Choice, Value & Connection

In a recent interview with a USA Today reporter, Hilary Rosen, CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, said, in reaction to a line of questioning related to the nullification of Napster through the efforts of that group, “Consumers want to know their access to music is going to give them the most choice, the best value and connection with their artists.”

Let’s break that down.

I’m not precisely sure what “connection with their artists” means. I always figured that this was the sort of thing that Tiger Beat—er—Rolling Stone provides. To say nothing of posters, T-shirts, bath towels, hats, and the other objectifying objects of today’s musical professional.

As for “choice,” I think that this is one area that the Internet certainly provides an advantage, but one that is curiously enervated. Look what’s happened to small record stores. Actually, you’d have a tough time looking, because they have, by and large, disappeared. Their economic model is being crushed by the likes of Best Buy, Circuit City, etc. While those big stores once offered a variety of product, of late it is clear that only the “hits” are stocked. Try to find something that was released the week before last and you’re probably out of luck. The reason why the small record outlets have all but vanished is simple to understand. The majority of music consumers buy hit records (which explains why they are “hits”). The big stores not only have other product lines to help contribute to profitability (from irons to audio players to big screen TVs), but they are also able to secure large quantities of hit discs: Buy in bulk and cut a better deal. So the small guys who remain have an exceedingly tough time of it, being largely sustained by GloNo-friendly customers. But before long, many of them will be empty storefronts—or Starbuck’s outlets. And with their passing, choice. Which then leads to a search for the non-hit on the ‘Net. Which may be efficient, but isn’t there something to be said for the physical act of discovery of the obscure in the stacks, something far more satisfying than the mere tap-tap-tap on the keyboard?

Finally, the “best value.” How many people—be they consumers or even recording artists—associate “value” with the way that the recording companies provide product” Whereas the CD format once provided new economies for consumers, it seems that the only economies of interest are related to economies of scale, as the injection molding machines run 24/7, chunking out still another N’Sync, Britney, _______________ (fill in the blank) hit-maker. Prices creep ever-upward with determination.

Who is well served by the status quo? Only those who assure that it remains so.

That’s all right

I don’t know how long this has been up, but has a great collection of Elvis photos from his 1954 Louisiana Hayride days. In my opinion, this is when Elvis looked his best. He’s so cool in these pictures, it hurts to look at them.

ElvisThese were the days of the original Sun Sessions, when Elvis, Scotty and Bill — with a whole lotta help from Sam Phillips — were actually creating a whole new style of music, a combination of country and western with rhythm and blues that no one had heard before. Say what you want about Bill Haley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry — all great artists — but they didn’t come up with anything as new as our boy, Elvis.

Just listen to that very first single. “That’s All Right” is an obscure blues song by Big Boy Crudup, hopped up all hillbilly-style. The flip is “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” a famous Bill Monroe bluegrass hit, rocked out with no trace of bluegrass left in it. It’s not just a white boy trying to sing like a black guy. It’s way more than that. Al Jolsen tried to sing like a black guy. Bing Crosby did too. What Elvis did changed the world. And that’s the way it is.


Old Man Winter has finally been kicked out of the Midwest on his ass. And with Summer comes the annual ritual of neighbors introducing their record collections to each other. So why does it remind me of the menu at a Holiday Inn?

Hot times, Summer in the city.

Speakers in front windows blast tunes into the street, the better to have a catch to. Loc’d out Monte Carlos and Impalas cruise the strip, competing to see who can rattle more license plates to the sounds of the latest single (currently, the favorite seems to be J.Lo’s “Play That Song”). And of course, everyone in the city is out on the porch, barbecuing, drinking, and kicking back to their favorite Summertime music. But too often and for too many people, a few rays of sunshine and a bag of charcoal means that they need to dig down into that stack o’ CDs at the end of the rack, the ones with the cracked jewel cases and sun-blistered, margarita-stained liner notes. These are the discs that have stuck through 3 colleges, 5 apartments, 2 girlfriends, and too many Summer bashes. They mean a lot to the owner, and occasionally (sometime between Coronas 6 and 10), he can relate some “bitchin'” collegiate anecdotes that get his work buddies howling.

It’s become such a cliché. Summer? Corona? Burgers? Quick! To the Jimmy Buffet!

What caused this knee-jerk reaction? Well, part of it is Jimmy himself. A failed Nashville troubadour who re-made himself as a Gulf Coast Tropic-core rocker with a penchant for pirates, beer, and laziness, Buffet’s 1973 nugget “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” and its smirking punchline forever positioned him as every aging beer drinker’s Instant Summer Panic Button. Which explains the sales numbers generated by the man himself. Something tells me his album of showtunes (co-written with everyone’s favorite wild party guest Herman Wouk) hasn’t exactly funded the man’s latest jetboat purchase. For legions of SUV-driving Parrotheads, Buffet’s ketchup-and-mustard greatest hits collection and his annual Summer tour are all they know (or care) of Key West’s favorite son. So what’s tiresome about Summer music? Not Buffet the man. It’s Buffet the fan

The past few weeks have seen some beautiful nights in Chicagoland. The breeze is just right, the beer gardens are full, and dogs are meeting people on every stoop. Recently, I sat down on my porch with a can of Bud to watch the world go by. Jeeps rolled down the street with The Wu and Crazy Town booming out of the back. A fella across the way had the baseball game on a little transistor radio. And then I heard them, wafting across the warm Summer air from the coach house behind my building.

The Doors.

Now, “Touch Me” was never a good song. But it’s even worse coming out of a pair of shitty Realistics. Jim Morrison’s moronic warble accompanies production that’s two steps away from a Tom Jones road show rolling into Branson, MO. His delivery is so bloated, Morrison makes Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without A Face” sound like Johnny Hartman. But I digress. I’m still out on the porch, and my Bud’s getting warm while I ponder why in God’s name my neighbors believe The Doors are worthy of anything, let alone Summertime outdoor music listening.

I think my neighborhood Doors-lovers have quite a bit in common with the Parrotheads, and both share an affinity with those consumers out there keeping the singles and soundtracks sections of the store commercially viable. Many people just don’t want to work that hard for their music. The only thing I could ever compliment The Doors on were a few funky organ licks. But Jimmy Buffet is a hard-working dude, and at least his music has some narrative depth to it. So I’m not necessarily railing on the musicians. Like I said, it’s more a problem with the fan himself. Too many times, people simply settle for what’s available on a “Top Sellers For Summer!” endcap, not realizing the gems that lay beyond greatest hits collections and the same 8 Buffet songs that everyone else loves. It’s like my man Phil Wise said before. Record shopping is tough business. But if you have the patience to explore, and the ears to listen, those Coronas and brats just might start tasting a little better. There’s nothing wrong with knowing the lyrics to “Cheeseburger In Paradise,” or even (ugh) “LA Woman.” But why not make your barbecue a little bit cooler with a few unheard or un-recongnized gems? In the meantime, I’ll be on my stoop, drinking a Bud.

And the back of my neck’s getting dirty and gritty.


The Heat is On

So it’s 80 degrees here in Detroit, which means a lot of things. Like, summer is here, and the time is right for… listening to bad bar bands covering Jimmy Buffet on the deck at some cheesy restaurant? Please, not that.

Summer should mean that it’s time to head up to Pine Knob or Val du for some great outdoor rock and roll. But alas, that ritual seems to have died with the lp. (Or it died when I got that reckless driving ticket in Mears?) Or perhaps, more accurately, I’ve just gotten old enough that the only sort of music that really gets my rocks off happens in a bar. When I’m drunk. When they’re drunk. It costs about $5 plus whatever it takes to get my head in the right mood. (Editor’s note: Tickets to see, ahem, Chicago this summer are over $40, not including parking.)

Problem is, going to a bar in the summer to see a band, if not one of the aforementioned parrots, is often the equivalent to “making weight.” Sure I want to lose about 20 pounds, but not in one night and not by sweating. A guy the other day in a local band and gave me further motivation to skip the bar band scene for the next few months: “Most good bands don’t tour in the summer because it’s too damn hot.”

I do have high hopes for the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (I may even have a hotel party), but other than that, the soundtrack to my Summer in the City is going to have to come from my record collection. There’s much to do in the summer and I’m glad it’s here, but I’m going to miss the action and the ears ringing in the morning.

How many years?

There’s a silly article on about how rock and roll flourishes every 12 years. According to the author 1967, 1979, and 1991 were abnormally good years for music, and therefore, we can expect another high point in a couple of years.

Looking casually at my Desert Island discs (which I’m already completely unsatisfied with, by the way), I noticed that none of my picks were released or recorded on any of those years. I’m too lazy to go through everybody else’s picks and determine when the good years were, but if someone else wants to do it, feel free.

I think the overall flaw with Geoff Shandler’s theory is that great music has been written and performed and recorded and released every single year. And a lot of it. Sometimes (often) the great records don’t sell a ton and they don’t make it to the charts or to the radio, but they’re out there. It may be hard to find them, but they’re around. The current state of music is pretty great. I’ve picked up some great albums recently. The fact that the radio stations play a bunch of crap and MTV doesn’t show videos anymore only means that we have to work harder to find the good stuff.

The web can help. Along with legally dubious means such as Napster and good old-fashioned FTP, there are tons of legitimate sites that have songs available to stream and/or download for free. I like and it’s always my first stop when I hear about a band I want to check out. If they don’t have anything there, I resort to CDNOW for audio samples or to Napster to see if anything’s out there.

And don’t forget about your local, independent record stores. As long as the guys behind the counter aren’t snotty punks, they will usually have a few current releases to recommend. And they should even let you listen to it before you buy it. Get to know them. Let them get to know you, and I guarantee their recommendations will be more suited to your taste than anything a computer database can come up with.

Good music is available now, and it’s always been available. Go out there and find it. I just picked up the new Me First and the Gimme Gimmes record and it’s a hoot. Non-stop fun. All covers of 60’s songs. Maybe not for everyone, but I smile every time I listen to them roaring through Cat Stevens’ “Wild World.”

New Pornographers: Cat-Scratch-Ewan

Given that the ol’ Spring Fever has spread so far through our lives here in Chicago that I got supremely soused at my man Phil Wise’s house last Sunday and had to leave work early the following day due to “exhaustion” (hey, if it’s a good enough excuse for Matthew Perry…), I have been listening almost exclusively to power-pop opuses since my late-Monday recovery. (Aside to Mrs DeEtta Kambick, my grade school librarian: Sorry about the run-on sentence.)

And my record of choice? Mass Romantic by The New Pornographers.

Mass Romantic by the New PornographersIt’s not like they’ve been at it as long as The Knack. NP was assembled, Justice League style, out of a hodgepodge of Vancouver scenesters whose day jobs include the bands Zumpano, Destroyer, and Limblifter. Bloodshot Records stalwart and owner of huge voice Neko Case is even along for the ride on 2 or 3 numbers. Mass Romantic (Mint) has only come to fruition after years of thinking about it, and only then between the other projects of its members (shit, Neko Case lives in Chicago. And that’s nowhere near Vancouver!). Chris Newman is NP’s main cheerleader. While his work in Zumpano has always been a more, ahem, baroque approach to pop, the music here is pure, uncut pop/rock demon weed (can you smell it?). You’ve got your rolling drum fills dropping down into power chords, no less than five-part harmonies, and plenty of snappy songwriting that moves the album along on its fuzzy, sugary tip. Think The Tremeloes fucking around with Weezer’s guitars.

Ballads? New Pornographers aren’t having it. You’re not going to find the sequel to “Heaven” on Mass Romantic, even if Bryan Adams is from their hometown. The straightforward rock of “Letter From An Occupant” or “My Slow Descent Into Alcoholism” plays like music made without pretense, and without the intervention of a greasy A & R dude who “doesn’t hear a single.” After all, NP is compiled of artists who release their records on labels like Mint and Bloodshot. The freewheeling individuality that independent labels offer their artists is soaked into Mass Romantic’s pure pop fiber; it gives the album’s vocals that smiling sound that can only come out of musicians doing what they totally dig.

One of the best things about the set is that it’s Canadian. I’ve never been a huge fan of our Northern neighbors’ musical output. It’s always one step away from Christian rock. The aforementioned Adams, Barenaked Ladies, Our Lady Peace? If they have mullets in Canada, you’ll surely find them at these bands’ shows. (What would a Canadian mullet be called? The Northwest Territory? A Canadian Mounty? Yukon Do It? Ah, Never mind…) All of which makes the absurdly catchy pop/rock of Vancouver’s New Pornographers that much more exciting to hear. Who knows, it’s probably just a one-off album, given the bandmembers’ other projects. But this Spring, Mass Romantic is my album to play frisbie to, and somehow it makes my Pabst taste better.

Maybe I should be drinking a Moosehead?…..Nah. PBR me, ASAP.


Here on Gilligan’s Island

Sure, it’s old and it’s sort of lame, but the idea of compiling your “Desert Island Discs” really makes you think about how you feel about music. This is particularly difficult for music freaks, the kind of people who cherish items as extravagant as the Complete Hank Williams Recordings box set. Still though, it’s an interesting exercise, so I asked the Glorious Noise posse to come up with their Desert Island Discs. Click here to see what kind of hut-buddies we’d be.

And if you want to show us your own list of Desert Island Discs, we created a new topic on the Board. Interact!

Continue reading Here on Gilligan’s Island

Gabba gabba hey, Grey Lady

The “Week in Review” section of the Sunday New York Times is not a straight-up chronicle of what happened during the preceding week; rather, it is a section where some of the key events of the week are essayed. So, for example, the April 22 edition examines the situations in the Middle East and in China; slavery in Sudan and the possible consequences of child care on the development of kids. This is generally serious stuff in the Newspaper of Record.

But there, just below the fold on page 3 of the section, is a photo of Joey Ramone. He died the previous Sunday, April 15. Age: 49. And with the shot is a piece by Jon Pareles, who examines what Joey , Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy did to punk in particular and music in general.

The last sentence of the piece is worth pondering:

“If the Ramones had been, at first glance, a joke, they turned out to be the joke the conquered the world.”

And a joke that got serious run in the Times. Back in ’76, it is hard to imagine such a thing happening. Play hard.

Rock and roll can change your life.