Monday, September 14, 2009

Records I Listened To Today

14 Greatest Hits, Hank Williams. I'm no stranger to the music of Hank Senior; I've been playing songs like "Howlin' at the Moon" in my solo sets since I was in college. But it is a little tricky finding unaltered Williams recordings on vinyl. The pioneering live fast, die hard rock star, one of the many tragedies of Williams' biography that would be repeated endlessly by later travelers on the lost highway is the way his original recordings were butchered after his death by shortsighted, profiteering record labels. 60's and 70's re-releases of the original recordings (which spanned from 1946 to Williams' death in 1953) added atrocious orchestra overdubs in a misguided effort to make Hank's timeless songs sound "contemporary." Being able to find a better selection of used classic country albums in record stores wasn't the main reason I moved to Texas, but it doesn't hurt any. This '61 MGM compilation presents a somewhat random assortment of hit singles as they originally sounded, with the lean accompaniment of drums, upright bass, fiddle, lead electric guitar, and pedal steel. The idea of making "greatest hits" albums by any criterion other than raw sales figures was decades away, so this compilation has a couple too many novelty tunes like "Kaw-Liga" and "Jambalaya" at the expense of more fully covering Williams' blues and gospel elements. But any Hank on vinyl is a thrill for me, and as is the case for all music made before the invention of true multitrack recording in the mid-sixties, there's simply no way to make this material sound halfway decent on CD. The details that come out most for me are the wonderfully sympathetic lead guitar playing of Bob McNett, the way the roles of bass and rhythm guitar are reversed from modern standards (guitar holding down the beat, bass anticipating the chord changes with rhythmic accents), and mostly Williams' remarkable command of his voice as an instrument. The way he chooses, sometimes only once in a song, to go to his falsetto just for one choice syllable continues to influence singers and songwriters all over popular music to this very day.

I've Got My Own Album to Do, Ron Wood. Fantastic, overlooked solo album, despite the fact that it has two otherwise unrecorded Glimmer Twins songs and even a tune cowritten with George Harrison. Keith Richards plays on every song, although this record was made before Mick Taylor left the Stones and Wood took his place. It's a very loose session, with Richards and Wood both freely stopping mid-riff to spin out groovy little licks whenever the mood strikes them. (The presence of top-drawer studio musicians on drums and bass holds the songs' center.) Although the Stones would never be this sloppy on record, you can hear how much the two guitarists enjoy playing together. Although Keith Richards is almost always described as a rhythm guitarist, it was really only during the Taylor years that he stuck strictly to that role; with Wood and Brian Jones no strict boundaries applied. I've Got My Own Album to Do has two highlights each of which have been made famous by other artists. I initially fell in love with the song "Mystifies Me," a Wood original, from the dynamite cover on Son Volt's debut album Trace. It's the excellence of that performance (which sadly overshadows nearly everything else Jay Farrar has done since Anodyne) that originally put me on the lookout for my own copy of this record. Ron Wood is absolutely no competition for Farrar as a singer, but I've come to like the original recording better since the Son Volt revival stays a little too close for comfort to Wood's arrangement, right down to the little lead guitar flourishes, and Richards' harmony vocals are priceless. Over on Side Two, "If You've Got to Make a Fool of Somebody," recorded by everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Brian Poole & The Tremeloes, gets made over in that unmistakable Keith Richards duet style where the two singers aren't really remotely in synch and yet it's perfect. Super record, it's a shame Wood never really got the material together for another solo outing of equal strength.

Magic Potion, The Black Keys. I never really gave the Black Keys much of a fair hearing when they first emerged because (unfairly) they were lumped in with the White Stripes, for whom I've never had much use. Anna loves both those bands, however, and she's brought me around on the Keys if not the other. We've been looking for Magic Potion on LP for ages and it finally turned up today. After all the buildup, I was a bit disappointed. Anna says that her attachment to the album is due to the period in college when she was listening to it all the time, apparently a very creative era in her life. I don't really listen to music in at all that way, which is interesting -- there was a time I remember being quite obsessed with Let It Bleed, but that was before I had Exile, which is patently superior, end of story. Anna continues to consider this her favorite Black Keys album even though she agrees with me that Rubber Factory, which came out before Magic Potion but she heard after, is a much more interesting and diverse listen. I simply don't think that way. Objectively, what was going on in my life the first time I heard Painful as opposed to Electr-O-Pura doesn't make a lick of difference when it comes to which in my opinion is the better Yo La Tengo album. (But then again which records I have on vinyl and which I only have in crappy digital does make a huge difference. There was a time when I was convinced Presence was better than Physical Graffiti simply because I hadn't located the 2xLP of the latter yet. Also personal, also extrinsic to the history of the music in question, but in a totally different fashion.) Back to Magic Potion. This record was the Black Keys' major-label debut, and yet it sounds more stripped-down than anything since their first indie record. The huge variance in guitar tones and vocal ambience from Rubber Factory is absent, though Dan Auerbach's songwriting is more than strong enough to carry you through the record without things getting boring. It is surprising based on their other output that they were self-conscious enough about signing to Nonesuch to break their habit of broadening their sound with every record for this one. Maybe they wanted to make one more album in Patrick Carney's garage just to make sure the new label would let them get away with it; maybe they were afraid of alienating their fans (or just as bad, winning too many undesirable new ones). In retrospect, Magic Potion fits into their catalog nicely as a bit of a breather before Attack and Release, which isn't their best album but maps out the direction they have to keep going, trying new weird ideas just enough to keep their basic formula exciting and fresh.

Minor Threat, Minor Threat. Okay, vinyl is not always superior to digital in every single instance. Every single thing Minor Threat ever recorded is available on one CD, with the same iconic cover image as you get here. That CD basically made a musician out of me in 1994, as I was drumming in a band called the Flagburning Communist Homosexuals the instant I had the stamina to get all the way through "I Don't Want to Hear It" without keeling over. I've been meaning to pick this 12" EP, which in itself is is a repackaging of two 1981 seven-inches, for ages. And I'm glad I did, if only because the fold-out insert is going to look super awesome in my practice space. Vinyl sounds better than CD's, it's true, but lack of clarity for the individual instruments on these founding hardcore broadsides was a good thing, making it sound like the band was way too angry and explosive to keep the levels out of the red. I also miss the way all the songs on the Complete Discography CD abruptly cut out slightly before the end, to make room for every song -- that sense of haste, of rapid forward progress even though the songs in question are mostly a minute and thirty seconds or less, sums up the Minor Threat experience more than any one track or single. The biggest problem with the vinyl is that it reveals that the band couldn't really play: Jeff Nelson's kick drum is muffled and off the beat half the time, Lyle Preslar's overdubbed guitar solos are laughably amateurish, and Brian Baker's complete lack of chops is not mitigated by the fact that he rivals Tommy Stinson as the most adorable incompetent hardcore bassist of the 80's. Oh well. At the very least the wax edition does wonders for Ian MacKaye's precedent-setting vocals, as you can hear every spit, snarl, and snide aside as perfectly as the hundreds of tone-deaf louts who ripped off his schtick did back in the day. That reminds me, must get some Descendents and Black Flag now.


  1. Interesting coincidence: I just found out today that Ian McLagan, keyboard player for the Faces, the Small Faces -- and Ron Wood's "I've Got My Own Album to Do" -- has been based in Austin for many years now. His band does "Mystifies Me," too.

  2. Minot Threat, as much as I hate to say this, does sound better on CD than vinyl. It hurts my soul, but it's true.