overwhelming. But this tape has its share of problems: the recording levels go up and down; there is considerable distortion when things get loud; and, about halfway through, the surreptitious recordist panics and tries to hide the microphone, causing the sound quality to deteriorate significantly. Oh well; that’s just the way it is with “bootlegs” from this era.  Also unlike the more accommodating Showboat Lounge, the economics of Manhattan nightclubs dictated a short, hour-long set with few surprises. All that said, this is a half-decent recording of the band on a pretty good night—plus there’s a special guest sitting in at this show, vibraphonist Walk Dickerson. Well, perhaps not that special (see below).

The set opens with a brief but ominous “Strange Strings”-styled improvisation before June Tyson comes in singing “(The World Is Waiting) For The Sunrise.” As the guys in the band join in the chorus, the words slowly morph into “The world is waiting for…Sun Ra” for Sonny’s grand entrance. A massive space chord signals Danny Ray Thompson to take up the big bari-sax riff of “Discipline 27” and it’s a barn-burner. Unfortunately, Ahmed Abdullah’s trumpet solo is so ear-piercingly loud it causes the recordist to fiddle with the input levels for a couple of minutes while the rest of the Arkestra moves into a deliciously skronky group improvisation, capped by Marshall Allen’s a cappella alto saxophone. This is a great version of this sometimes overplayed tune, albeit marred by severe technical problems with the recording. And so it goes...

Thankfully, the sound clears up a bit for “The Shadow World” and it’s another high-energy blowout with gobs of “mad scientist” organ work and a string of outrageous solos from Allen and Danny Davis on altos, Eloe Omoe on bass clarinet, James Jacson on bassoon, and, finally, John Gilmore on tenor. The music moves through a variety of feels across its eighteen-minute duration, from the frenetic opening ostinatos to a deep, dark funk jam to wild, free-jazz bashing. Jacson’s bassoon solo is perhaps his longest on record and an amazing display of virtuosity on this terribly awkward instrument and he gets a hearty round of applause from the audience. Who knew Jacson could play like that? The always impressive Gilmore is at his very best here, building an epic statement out of tiny cells of notes, effortlessly incorporating the entire range of extended techniques from impossible-sounding multiphonics to keening altissimo cries, all the while maintaining a coherent structure with a lyrical melodicism all his own. Yes, folks: it’s another incredible Gilmore solo! After the Akrestra returns with a super-tight reprise of the insanely complicated head, the audience is left in stunned disbelief. This is another fantastic rendition of a composition which could never be “overplayed” in my book—the highlight of the set, for sure.

“Enlightenment” cuts off after about thirty-five seconds—no great loss, I guess—and then we pick up in the middle of “Love In Outer Space,” the organ vamping away over a bed of percussion. Just as Sonny returns with the melody, it sounds to me like the microphone gets shoved under the table in an effort to avoid detection by the band or nightclub staff; in any event, the sound quality takes a severe nosedive from here on. “When There Is No Sun” is spiritedly sung, but suffers from muffled sound, as does “Lights On A Satellite,” which struggles to get into a groove, the tempo fluctuating wildly and, at one point, moving into a heavy-ish rock feel—but Sonny puts the kibosh on that pretty quick! Next up is an unknown title, possibly one of the “Discipline” series of compositions and it sounds vaguely familiar: strained, broken harmonies; braying horns; abstract drumming; dissonant, dramatic organ chords—but with weird, murmuring vocals. Very interesting. Then Walt Dickerson takes over with a long vibraphone solo—too long, if you ask me. Dickerson is a fine player, but he’s just noodling around here. It’s impossible to tell what else is happening on stage but sometimes it seems as if Dickerson just wants to stop playing—and Sonny won’t let him! It just goes on and on and, frankly, it gets to be quite boring—not something you can usually say about an Arkestra performance (aside from the drum solos). It doesn’t help that the sharp, metallic attack of the vibraphone causes painful amounts of distortion in the recording when he hits it hard—which is all too often. “Space Is The Place” ends the set with the typical carrying on, although notable for the inclusion of the baritone counter-melody in the head arrangement, a subtle but welcome variation to this concert mainstay. After an extended vocal segment, the Arkestra marches off the stage and that’s it.

No doubt there was a lot more music played on this night, but this is all we have: a flawed yet mostly listenable recording of one (almost) complete set, which starts off strong and then goes downhill. Committed Sun Ra fanatics will find this worthwhile for “The Shadow World” alone, but for others it is probably inessential.

June 16, 2012

Playlist Week of 6-16-12

Cat Stevens - Tea For The Tillerman

* Telemann: The Complete Tafelmusik (d.2-4) (Freiburger Barockorchester) (Harmonia Mundi 4CD)
* Barraqué: Piano Sonata (Chen) (Telos CD)
* Duke Ellington & Coleman Hawkins: Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (Impulse! CD)
* Duke Ellington & John Coltrane: Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (Impulse! CD)
* Miles Davis: The Complete On The Corner Sessions (d.3) (Columbia/Legacy 6CD)
* Sun Ra: Smuckers, New York, NY 4-17-77 (AUD CDR)
* McCoy Tyner: Nights Of Ballads & Blues (Impulse! CD)
* McCoy Tyner: Inception (Impulse! CD)
* Shakti With John McLaughlin: A Handful Of Beauty (Columbia LP)
* Ronnie Laws: Friends And Strangers (United Artists LP)
* Mary Halvorson Quintet: Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12 CD)
* Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Grateful Dead: Capital Center, Landover, MD 9-02-88 (SBD 2CDR)
* Grateful Dead: The Horizon, Rosemont, IL 3-10-93 (selections) (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: The Horizon, Rosemont, IL 3-11-93 (selections) (SBD 3CDR)
* Cat Stevens: Tea For The Tillerman (Island/Analogue Productions LP)
* David Bowie: The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (EMI LP/DVD)
* Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Black Sabbath: Paranoid (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Black Sabbath: Master Of Reality (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Black Sabbath: Vol.4 (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Black Sabbath: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Camel: Camel (MCA/EMI CD)†
* Camel: Mirage (Deram/EMI CD)†
* Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros. 2-45RPM LP)
* Patti Smith: Banga (Special Edition) (Columbia CD)
* Elvis Costello: Almost Blue (Columbia/Mobile Fidelity LP)
* Guided By Voices: Class Clown Spots A UFO (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Porcupine Tree: Stars Die: The Delerium Years 1991-1997 (KScope 2CD)(†/‡)
* Porcupine Tree: The Sky Moves Sideways (KScope 2CD)†/(‡)
* Porcupine Tree: Stupid Dream (KScope CD/DVD)
* Porcupine Tree: Lightbulb Sun (KScope CD/DVD)†/‡
* Steven Wilson: Insurgentes (KScope CD/DVD)
* Steven Wilson: Grace For Drowning (KScope BD)
* Opeth: Blackwater Park (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)†
* Opeth: Deliverance (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)†
* Opeth: Damnation (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)†
* Anathema: We’re Here Because We’re Here (KScope CD)†
* Anathema: Weather Systems (The End CD)†/(‡)
* YOB: Illusion Of Motion (Metal Blade CD)†/(‡)
* Tortoise: It’s All Around You (Thrill Jockey LP)
* Tortoise: Beacons Of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey LP)
* Ray LaMontagne: Trouble (RCA/Legacy LP)



I’ve been complaining a lot about sound quality on my blog lately and it makes me feel bad in a way. I do not want to be one of those audiophile snobs who takes the all the fun out of listening to music. The truth is: some of my formative musical memories are listening to a crummy AM radio in the basement of my parents’ house—so I know full well that the power of music transcends its medium. But once exposed to good sound, whether at friends’ homes growing up or, later, in recording studios and at numerous Grateful Dead concerts (the epitome of high-quality live sound reinforcement, regardless of what you might think of the music), it became harder and harder to accept bad sound—especially in my own home where I have some measure of control.

I lived with decidedly mid-fi equipment for many years, but it was sufficient to hear the difference between a good recording and a bad one. And I fully understand there is plenty of great, important music in the canon of recorded music that just doesn’t sound that good, whether they are the primitive gramophone recordings of the early 20th century, Sun Ra’s experimental Saturn LPs, The Velvet Underground’s seminal records, or the deliberately low-fi albums by Guided By Voices and Pavement. In these exceptional cases, the sonic anomalies contribute to the listening experience—those records wouldn’t have the same impact if recorded in pristine high fidelity. But where the recording even pretends to be hi-fi, then the expectations are different. Digital distortion or heavy-handed compression/limiting can ruin an otherwise fine CD and the warble, clicks, pops and other surface noise of a shoddy (or damaged) vinyl pressing can destroy the illusion of musical reproduction, no matter how nice it might otherwise sound. Being an “audiophile” is a double-edged sword and perfection is forever out of reach. Nevertheless, I can enjoy listening to AAC rips to my iPod while driving my car or through high-quality in-ear monitors at work. Good sound is not about expensive playback equipment; it’s about what happens in your brain (and your soul) as you listen. But the source does matter.

Actually, we are living in an unprecedented era of audiophilia, driven, by all things, the archaic LP. No self-respecting act is without a vinyl release of their new album and these limited edition pressings often have superior masterings to their brickwalled CD counterparts—hipster cachet notwithstanding. Moreover, some of the major labels like Warner Bros./Rhino along with boutique companies like Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab and Music Matters are producing superlative reissues of classic albums that in most cases betters the minty-est original in every way, from pressing, packaging and, most importantly, sound quality. If you have a half-way decent turntable, we are living a second Golden Age of high fidelity and a record collector’s dream come true. It seems a bit ridiculous to me that this Industrial Age technology remains the standard for hi-fi in the 21st Century, but there you go: I was promised flying cars and jet-packs; instead I get a needle dragged through a piece of plastic, same as it was in the 1970s—only better (and more expensive). Yay.

Chad Kassem has been a long-time player in the LP reissue game, going back to the dark ages of digital when he founded the audiophile mail-order company, Acoustic Sounds, Inc. in 1986. In 1991, Kassem established Analogue Productions, a record label specializing in limited edition, high-quality vinyl reissues of classic albums, now numbering some 450 titles. But the vinyl renaissance of recent years has overburdened the few remaining pressing plants (such as RTI and Pallas), resulting in production delays and inconsistent quality control. Taking matters into his own hands, Kassem has built his own plating and pressing facility in Salina, Kansas and matter-of-factly named it Quality Record Pressings (QRP), the goal being to make “the finest records the world has ever known.” To that end, three antique presses (manufactured by SMT, Toolex Alpha and Finebilt) have been re-built and retrofitted with innovative technology such as custom-made microprocessors and ultra-precise temperature controls in order to produce the most perfect LP possible. In addition, QRP has brought aboard the legendary Gary Salstrom to head up their in-house plating department to ensure flawless plates with which to manufacture their LPs. As their website points out: “Not every pressing plant has a plating department. And only one plant—QRP—has the best. Plating can affect everything from pre-echo and high-end loss to record profile and warping. Getting it right is essential.”

The first title to come off the press is Cat Stevens’s 1970 album, Tea For The Tillerman, a long-time audiophile favorite featuring some of his most enduring songs (many of which were featured in the 1971 film, Harold & Maude). Reviews have been uniformly ecstatic since its release last summer, so even though I’m not the biggest Cat Stevens fan in the world, I decided to pick up a copy at my favorite local record store. Wow! The reviewers were right: this thing is just stunningly great in every conceivable way. The original multi-textured gatefold jacket is faithfully reproduced and, as expected, the 200-gram vinyl is superbly well-crafted: my copy is perfectly concentric, flat as a pancake and completely noise-free. The late great George Marino mastered this edition at Sterling Sound utilizing the original analog tapes (long thought lost) and the dynamics and clarity are truly astonishing, like nothing I have ever heard before on a vinyl disc. The music leaps from the grooves from a deathly black background, the quiet bits rendered with tremendously involving low-level detail and the loud parts are astonishingly clean and almost overwhelmingly powerful. It is rare that I’m blown away by the sound quality of these kinds of über-expensive audiophile records, but from the moment I set the needle down, I was riveted to my chair, utterly dumbstruck by what I was hearing. Even if you’ve heard “Wild World” a thousand times, I can guarantee you’ve never heard it sound like this!

George Marino passed away on June 4 after a long battle with lung cancer but this edition of Tea For The Tillerman will undoubtedly stand as the crowning achievement of his illustrious career. This LP is truly reference quality and I’d love to hear it played back on a state-of-the-art turntable rig—I bet it would be completely mind-blowing!  Well worth the thirty-dollar asking price and sure to be sought after by vinylphiles for years to come, making it a likely good investment to boot. If you like this record even a little bit (and have a functioning turntable), I don’t see how you can go wrong picking up the Analogue Productions edition and hearing for yourself just how good an LP can sound.


Another recent release worth mentioning is EMI’s 40th Anniversary edition of David Bowie’s 1972 “concept album," The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars. Re-mastered from the analog tapes by original engineer, Ken Scott, the vinyl sounds wonderful, worlds away from the crummy Dynaflex version you’re probably used to—plus it includes an audio-only DVD containing the original mix in 24bit/96kHz high-resolution digital, a 24bit/48kHz stereo/5.1 remix by Scott, and four contemporaneous bonus tracks. This is a trend I like a lot: the best of both worlds, analog and high-res digital, all in an attractive (and reasonably priced) package. I hadn’t heard this record in many years and, listening to it again, I was struck by how provocative and modern it still sounds, precipitating glam, metal, punk and beyond while retaining the suave songwriting and hook-laden pop moves that made him a superstar. I wasn’t that impressed with the remix, which is a little too neat and clean, the edges filed down to a bland smoothness but the original mix is un-castrated and presented here in its definitive edition. Highly recommended.   

June 10, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Showboat Lounge, Silver Spring, MD 3-18-77 (AUD 2CDR)

On March 18, 1977 the Arkestra appeared at the Showboat Lounge in Silver Spring Maryland and a 150-minute audience tape circulates amongst the most fanatical Sun Ra collectors. Interestingly, this venue would quickly become one of Ra’s favorites: “[A]ccording to John Gilmore, Ra wrote several compositions meant to be played only at that location, including one titled, “Silver Spring” which was revived by the Arkestra in 1996” (Campbell & Trent. p.233). It would appear at least one of the things Sonny liked about the Showboat was that he was given free rein to play as long as he wanted. Take a look at the setlist: 
Disc 1: 1. //The Shadow World (5:15); 2. [unidentified title] (6:06); 3. Space Is The Place (12:12); 4. I’ll Never Be The Same (3:36); 5. Yeah, Man! (3:17); 6. King Porter Stomp (3:51); 7. The Mayan Temples (9:03); 8. Images (9:40); 9. Face The Music (5:06); 10. The Mystery Of Two (6:42). 
 Disc 2: 1.  Bye Bye Blackbird (2:36); 2. Watusi (21:31); 3. [unidentified title//] (3:24); 4. [//unidentified title]// (percussion only) (:33); 5. //Destination Unknown (1:25); 6. Journey To Saturn (9:26); 7. [unidentified title] (Rocksichord & French horn) (6:59); 8. The Satellites Are Spinning (2:04); 9. On Sound Infinity Spheres (4:30); 10. Embraceable You (6:33); 11. Greetings from the 21st Century/We Travel The Spaceways (2:53); 12. Love In Outer Space (8:58); 13. The Shadow World// (3:41).
This constitutes part of the first set and a mere fragment of the second—it sure looks juicy, doesn’t it? Well, be forewarned: the sound quality of this amateur recording is truly abysmal. To be fair, the circulating copy is probably pretty close to the original (mono) master tape since there is very little hiss or wow-and-flutter and, occasionally, it sounds… okay. So, it has that going for it. The problem is that the (decidedly lo-fi) microphone has been placed right up next to Sonny’s amplifier so the organ is much, much louder than anything else on stage—and when he steps on the gas and that amp starts to distort, you will think your own speakers are being shredded right before your very ears. It is most unpleasant to listen to, despite the otherwise high quality of the performance. 

Indeed, there is some incredible music buried under the noise: the old-timey big-band numbers are given relaxed, authoritative readings and Gilmore does his inimitable thing on “The Shadow World,” “Images,” “The Mystery of Two” and, most impressively, on “Embraceable You.” Pat Patrick takes the lead on baritone sax on a truly bizarre ballad composition (disc 1, track 2) and picks up the alto for a gorgeous rendition of “I’ll Never Be The Same.” But what’s most interesting are all those unknown titles such as the above ballad, the tangy “Discipline”-styled piece (disc 2, track 3) or the phase-shifty Rocksichord and French horn duet (disc 2, track 7), with Vincent Chancey sounding more assured than ever on that unwieldy instrument. It is always fascinating to hear “new” Sun Ra compositions, even if the sound quality sucks.

And, boy howdy, does the sound quality suck. Only the most hardcore Sun Ra fan will want to sit through this in order to mine any nuggets of musical gold that can be found. Even so, I keep coming back to those “unheard” compositions and find myself wishing the rest of the second set had been recorded; no doubt there were more “new” Sun Ra works to be found there, perhaps written especially for the venue. I guess that makes me hardcore. The rest of you should stay far, far away.

June 9, 2012

Playlist Week of 6-09-12

Talk Talk

* Telemann: The Complete Tafelmusik (Freiburger Barockorchester) (d.1) (Harmonia Mundi 4CD)
* Revueltas: “The Night Of The Maya” (New Philharmonia Orchestra (Mata), et al.) (Catalyst CD)
* Messiaen: Des Canyons Aux Etoiles… (Orch. Phil. De Radio France/Chung) (DG 2CD)
* Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges: Back To Back (Verve/Classic LP)
* Duke Ellington & Jonny Hodges: Side By Side (Verve/Classic LP)
* Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy: Cornell 1964 (Blue Note 2CD)
* Sun Ra: Showboat Lounge, Silver Spring, MD 3-18-77 (AUD 2CDR)
* Sun Ra: Smuckers, New York, NY 4-17-77 (AUD CDR)
* Herbie Hancock: Directstep (CBS/Sony CD)
* Herbie Hancock: Future Shock (Columbia/Legacy HDCD)
* People (Mary Halvorson & Kevin Shea): People (I And Ear LP)
* Mary Halvorson Quintet: Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12 CD)
* Willie Nelson: Heroes (Legacy/Sony HDCD)
* The Beatles: Beatles For Sale (2009 stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour (2009 stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)
* The Beatles: Past Masters (d.2) (Apple/EMI CD)
* Grateful Dead: Grateful Dead [a/k/a Skull & Roses] (Warner Bros./Mobile Fidelity 2LP)
* David Crosby: If I Could Only Remember My Name… (Atlantic/Rhino LP)
* Deep Purple: Deep Purple (Tetragramaton LP)
* Black Sabbath: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Phil Collins: No Jacket Required (Atlantic/Audio Fidelity CD)
* Phil Collins: But Seriously…(Atlantic/Audio Fidelity CD)
* The Style Council: Internationalists (Geffen LP)
* Talk Talk: The Colour Of Spring (EMI LP/DVD)
* Talk Talk: Spirit Of Eden (EMI LP/DVD)
* Guided By Voices: Class Clown Spots A UFO (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Guided By Voices: “Jon The Croc”/”Breathing” (GBV, Inc. 7”)
* Guided By Voices: “Keep It In Motion” (GBV, Inc. 7”EP)
* Guided By Voices: “Class Clown Spots A UFO” (GBV, Inc. 7”EP)
* Wilco: Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch 2LP)
* High On Fire: Death Is This Communion (Relapse CD)†/‡
* A Perfect Circle: Mer De Noms (Virgin CD)†
* A Perfect Circle: Thirteenth Step (Virgin CD)†
* Porcupine Tree: The Incident (d.1) (Roadrunner CD/CDEP)
* Opeth: Still Life (Special Edition) (Peaceville CD/DVD)
* Storm Corrosion: Storm Corrosion (Roadrunner CD/BD) (†)
* Katatonia: Last Fair Deal Gone Down (10th Anniversary Edition) (Peaceville CD/CDEP)†
* Katatonia: Viva Emptiness (Peaceville CD)†/‡
* Katatonia: The Great Cold Distance (Peaceville 2LP)
* Katatonia: Night Is The New Day (Peaceville CD)†
* Anathema: We’re Here Because We’re Here (KScope CD/DVD)
* Anathema: Weather Systems (The End CD)(†/‡)
* Mastodon: Remission (Relapse 2LP)
* Mastodon: Leviathan (Relapse CD)†
* Mastodon: Crack The Skye (Reprise 2-45RPM LP/CD)
* Agalloch: The Mantle (The End CD)†
* Agalloch: Ashes Against The Grain (The End CD)†



One of the things I love about Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt is that he is a rabid record-collector who constantly talks about his various musical obsessions. It is through his ravings about Camel that I discovered this overlooked British prog band—much to my great enjoyment. So during the run-up to Åkerfeldt’s collaboration with Steven Wilson, Storm Corrosion (which I wrote about a couple weeks ago), I was curious to see them cite such influences as Comus, Univers Zero, Van Der Graaf Generator and…Talk Talk. Huh? I could understand the obscure ‘70s psych/folk/prog stuff—but Talk Talk? I always thought of Talk Talk (if I thought of them at all) as just another blow-dried synth-pop band from the 1980s, like a third-rate Duran Duran—with good reason, of course. I was vaguely familiar with their hits, but didn’t really pay much attention. Hey, it’s not like I don’t have a taste for ‘80s synth-pop (as any careful examination of my playlists will amply demonstrate) but Talk Talk were completely off my radar. Intrigued, I knew I had to investigate.

As it turns out, Talk Talk did a rare and wonderful thing over the course of their brief career: they evolved. Their 1986 album, The Colour Of Spring, eschewed the “New Wave” stylings of their earlier albums, instead going for a more sophisticated orchestral pop sound and replacing (for the most part) the cheesy synthesizers with an expanded roster of live musicians. This provides a more organic feel to the music compared to most hit records from the era and The Colour Of Spring went on to become their biggest-selling album with “Life’s What You Make It” and “Living In Another World” cracking the Top 40 on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite its polished sheen, a bit of unexpected weirdness has crept into the arrangements, like the ramshackle kiddie choir on “Happiness Is Easy,” the spacey, two-chord mysticism of “April 5th” or the dissonant woodwinds and strings on the quietly haunting “Chameleon Day.” The single B-side, “It’s Getting Late In The Evening,” was even weirder: all expectant atmosphere punctuated by Mark Hollis’s introspective mumbling. It was a harbinger of what was to come.

Pleased with the sales of The Colour Of Spring, EMI gave the band carte blanche for their next album: with an unlimited budget and no firm release date, the band spent over year recording Spirit Of Eden. Rather than writing songs in advance, various combinations of instrumentalists were instructed to improvise for hours in the dark, oil lamps and incense burning to provide atmosphere. Snippets were then stitched together (utilizing primitive digital technology) to create two side-long suites of barely discrete “songs” which seamlessly flow together. Sounding nothing like what had come before, the album combined elements of rock, jazz, avant-garde classical and proto-ambient music into something unique in the world of mainstream pop music: a work of Art. It should come as no surprise that Spirit Of Eden received mostly scathing reviews upon its release in September 1988 and sold poorly. The band refused to tour behind it, stating the songs were impossible to perform live, thereby causing further tensions with the record label. Naturally, a string of lawsuits ensued with Talk Talk succeeding in voiding their contract with EMI. Their next (and final) album would be released on Polydor’s jazz imprint, Verve.

The cheekily titled Laughing Stock was recorded in the same manner as the previous one, but the process was far more chaotic and difficult: Hollis’s monomaniacal perfectionism ultimately took its toll, resulting in the dissolution of the band as the sessions wore on. But the resulting album was even more ambitious work than Spirit Of Eden, involving an enormous cast of players and endless hours of overdubbing and digital editing. Deep and heavy lyrical themes predominate such as religiosity, spiritual persecution and environmental apocalypse while the nearly formless, shape-shifting music reinforces the sense of existential crisis. Unsettled calm is shattered by bouts of vicious free-jazz scree as on “Taphead” while richly varied instrumental groupings mutate and dissolve into swaths of disconcerting noise and silence as on “Myrrhman” and “Stump.” Longer songs like “Ascension Day,” “After The Flood” and “New Grass” deploy hypnotic rhythms and spare accompaniment to evoke a state of ecstatic prayer—yet Hollis’s yearning vocals evidence a profound uncertainty. Critics in 1991 were kinder than in 1988, heralding the band’s artistic bravery but by then it was too late: the album stiffed, the band broke up and, aside from a minimalist solo album released in 1998, Mark Hollis disappeared from the music scene altogether.

In the interim, these records went on to become highly influential on the emergent “post-rock” scene in the ‘90s and beyond, with their wild dynamic swings, experimental structures and unusual instrumental textures supplanting conventional songwriting. Twenty years later, they still sound remarkably fresh and modern—quite unlike a lot of music from that era. If (like me) you thought Talk Talk was just a dumb Brit-pop band, think again.

Conveniently, EMI has recently reissued The Colour Of Spring and Spirit Of Eden in deluxe vinyl editions, which also include a DVD containing the full album and related B-sides in high-resolution 24-bit/48kHz digital—a most welcome bonus. Only available as an import from the UK, they are pricey but supremely well done: the fit and finish of the 180-gram LPs is first-rate and the music sounds superb on both formats. Sadly, the same can’t quite be said about Ba Da Bing’s reissue of Laughing Stock: the otherwise glorious sound quality is obscured by the clicks, pops and swooshes emitted by the crappy red vinyl pressing (even after several cleanings). That wouldn’t be such a problem if the music wasn’t so subtle and quiet (or if they’d included a high-rez DVD) but it is (and they didn’t). However, the expanded double-LP set does contain two fascinating instrumental outtakes and (almost) makes for it: “Five -09,” a freaky bit of electronica, and “Piano,” which sounds more like the spectral stasis of Morton Feldman’s later compositions than any kind of pop song and makes a fitting coda to Talk Talk’s final, disturbing masterpiece. Great stuff! Thank you Mr. Åkerfeldt (and Mr. Wilson) for the tip! Now I’m passing it along to you…

June 3, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra ‘77

1977 was a busy year for Sonny.

On January 6, the Arkestra appeared at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore, Maryland again under the auspices of the Left Bank Jazz Society. No recording exists, but “[a]ccording to a review by Ken Buford, reprinted in the Baltimore Jazz Scene 1977, the program included ‘Along Came Ra,’ ‘Calling Planet Earth,’ ‘When There Is No Sun’ and ‘Space Is The Place’ along with blues, swing numbers, an ‘outer space dirge,’ and a flute duet” (Campbell & Trent p.230). Then, at the last possible minute, Sun Ra was asked to participate in FASTEC 77, a four-week-long “World Black and African Festival of the Arts and Culture” in Lagos, Nigeria scheduled to begin at the beginning of February. Performers from sixty-two different countries were invited, all representative of the Pan-African diaspora, with Sun Ra’s Arkestra representing black Americans. It was contentious from the outset: 
With only a few days’ notice and no money up front, the band thought it was ridiculous to even consider it, but Sonny was adamant: “Your ancestors came into America without a cent. How much money do you have?” When one of the musicians answered fifty cents, he said, “That’s fifty cents more than your ancestors had.” They were going.
 Sun Ra noticed that very few musicians had been invited to the festival—a mistake, he thought—and he assumed that having been asked at the last minute meant that music had been an afterthought, and that “only those who weren’t tied up to the white man could make it.” Still, he said it was important for them to help destroy the African’s stereotype of the American black man. From the moment of their arrival he was in a combative mood. When a Nigerian at the airport called out, “Welcome home, Sun Ra,” Sonny answered, “Home? Your people sold mine. This is no longer my home!” At each performance the artists displayed flags from their own countries; but when Sun Ra got on stage he raised a purple and black banner that he called “the flag of death.” He was annoyed that they were only allowed to play at the festival twice, and it was made worse when the Arkestra played overtime as usual and a large number of people left to catch the last buses back from the hall: misunderstanding their exit for rejection, Sonny saw it as typical of blacks to not respect one another. But at their second performance the lighting man was so impressed by the music that he lowered the lights after they left the stage and refused to turn them back on as the Miriam Makeba set began: “The Master has spoken!” he proclaimed. Sonny interceded and insisted that she, too, was an artist, and should be treated with respect.
 Over the four weeks, there was time to visit outside the city, to hear local music and to play for Africans and see them dancing to the Arkestra’s music at informal performances. The band was invited to visit the flamboyant and politically rebellious Fela Anikulapo-Kuti at his house and nightclub where he was staging a counter-FASTEC, but Sonny thought it unwise and told the band not to go—a decision which he said was justified later when Fela’s place was attacked and burned down by troops of the Nigerian army. The trip ended on a bitter note when the Arkestra was not allowed to march in the final grand parade because Ra would not agree to give the raised fist salute of Black Power. Then afterwards, when National Public Radio reported on the festival, one woman interviewed said his music didn’t represent black people in the United States.
 After the festival was over they returned by way of Egypt, and this time traveled in that country more widely, and wound up playing for the multinational troops in the Sinai Peninsula (Szwed pp.341-342). 
According to Tommy Hunter, tapes exist from the African sojourn but are not available (Campbell & Trent p.231). By February 26, the Arkestra was back in the states and an audience recording from their performance in East Lansing, Michigan apparently circulates but I have not heard it. Additionally, live performances of two old-timey numbers, the Dixon-Henderson standard, “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and George Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” were recorded around this time for a Saturn single that was never released. These tapes were later broadcast by WKCR-FM during their 1987 Sun Ra Festival but I don’t have a copy of this either. According to Prof. Campbell, the rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird is “slow and dozy and, if one does not listen carefully, sounds like a straggler from Ra’s Discipline series” (Id.).

At this point, concert “bootlegs” begin to proliferate as Sun Ra’s reputation as a spectacular live performer  became more widely known and miniaturized recording technology (slowly) improved. And it is at this point where I had to take a break from the poor sound quality and somewhat repetitive setlists and give Sun Ra Sunday a rest for a little while. But the fact remains: Ra made a bunch of good-to-great albums in 1977, including several rare solo piano recitals, the classic Some Blues But Not The Kind That’s Blue (Saturn/Atavistic) and the first of the legendary Horo LPs. I’m actually very excited to get to these; so, having rested my ears, I’m ready to tackle the dodgy “bootlegs” in order to get to the good stuff. Not that there isn’t “good stuff” to be found on these amateur concert recordings—it just takes a whole lot more effort to discern.

Up next: a sprawling, two-and-half hour set recorded (badly) at the Showboat Lounge in Silver Spring, Maryland on March 18, 1977. I’ll take a listen so you don’t have to!

June 2, 2012

Playlist Week of 6-02-12

The Mars Volta - Vinyl

* Miles Davis: The Complete On The Corner Sessions (d.2) (Columbia/Legacy 6CD)
* Miles Davis: Pangaea (d.1) (CBS/Sony 2CD)
* Weather Report: Mysterious Traveler (Columbia LP)
* Weather Report: Black Market (Columbia LP)
* John Zorn’s Naked City: Naked City (Nonesuch/Elektra CD)
* UYA: Demo Tape (1989) (Cassette>CDR)
* Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd: Unheard Voices (NuVoid CDR)
* Johnny Cash: Original Sun Singles ’55-’58 (Sun/Sundazed 2LP)
* George Harrison: All Things Must Pass (d.1)(GN/Capitol 2CD)
* George Harrison: Cloud 9 (Dark Horse/Capitol CD)
* Paul McCartney: Band On The Run (Capitol LP)
* Sir Douglas Quintet: The Mono Singles ’68-’72 (Mercury/Sundazed 2LP)
* Grateful Dead: Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland, CA 2-20-85 (SBD 2CDR)
* Pink Floyd: Animals (Pinkfloyd/EMI CD)
* Caravan: In The Land Of Grey And Pink (DVD) (Deram/Decca 2CD/DVD)
* Camel: Camel (MCA/Universal CD)
* Camel: Mirage (Deram/Universal CD)
* Camel: (Music Inspired By) The Snow Goose (Decca/Universal CD)
* Camel: Moonmadness (Decca/Universal CD)
* Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel 1 [a/k/a “Car”] (Atco LP)
* Phil Collins: Hello, I Must Be Going! (Atlantic/Audio Fidelity CD)
* Tom Petty: Wildflowers (Warner Bros. 2LP)
* The Style Council: My Ever Changing Moods (Geffen LP)
* Japan: Oil On Canvas (Virgin 2LP)
* Prefab Sprout: Two Wheels Good (Epic LP)
* Talk Talk: The Colour Of Spring (EMI LP/DVD)
* Talk Talk: Spirit Of Eden (Parlophone/EMI LP/DVD)
* Talk Talk: Laughing Stock (Polydor CD)
* Meat Puppets: Out My Way (SST EP)
* Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador 2LP)
* Robert Pollard: Mouseman Cloud (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Circus Devils: Capsized! (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)
* Wilco: Kicking Television: Live In Chicago (Nonesuch 4LP)
* The Mars Volta: Octahedron (Warner Bros. CD)†
* The Mars Volta: Noctourniquet (Warner Bros. 2LP)
* Porcupine Tree: The Sky Moves Sideways (KScope 2CD)
* Porcupine Tree: Signify/Insignificance (KScope 2CD) (†/‡)
* Storm Corrosion: Storm Corrosion (Roadrunner 2LP/CD/BD)
* Anathema: Weather Systems (The End Records CD) (†/‡)
* Kyuss: Blues For The Red Sun (Dali/Elektra CD)†
* Agalloch: Marrow Of The Spirit (Profound Lore 2LP)
* YOB: The Illusion Of Motion (Metal Blade CD)†
* The Black Keys: Brothers (Nonesuch 2LP)
* Broken Bells: Broken Bells (Columbia LP)
* Broken Bells: Meyrin Fields EP (Columbia EP)


A few months ago, I wrote about Noctourniquet, the most recent album by The Mars Volta, and I ranted on at length about the horribly compressed sound of the CD, which renders this otherwise delightful music virtually unlistenable—at least for me. It sounds best in the car, where its near-total lack of dynamic range allows it to be always audible despite road-noise, even at interstate speeds. And that’s about the only place I can listen to it—but even there I keep reaching to turn down the volume. Blech! I speculated back in March that an LP version might sound better: because of the medium’s physical limitations, an LP could never be mastered as ear-bleedingly loud as the CD.

Well, the vinyl edition finally arrived this week and I decided to pick it up when I saw it at my favorite local record store. And, indeed, the two-LP set sounds much better than the compact disc in all the usual ways: far less compression and hard limiting, smoother textures and a warmer overall presentation and, as an added bonus, the pressings are flat and remarkably quiet for such weirdly-colored vinyl. Much unlike the execrable CD, you can crank it up nice and loud without giving yourself a headache. Hooray! The packaging is also super-deluxe with a thick-spine jacket, 3-D printed innersleeves (w/3-D glasses included) and an exclusive poster. A typically perverse touch is the square label on the discs which appears to be ready to knock your delicate stylus back across the record at the end of every side. Fear not! The last track has a silent “locked groove” which prevents the cartridge (and disc) from meeting its doom. Clearly a labor of love, the vinyl edition of Noctourniquet is an artistic triumph, both as a physical object and the music contained therein. Definitely worth every penny—and likely to increase in value when it inevitably goes out of print.

That’s all well and good. I love vinyl; I really do, despite its obvious imperfections. However, there is still no excuse for a CD to sound so bad. I have no doubt these LPs were cut from a digital master—so why do they sound so much better than the CD? I don’t know the precise answer to that question but I do believe it is symptomatic of the record industry’s larger problems. Sure, it’s great that the LP edition of Noctourniquet sounds as good as it does and, since I am a fanatical record collector, I’m as happy as anyone about the vinyl renaissance that seems to be burgeoning around us these days. But let’s face it: most people do not even have turntables and do not want to fiddle with an archaic and fragile medium like vinyl records. And I don’t blame them! It takes a lot of effort and not a little bit of expense to make an LP sound its best. Moreover, LPs are marketed these days as high-priced luxury goods which are out of reach of the average working stiff and just not worth it to even the most well-heeled. Only crazy people like me buy vinyl records! I’m happy to have these LPs, but most listeners will be stuck with a poor facsimile—which is a shame since this is probably The Mars Volta’s most accessible album to date and should be heard by everyone in all its sonic glory (such as it is). Like it or not, it’s a digital world and there is no prima facie reason it has to sound like crap!

 Just sayin’…