All posts by Jeff Sabatini

Talkin’ All That Jazz

Have you seen the headline? Jazz is officially the least popular genre of music in the United States.

Quite obviously, there’s nowhere to go but up for jazz.

And while I don’t see jazz supplanting mainstream pop anytime soon, its status as the music nobody listens to anymore is bound to give it an appeal to alternative-leaning, rebellious kids. Give it another decade and jazz is going to have a stunning comeback.

I think there’s this idea that in the post-rock era a predominantly instrumental style can never be popular again, but if you look at the recent rise of electronic music it proves otherwise. EDM may well be the force that helps propel jazz back into the public consciousness. The jazz of the next generation probably isn’t going to sound like Ellington, but the genre isn’t going to die out either.

Photo: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

Joe Walsh – Analog Man

Joe WalshAnalog Man (Fantasy/Concord)

I have this feeling that 2012 may go down in history as the last gasp of classic rock artists releasing new albums. These guys are getting seriously old now, and if they’re not dying off most have lost it when it comes to their playing and performance. And of course, rumors persist that major labels are going to 86 compact discs soon, in yet another last-gasp effort to cut costs and keep the lights on for a few more months.

But it’s been one hell of a good year for such releases so far, with excellent new material from Bruce Springsteen (Wrecking Ball), Van Halen (A Different Kind Of Truth), and Rush (Clockwork Angels). Even Mr. Mercurial tossed together a new album with Crazy Horse (Americana) that isn’t half bad – at least not when compared to much recent Neil Young. Oh yeah, and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson released a sequel to Thick As A Brick.

And then there’s Joe Walsh, who for some reason decided to issue his first studio release in 20 years. Analog Man is the title, and though better than Thick As A Brick 2, the album is disappointing for many of the same reasons.

This collection of music qualifies as little more than an EP, really, a trifle. At just over 36 minutes on the standard release, including two of filler (on “Funk 50,” which is just what it sounds like – a continuation of “Funk 48” and “Funk 49,” though not as interesting), Walsh certainly isn’t convincing anyone that he’s overflowing with things to say. A “Deluxe” edition of the album adds about 10 minutes of music, a single new song and a lengthy live James Gang track from 1970.

So what has Walsh been doing for the past two decades if not writing or recording new music? Apparently getting sober and getting married and, of course, playing guitar in the Eagles and on other people’s albums, like Ringo Starr’s. While these are fine and noble pursuits, they haven’t resulted in particularly strong material for Analog Man, which seems dashed off and incomplete.

While Walsh will never be mistaken for Dylan, it would be nice if there were more cuts like “Wrecking Ball,” a rocking tale of the self-absorption that passes for normal in today’s society. (This standout might have been a good one for the title track, but Springsteen beat Walsh to that punch.) “Analog Man” isn’t nearly as focused or strong, because even if it might have catchier hooks, the lyrics are as clichéd as you would expect in a song with such a title that was penned by a senior citizen.

But even the title track isn’t as bad as it gets – that would be “Spanish Dancer,” a song about – get this – a mysterious Spanish dancer with captivating eyes. Ugh. Between the sophomoric lyrics and Jeff Lynne’s overproduction, this one is unlistenable, despite having a nice guitar solo trapped in its belly.

“Lucky That Way” is a bit better, something of a sequel to “Life’s Been Good,” though it lacks the sarcastic humor of “My Maserati does 185/Lost my license/Now I can’t drive.” But Analog Man does include two or three other nice cuts and it’s always fun to hear Walsh’s characteristic guitar playing, which is in full force here.

“One Day At A Time” is the best song to carry Jeff Lynne’s sonic imprint, with horns that make the song a celebration of Walsh’s battle with alcoholism despite the heartfelt and personal lyrics. My favorite track on the album is it’s final one, “India,” the only truly modern sounding music included. This instrumental jam is full of synthesizers and dance beats and also contains the best guitar work on the album. It comes off sounding something like Umphrey’s McGee, so I expect most Walsh fans – certainly the ones excited that David Crosby and Graham Nash phone in some background vocals on “Family” – will likely skip past it, prematurely ending the Analog Man experience.

If we were still living in the era in which most major label artists were expected to release an album every year or two, Analog Man might make sense. It would be one of those records that gets made as much to fulfill a record company contract as it does to sate fans hungry for product. The critics would give it two stars and a single would get released, perhaps even cracking the Hot 100 before the artist headed back into the studio to work on the next one. But that’s not the way things work anymore.

Video: Joe Walsh – “Lucky That Way” (Live)

My Vinyl Solution #0005: Atlanta Rhythm Section – Champagne Jam

My Vinyl Solution is simple: I’m listening to my records. As my collection has grown, I’ve realized that I’ve been spending too much time amassing lps, to the point that I have no idea of what I even own. Hence, this column.

Atlanta Rhythm Section - Champagne Jam
Atlanta Rhythm Section, Champagne Jam

How do you go from playing a gig for the President of the United States on the South Lawn of the White House to nothing in three years? Because if I’m reading the Atlanta Rhythm Section’s bio correctly, these hillbillies from Georgia were an even bigger bust than Jimmy Carter, managing to squander a top ten album that went platinum in just six months in 1978 to have all but disappeared by the time Ronald Reagan took over in Washington.

Champagne Jam is worthy of every bit of its sales success, as it’s perhaps the smoothest blend of southern rock and pop ever recorded. That ARS began careening into obscurity immediately after releasing it only makes sense in the way that a redneck lottery winner can find himself broke after just a few years of living the good life – and have nothing to show for it but a monster truck and a Jet Ski.

Putting this one on my turntable, the first thing I notice is that the sound is fantastic. Champagne Jam was recorded at what was perhaps the pinnacle of analog recording technique and you can certainly hear it. Whatever you do, avoid firing up Spotify to listen to this, because it will not sound good. I wouldn’t even dream of owning this album in a format other than vinyl, not any more than I would consider drinking beer out of a plastic bottle.

The sound here is so live and real that it’s hard not to want to listen to Champagne Jam just to admire the precision of the recording. It’s no wonder, as this is a band that had made its living as session players, and they were bona fide studio pros. The guitar and bass tones are out of this world, fat and punchy. The vocals have that high-in-the-mix quality that I associate with 80’s Top 40 music, like Madonna and Wham. And the drums! On this album they sound rounded and full, like you can actually hear the air moving.

While not every cut on the record is worthy of as much praise as its overall sonic qualities, there are plenty of standouts. “I’m Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight” may not be a lyrical masterpiece, but anyone who can’t get behind the notion that the solution to all our problems is to get out and have a good time should probably be listening to a different band. The title track is as catchy as a bass fishing tournament, with some nice little drum, bass, guitar and keyboard solos that really show off the tightness of the group. A shame that we have to wait until the end of side one to hear it.

Side two is even stronger, opening with “Imaginary Lover,” the group’s big hit, which charted as high as seven. It’s a medium-tempo track that’s so perfectly calibrated to the Lite Beer From Miller era that it sounds like any number of pop crooners could have paid to dub in their vocals. “The Ballad of Lois Malone” borrows that same great blues riff that powers ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and AC/DC’s “Ride On.” The final two tracks, “The Great Escape” and “Evileen” provide some measure of understanding for why Pandora will inevitably spit out Steely Dan within the first few songs of a newly created ARS station.

But please, don’t go that route. Yeah, I know, finding some modern way to listen to ARS might be more convenient or even put a few pennies in the pockets of these guys, but no matter how bad I feel about their blowing it 30 years ago, that’s no reason to compromise the joy of dropping your stylus on this album.

Runout Groove: A record as records were meant to be. The medium is the message.

Atlanta Rhythm Section - Champagne Jam
Polydor PD-1-6134, 1978

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEmULpVgH5I&w=560&h=373]

Atlanta Rhythm Section: allmusic.comWikipediaAmazon
Original photos copyright 2012 Jeff Sabatini

2012 Water Hill Music Fest

Brennan Andes Family Band
The Brennan Andes Family Band performs at the 2012 Water Hill Music Fest

Water Hill Music Fest
Ann Arbor, MI
May 6, 2012

When I was growing up, there was this 3-on-3 basketball tournament held in the streets of Lowell, Michigan, called Gus Macker. The weekend of the tournament was like Christmas for those of us who loved basketball. It didn’t matter whether you got a team together and entered or you just went to spectate, it was a weekend of pure basketball, played and watched for the love of the game. While there is still a great basketball tournament with that name – it’s actually a whole bunch of tournaments in over a dozen different cities now – anyone who ever dribbled one of those signature red, white and blue balls on a neighborhood street in Mackerville can tell you it hasn’t really been the same since it got too big for its birthplace.

But for a brief moment in the mid-1980’s, Gus Macker was basketball, the spirit of the sport stripped down to its essence. The entry fee wasn’t so steep that a four-man team of middle schoolers couldn’t scrape together the cash, and since the tournament was run mostly by volunteers, it was free to watch. Neighbors would sell lemonade and not worry too much about all the grass in their yard getting trampled. Everyone was courteous about where they set up their lawn chairs, and despite the fierce rivalries and competition that existed on the courts, the people at Gus Macker – men, women and children, young and old, alike – seemed to recognize that they were part of a community, no matter how brief and ad hoc.

Now I hadn’t thought about playing in Gus Macker in over 15 years, until I spent the afternoon at Ann Arbor’s second annual Water Hill Music Fest. This is unlike any other music festival I’ve experienced, not because it takes place in myriad locations about the west-side neighborhood all at the same time, but because the performance spaces are people’s porches, backyards, stoops, and living rooms, usually belonging to the musicians themselves. The event is free, parking is free, and while there’s a schedule and some rules about who can play (at least one member of each performance group must live in the neighborhood), the rest is joyously unorganized. The streets are not shut down, cars are parked here and there and everywhere, and though there are signs in yards indicating who is playing when, that’s about the extent of it.

But this is not unprofessional music – far from it. The highlight of my day was the Brennan Andes Family Band, made up of members of local jam band The Macpodz with some special guests, including a music teacher at my daughter’s school. They played in bass player Andes’ parents backyard, which gave the performance the feeling of a summer barbecue. I also saw Ann Arbor legend George Bedard rocking with Khalid Hanifi on the grand front porch of a historic and beautiful brick home and heard another local favorite, Chris Buhalis, sing a set of Woody Guthrie tunes from his own front yard, celebrating what would have been Guthrie’s 100th birthday this year. Several other well known musicians also played, including guitarist Dick Siegel, and Ron Brooks, the jazz bassist and former owner of the Bird of Paradise nightclub.

Part of the charm of Water Hill, however, is that it’s open to performers of all sorts. I watched a trio of elementary school kids play Bach on two violins and a classical guitar, sat through a set of funny children’s songs with scads of other parents while the kids who should have been listening went down the zip line in the guitar player’s back yard, and stood in the street blocking traffic to hear a middle-aged couple sing 100-year-old show tunes. The community spirit at the event was amazing. I went into one house to use the bathroom, as facilities were provided by generous neighbors at well-spaced locations around the festival. My daughter bought refreshments from one of her schoolmates who had set up a stand in her front yard and we stopped by at another of her classmates later to wash up. While we were there, we caught a few songs by a group playing legitimate swing-era big band music on their back patio, complete with a bombshell singer dressed in period getup.

While I attended the festival with my family, Water Hill didn’t bear any resemblance to the sort of canned entertainment that’s passed off in our society as “family friendly.” This was legitimate music, played in earnest by people who had invited the city into their homes to entertain them. The crowds included plenty of hipsters, old hippies, dogs, teenagers, old people, and just about every other demographic you could dream up. That they were all wandering the streets of Water Hill was fitting, as it’s a neighborhood that’s perhaps more economically and socially diverse than any other in our city.

What I didn’t see is worth noting: No drugs, no drunks, no cops and no self-absorbed idiots making a scene that ruins it for everyone else. Nobody seemed to be trying to cash in on the crowds either, save for a guy selling $1 records in his garage and another who put a “For Sale By Owner” sign in his front yard. (Somebody should buy his house, by the way, as it’s in a great location.) This is surprising, because the crowds were tremendous. Hundreds packed the yards of the performers who had name recognition, and kids and amateurs were pulling in crowds of fifty or more. The music was universally great, and even without huge PA’s and megawatt sound systems, it was easy to hear because people who wanted to chat were polite enough to just move down the street.

I had the best time at Water Hill, and I got a vibe that I hadn’t felt since I was a kid hanging out in Lowell in my high top Nikes. I looked around the neighborhood and saw a whole community of people enjoying themselves, being cool, united in the love of one simple thing. Then it was hoops, today it was music.

As fun as Water Hill was, however, it’s with a bit of concern that I write this article, knowing that publicizing the festival could lead to problems in the years to come.

By the time I played in Gus Macker in 1986, things were already changing. After spectating for a few years and watching the crowds grow, I finally got the nerve to form my own team in eighth grade, and I played in the final tournament that was held in Lowell. Neighbors had started to complain and the tournament was no longer just a small local affair. National exposure in Sports Illustrated had led to huge numbers of entries and lots more spectators, and even more big name players began entering. Gus Macker was still great fun, but it wasn’t the same once it moved to another nearby town and dramatically expanded, including going on the road and traveling to other cities.

Nothing this good, this pure and perfect tends to last.

Original photo copyright 2012 Jeff Sabatini

Ian Anderson – Thick As A Brick 2

Ian AndersonThick As A Brick 2 (Capitol)

Does the world really care what happened to Gerald Bostock?

I certainly don’t, but then again, I’m not a fan of Jethro Tull. Familiar with the band, yes. In fact, among the few rock albums that made an impression on me as a kid was the original Thick As A Brick, which my father had purchased on 8-track for some odd reason. Fascinated as I was by 8-tracks (as I was not allowed to touch dad’s record player without supervision) this album made its impact on my pre-adolescent mind primarily for its odd pairing of the flute with screaming electric guitars, which even then I was positive was not a legitimate use of said instruments. Dad had plenty of jazz records and tapes (including some Herbie Mann), and I was of the opinion that the flutes belonged on those recordings, an attitude I must admit to still embracing, at least in the context of Jethro Tull. More guitar, less flute, and certainly the minimum of Ian Anderson’s over-enunciated vocals makes for better Tull.

I recognize that said opinion is not likely to be shared by most, and raises the question of why someone prejudiced against Mr. Anderson would bother taking on the task of reviewing a solo release by the aforementioned flautist. Because, frankly, I’m sick of baby boomers, their fawning nostalgia, and all the other ways they continue to live in a mass state of delusion about the world and their place within it.

But before we get to all that, let’s take a moment for the briefest analysis of the music. What made the original Thick As A Brick such a classic was Martin Barre’s guitar playing. The original just plain rocks in a way that’s enveloping enough that you can ignore all the silliness and flute-work. But Barre does not play on Thick As A Brick 2 and the guitars are played down in Anderson’s solo work. The flute and vocals, on the other hand, ride high in the mix of TAAB 2, which sounds like a thoroughly modern recording, bright and polished. “Digital,” if you will. While there are still some rocking sections of TAAB 2, there aren’t enough of them to overshadow the narrative interludes, in which Anderson comes off sounding like a particularly annoying linguistics professor.

But the best reason to dislike TAAB 2 isn’t the music, it’s the way this whole project is mired in a sentimental conceit. Thick As A Brick is a 40-year-old album, released in 1972 when Anderson was still in his mid-20s. He’s a senior citizen now – Living In The Past, indeed! While I don’t begrudge him for trying to cash in on his legacy by recording this unimaginative sequel, I do despise his fans for putting him in this position. Because it’s pretty clear that most classic rock artists who didn’t die before they got old see a much more lucrative future in turning back the clock than turning out anything new.

While there are classic rockers who continue to release new music that’s actually new – see Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen – this wave of dusting off classics we’ve been drowning in recently needs to be stopped before we see Tommy 2 or Really Close to the Edge. Yes, it’s easy to get excited when a great band announces it will play a classic album in its entirety at a special concert or that a favorite artist is headed back into the studio to “rediscover” an older and less mature sound, but there’s also something downright mean about expecting a musician to stay fixed in time. Unless, of course, you lead your own life oblivious to the changes time has wrought.

My Vinyl Solution #0004: Cannonball Adderley Sextet – Planet Earth

My Vinyl Solution is simple: I’m listening to my records. As my collection has grown, I’ve realized that I’ve been spending too much time amassing lps, to the point that I have no idea of what I even own. Hence, this column.

Cannonball Adderley Sextet - Planet Earth
Cannonball Adderley Sextet, Planet Earth

So after fighting through not one, but two Asia albums in a row and peeking ahead at the next slab of vinyl on the shelf and realizing it’s a record that actually belongs to my wife, I have decided to throw the first curveball and grab an “A” record out of the jazz bin.

I have far fewer jazz albums than rock by a factor of maybe 10. But I grew up listening to jazz, because my dad is a huge jazz expert and has an amazing collection. So I know enough to be dangerous and I certainly have my favorites, which tend more towards the great albums from Miles Davis and John Coltrane, especially the stuff from the ’60s and, in the case of Miles, the ’70s.

I bought Planet Earth in college for not much money, during a confusing time where I was trying to listen to jazz on my own and not really liking it much because I hadn’t yet figured out the whole chronology and evolution of jazz, and couldn’t understand why when I liked, say, John Coltrane on A Love Supreme, I would get bored with some of his earlier, more traditional work. I think what attracted me to this record was as much the hippy dippy cover art as anything, other than a vague notion that “Cannonball” Adderley’s unique name resonated with me as “one of those guys my dad likes, so he has to be good.”

As I found out after bringing it home, as much as Planet Earth is a Cannonball Adderley Sextet album, four of the cuts are Yusef Lateef songs. (The other was written by Joe Zawinul, Adderley’s longtime piano player, and is literally tacked on to the end.) I immediately developed a liking for Lateef, one of those tenor saxophone players that I believe deserves far more respect than he gets outside of hardcore jazz circles, given how much of an influence he was on Coltrane’s later free jazz period. Lateef’s playing here sounds free enough to inspire, but without all the noise that can make listening to later, more atonal free jazz so difficult. He does play oboe on two tracks on Planet Earth, “Brother John,” a wild tribute to Coltrane (who was still very much alive when it was recorded), and “Syn-anthesia.” They are my two favorites on the album, because, well, how often do you hear anyone playing an oboe, let alone wailing on one?

Jazz is about improvisation, and live jazz is really where it’s at when it comes to developing an appreciation for the art form. It’s taken me years to grasp even the most basic ideas behind jazz, but this is one that even rock fans should be able to appreciate: “Live music is better bumper stickers should be issued!” These cuts are all live (save for the Zawinul song at the end) and full of energy and thus contribute to this being an outstanding collection.

Planet Earth is, like so many vintage jazz albums, a reissue of stuff designed to put cash in the record company’s pocket. Released on the “Riverside” label in 1969, roughly six years after the real Riverside Records went under, the album was actually a product of ABC Records, the music division of the TV network. The back cover liner notes, although interesting and written by Down Beat Editor Dan Morgenstern, conveniently don’t mention where any of these tracks appeared earlier. While my personal Cannonball discography is bereft of any other titles, likely sources include live albums released from the Sextet’s 1963 Japanese tour and a live album recorded at the Village Vanguard in New York City a year earlier. While I tend to eschew these sorts of compilations when it comes to rock music, the jazz world is so seedy that they’re unavoidable. And I’m just not that much of a purist when it comes to my jazz collection anyway.

Runout Groove: It may be a dodgy reissue, and I may have paid just 50 cents for it, but a compilation of this quality that’s never been released on CD is the best kind of keeper.

Cannonball Adderley Sextet - Planet Earth
Riverside RS-3401, 1969

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoAtTi_u2u8

Cannonball Adderley: allmusic.comWikipediaAmazon
Yusef Lateef: official websiteallmusic.comWikipediaAmazon
Original photos copyright 2012 Jeff Sabatini

My Vinyl Solution #0003: Asia – Alpha

My Vinyl Solution is simple: I’m listening to my records. As my collection has grown, I’ve realized that I’ve been spending too much time amassing lps, to the point that I have no idea of what I even own. Hence, this column.

Asia - Alpha

When we last left off, I was saying that the Asia album you want is the one with “Heat of the Moment” on it. Well, this is not that album. But from about the first 15 seconds of Alpha, I’m thinking this one might just be a keeper.

The opening track is a fast-tempo, synth-driven rocker, “Don’t Cry,” that sounds so familiar I must have heard it a million times on the radio when I was a kid. Or maybe it just sounds enough like REO Speedwagon that I think I’ve heard it. John Wetton could win a Kevin Cronin sound-alike contest in a heartbeat, I think. This is not a good song, really, but it hints at being something I might want to listen to again.

The next track, “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes” opens with a synth piano riff that’s similarly cut from the Top 40-friendly, REO ballad playbook. This is not good music in any way, shape or form, and it’s so thin and weak sounding from a production standpoint that I wonder what the hell the guys recording this album were thinking. There’s just no depth to the sound and very little bass.

Thankfully, this album seems to move pretty quickly. Indeed, for a group of guys hailing from prog rock bands, it’s pretty amazing that six of the 10 cuts on this lp clock in under the magic four-minute mark. Clearly they were trying to make pop music here.

The third track on the “alpha” side of Alpha, “Never In A Million Years” at least has some nice guitar playing on it, and it’s this – Steve Howe’s contribution – that makes me like this record better than Astra.

The next track still hasn’t solved my problems with the production any, but “My Own Time (I’ll Do What I Want)” does have a nice chorus and for some reason, it’s getting me to thinking about the similarities between Asia and Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Both were “supergroups” composed of guys who were really successful in other bands. Neither ever lived up to their promise. But the big difference between CSN and Asia is that by the time Asia showed up on the scene, the whole supergroup thing had already been played out. CSN had lost their way and other assemblages of star power had fizzled, like Blind Faith and Bad Company. I don’t know much about the history of Asia, nor do I really care, because it just seems like this was a bad idea from the start. I suppose as far as bad ideas of the early 1980’s go, there were far worse ones, like Reaganomics and the Cadillac Cimarron, but I digress.

“The Heat Goes On” is the rocking-est song on the first side of the album, and again, it’s Steve Howe who really shines amidst this lot of really mediocre songs. But I can’t really tell if it’s the songs or the recording, because I can’t really hear anything other than a blast of synthesized noise, even while I sit and intently listen. Picking out the instruments is damn near impossible, and there’s absolutely no sound stage to this record. I may as well be listening to it on a clock radio, rather than my stereo.

The “Beta” side opens with “Eye to Eye,” which is probably the best track on the album. It’s a legitimate hard rock song, and Wetton actually sounds kind of angry here. There’s a proggy sort of keyboard part with a change in tempo that’s backed up against a cheesy Beach Boys-style chorus, but it all kind of works. I really like this song, and it’s the first track that I’m really wishing was actually recorded well.

But that’s the thing, all of this album just sounds like crap. Checking out the liner notes while listening to the slow ballad, “The Last to Know,” I see that the album was recorded at Le Studio in Quebec, on two 24-track tape machines (Two? Really? Who in the hell needs 48 tracks?), and then mixed digitally. The result is like trying to stuff 10 pounds of shit in a five-pound bag. And a really bad bag, at that.

Digital gets a bad rap among audiophile types (yes, I’m sort of one), but the more I delve into this subject, I realize that it’s not digital itself that sucks but how digital recording and playback are poorly used and implemented that’s the problem. Clearly this is an example of an album that, because of being digitally mixed, sounds bad, even on an analog playback system. I’m not listening to a CD, which would probably just compound the problems with the compressed and brittle sound, but a good old-fashioned record. And it still sucks.

“The Last to Know,” turns out to be a great epic track, which grows into something that I wish I would have slow danced to in middle school. The next song, “True Colors,” however, just tries too hard and winds up sounding like a bad soundtrack cut from movie about an amateur sports team. “Midnight Sun” might as well be album filler, a slowish song about who the hell knows what, but at least Howe gets a solo on it.

I’m really tired of listening by the time the album closes with “Open Your Eyes,” the only truly long song on the album, at 6:26. But it’s not the big delicious prog rock mess it should be. It’s just a bad pop song with an electric piano and guitar “interlude” that doesn’t belong – but does waste a good minute of your life.

Runout Groove: There’s a pair of 24-track master tapes out there begging to be remixed in analog with more Steve Howe. I’ll keep this around for comparison, just in case that ever happens.

Geffen GHS 4008, 1983

Asia: official reunion websiteallmusic.comWikipediaAmazon
Original photos copyright 2012 Jeff Sabatini

My Vinyl Solution #0002: Asia – Astra

My Vinyl Solution is simple: I’m listening to my records. As my collection has grown, I’ve realized that I’ve been spending too much time amassing lps, to the point that I have no idea of what I even own. Hence, this column.

Asia - Astra
Asia, Astra

So the first thing you may notice if you read my last column post, is that regardless of what kind of writer I am, I clearly don’t have a grasp of the alphabet. Or more to the point, I’ve done a really crappy job of organizing my records. Now I could waste a bunch of time going through and making sure that my records are indeed, alphabetized. Or I could spend the time actually listening. Clearly there is only one choice here, and that’s to forge ahead and pull the lp’s off the shelf in whatever order they are in and call it good.

Thinking about the last time I did go through the arduous task of alphabetizing all these records, I seem to recall at least getting them close enough such that all the A’s are together, all the B’s follow, and so on and so forth. That will just have to suffice here. But it also brings up another point, which is that all my jazz albums (and I think blues, as well) are separated out from the rest. Which means this is going to be a very rock-centered endeavor, unless, of course, I mix the jazz in as I go along, which I think I should do.

In fact, since I’ve established that things are only going to progress along in a poor facsimile of order, I’m going to give myself free reign to toss in whatever albums I feel like to mix things up. Besides the jazz and blues, I also have a substantial stack of records that are unfiled simply because I lack the shelf space. Hopefully as I free some up by discovering crap that I have no reason to keep and then getting rid of it, I can integrate these many records that are still living in milk crates.

And that brings us to Asia’s Astra, fittingly enough. Side one kicks off with “Go,” which has an interesting chorus. Yeah right. “Get up and go” is, however, an ominous beginning, because despite my love of arena rock, it’s exactly what I want to do. This album really sounds terrible from the first note.

“Voice of America” may be a tribute to the military radio station, it may not. I really don’t care, because despite liking the chorus quite a bit, this song sounds like it’s about twice as long as it needs to be.

“Hard On Me” is, indeed, hard on me. The synths are just embarrassing. I mean, I could listen to something like Yes’ Big Generator all day long and not get tired of it, and Tony Kaye is using gear from the same era, recording in the same sorts of studios, and the sound is somewhat similar. Except that it doesn’t suck.

Which brings up the big question I am asking myself as I try and ignore this mid-tempo ballad, “Wishing,” while resisting the temptation to write another bad pun based on the name of the song. Who the hell are these guys in Asia? Now I’ve never listened to this record before, but I’ve kept it around for a few years since acquiring it, thinking that Asia was one of those bands that I’d be instantly familiar with from years of listening to classic rock radio.

But as this first side ends with the insipid “Rock and Roll Dream” (which rhymes “reality” with “never see”), I’m realizing I’ve never heard any of these awful songs before. And thank goodness.

Despite not wanting to flip the album and debating just cutting it short, side two starts with a song called “Countdown to Zero,” which is actually kind of good. It begins with something that sounds almost exactly like the THX “Deep Note,” and for the first time I am motivated to actually pull out the sleeve and look at the liner notes, which are as uninteresting as most of the music. “Zero” at least turns into a perfect ’80s Cold War paranoia song, worthy of being included on a mix tape right next to Sting’s “Russians.

It’s here though that I’ve had it. Clearly this record is going to Encore in the hopes of generating some trade credit. The remaining songs, “Love Now Till Eternity,” “Too Late,” “Suspicion,” and “After The War” aren’t as bad as the truly atrocious first side, or maybe I’m just growing comfortably numb. At least this album was not released during the CD era in the ’90s, as then I could have had an extra 25 minutes to slog through.

Runout Groove: This is not the Asia record with “Heat of the Moment” on it. That’s the one you want.

Asia - Astra
Geffen GHS 24072, 1985

Asia: official reunion websiteallmusic.comWikipediaAmazon
Original photos copyright 2012 Jeff Sabatini

My Vinyl Solution #0001: Average White Band

Launching a new column is somewhat daunting, as there’s usually a lot to explain. But an editor of mine once told me to just dispense with the disclaimers and jump right in. The readers will figure it out, he felt. And besides, plotting out all the thinking that went into the thing is somewhat presumptuous isn’t it? After all, you haven’t written shit yet, so laying out a bunch of crap that may or may not come to fruition is like showing people the boxes of parts you’ve ordered for the rusting hulk in the garage. Just shut up and work on the car and call me when it can run 12s already!

So here is the barest explanation of what you are about to read: I’m listening to my records. I have an embarrassment of riches in that I have come to absorb several substantial caches of vinyl from friends in the last five years. But as great as that is, it’s also left me with no idea of what I even own. So here goes, in alphabetical order.

Average White Band - Average White Band
Average White Band, (Eponymous)

If there was any justice in this world, the first platter I spin would be something from AC/DC. But alas, sometimes coming at the beginning of the alphabet is not a good thing, as my AC/DC records were damaged due to some bad choices in storage. The incident actually served as motivation for this project.

So instead, we start with Average White Band.

Wow, this has a real Yacht Rock sound, more so than I remember. I’m not so sure which of the vocalists, Alan Gorrie or Hamish Stuart is a better Michael McDonald, but together they do an entirely credible job of laying down smooth music. The first track, “You Got It” is absolutely a party, awesome white funk. Indeed, there’s good reason why I have this on my shelves, as I listened to this album many, many times in college, usually while drinking and doing bong hits, getting ready to take the bus to the Nectarine Ballroom for ’70s night.

“Got the Love” is a solid second track, but the real hit on the album is “Pick Up The Pieces,” the instrumental jam that comes next. I think I’ve probably heard this song enough times in my life, but maybe the fact that I’m typing on a laptop right now instead of slamming a 40 has more to do with my lack of enthusiasm. But thinking back, “Person to Person” always struck me as a far more interesting song, with what are unquestionably the most interesting lyrics on the album. “Work to Do,” which closes the first side, is another good one, and I’ve got to say, the first half of this album has me wondering why it hasn’t been on my turntable in years.

Side two starts with some nice guitar playing that leads into a slow jam, “Nothing You Can Do,” which is the first song on the album to sound dated in a bad way. I don’t know, I’m just making this up, but I imagine this song being a staple on AM radio. The next track, “Just Wanna Love You Tonight” is about as clichéd as anything on contemporary radio, and it’s causing me wonder if I’ve even listened to this second side of the album. Probably not, as the pre-partying would rarely allow for more than one side of any slab of vinyl before we’d move on to something else.

I’ll keep my thoughts on “Keepin’ It to Myself” to myself. And although at this point I’m certainly not as enthused about this album as I was after the first side, at least side two still has “I Just Can’t Give You Up” on it, which is well worth suffering through the rest. Stuart lays down a pretty wicked guitar solo on this up-tempo track and his vocals are outstanding as well. “There’s Always Someone Waiting” closes the album with a bluesy number that seems to channel ZZ Top, and it’s not so bad, though it’s a bit overdone.

Runout Groove: Average White Band is certainly worth owning, though I don’t think I’m going to be playing it straight – or straight through – very often.

Average White Band - Average White Band
Atlantic SD 7308, 1974

Average White Band: official websiteallmusic.comWikipediaAmazon
Original photos copyright 2012 Jeff Sabatini

One Man Gathers What Another Man Spills

Europe 72: The Complete RecordingsWho says people don’t buy CDs anymore? Rhino just pre-sold its entire limited edition pressing of the Grateful Dead’s “Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings” box set, in less than four days. This is an insane collection, with 60+ CDs that comprise the full recordings of all 22 Dead shows on that historic tour. With a $450 price tag and a whole bunch of extras including a coffee table book, this was not a box set for the casual fan.

Which brings us back to the problem that’s been plaguing the record industry for over a decade: It’s run by MBA dickheads at giant corporations who don’t give a shit about music, real music fans, or anything other than money. If these assholes can’t create a celebrity culture around an artist, with an integrated marketing plan that includes movies, books, toys, and other “branded product tie-ins” they don’t want anything to do with it.

Well, fuck them. Do the math here: 60 CDs and 7,200 copies is 432,000 discs sold. Even if Billbaord/Soundscan doesn’t count each individual disc of a box set as a separate sale, when “Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings” ships the Dead will have sold over four times as many CDs as the Decemberists did this past week with their #1 album “The King Is Dead.” And the sales number for this new collection will certainly grow between now and the actual release date in September, as the Dead have announced plans to issue a music-only version of the collection to meet the overwhelming demand.

Original press release below…

Continue reading One Man Gathers What Another Man Spills