Thursday, March 8, 2012

Good Friends Are For Keeps (AT&T)

Concept albums are great, often. Not always, of course, but in the right hands, I think they make for some of the best music of the last few decades. The Beatles, Yes, The Foo Fighters, Radiohead - just to name very well known examples, have all dabbled in the medium with great success. I'll admit that I'm also a somewhat prolific contributor, so I may be somewhat biased.

Concept compilations though, are a little scarier, especially when the concept is pretty transparent.

I'm not gonna hate too much though - this is a pretty awesome way for the phone company to commemorate 100 years of phone service! They essentially collected 10 pop songs from between 1876 and 1976, all on the subject of telephones (most of them also about love). It all works pretty well, partially due to both sides of the record opening up with a specially recorded track by Max Morath, covering turn-of-the-century tunes (the second is a medley).

Of course, one reason for the recording of original tracks for such a compilation is that most of these songs are too old to have decent enough surviving recordings to stand up to the multi-tracked pop masterpieces that round out the album. This was actually a great move - I doubt that any degree of mastering work could have levelled an old scratched up '78 or wax cylinder recording to stand up against Vikki Carr's "It Must Be Him".

What I'm looking to is the 200 year double disc edition. What will they add? Perhaps "Area Codes" by Ludacris? "Telephone" by Lady Gaga and Beyoncé? Personally, I'm voting for No Doubt's "Spiderwebs", Weird Al's "Phony Calls", Cake's "No Phone", and most importantly; Laurie Anderson's "O Superman". Of course, I'm getting ahead of myself - we've got another 64 years of music that hasn't been written yet to pick from!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Shep Fields Orchestra and Paul Lavalle and Orchestra (Tiara)

I once knew someone who described the latest Radiohead album at the time as "milquetoast". Actually I think he typed "milktoast" but that's another matter. Regardless, as much as I hate such words, I can't justify using them to describe something like a Radiohead album when records exist that are clearly more deserving of the term.

Yes, this record is bland. Two sides of mostly string and reed instrumental songs, with an uncredited baritone singer on the first side. Yet another "capitalizing on an already famous person's existing recordings" release, by a formulaic, low budget record label. I have very little to say about the music itself; the singer has an obnoxiously consistent vibrato (actually sortof worth listening to at 45 speed for the amusement factor), the orchestral arrangements never stray from consistent strings with occasional woodwind accompaniment and extremely basic percussion, the selections are boring and predictable, and the lyrics make lots of romantic references to Gypsies and vaguely Spanish sounding people and places - all extremely typical of the period.

But wait, what is this I see on the cover? That wonderful word "and" appears not once, but twice in the title of the record - "and Paul Lavalle and Orchestra" is the issue at hand. See, although this record is billed with Shep Fields' name, the entire second side is actually the work of another somewhat lesser known ensemble director. Ultimately, the two are very similar popular 30's bandleaders who went on to do movie scoring and DJ work later on. Fields died in the 80's, Lavalle in the 90's.

This record wouldn't even really register on my radar in either a positive or negative light if the back cover hadn't made such a hubub about the sound being "engineered to perfection" (rather than, as I often complain, using the space to credit players, songwriters, engineers). They actually go so far as to list model numbers of the tape machines and record lathes used to record and master the record, name-dropping Ampex, Neumann and Telefunken.

Sadly, the "mastering" job leaves much to be desired. While Shep's side is passable, the difference in level between sides one and two is drastic, and poor Paul's music really suffers. Cranked (and possibly compressed?) to clipping, this record is perhaps an early victim of the volume wars that have consumed so many modern pop songs, driven as high as they can go - or in this case even higher, as the distortion is bad enough to obscure a number of fast moving string lines. In fact, the sound is so bad that it's hard to conceive of this as anything but a serious mistake somewhere along the way, for which I hope someone got fired.

If speculation isn't enough and you need real proof of a sloppy mastering job, I can provide. I was surprised to uncover this record and find that it has apparently been in my collection for awhile, as evidenced by a bright pink sticker already present on the side two label, reading "Watch out for FAULTY RUN-OUT GROOVE" in m own handwriting. As I loosely recall, letting this record play out resulted in a needle dancing merrily on the center label. On the plus side: if you like noise music, it's probably better than what's in the actual grooves.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Lawrence Welk plays Dixieland (Coral)

These four tunes are apparently selections from a 12" record of the same name. Despite the title, Welk does no playing of any dixieland, but instead produces a record played by some already very well respected players in the genre; some from his usual band, others from elsewhere. I found a bunch of info (including the original liner notes from the 12") on this blog about Pete Fountain, who is featured on this record playing clarinet.

But hey, just when I was ready to dismiss Welk entirely, I have to admit that this is a pretty great little selection of tunes - and he did co-write one of them, which is a nice touch. Frankly, he put together some great players and got them to make some great dixieland, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. I wouldn't mind finding the full 12" to add to my collection, for now this little morsel will have to do.

My only real complaint: there's no banjo on this record, so what the heck is the banjo doing on the cover? Major disappointment for me, since I'm really looking for some good banjo music and so far not finding any.

Star Wars (20th Century Records)

Yes, 20th Century as in 20th Century Fox.

Unfortunately I'm missing the original sleeve that I assume this had at one point, although if it was pressed as a promo it may have been in a boring one anyway. This EPIC records sleeve is clearly not a match, but I figured it was interesting enough to deserve a photograph. At least this record was at one point important enough for someone to want to put their initials on it, so I guess that's something.

Side one is more or less what you'd expect, although it is a strange and protracted arrangement of the Star Wars main theme, with weird quick cuts between sections and an awkward fade out at the end. One interesting thing about such a short, manic edit of the theme is the opportunity it offers to compare the instrumentation choices in the different sections side by side. Some very cool decisions, and great use of the orchestra. It also struck me that you very rarely hear movie themes written purely for orchestra anymore - generally rock or electronic music elements are worked in somehow, or take over entirely. I believe it has less to do with budget (since you're still paying for the entire orchestra, unless you're using a sample set), and more to do with audience attention span and the need for increasingly "driving" music (rather than an interest in the human touch).

Side two is a little more fun - the Cantina Band song in its full splendor, all 2:44 of it. There's about three or four sections to this tune that I'm pretty sure I'd never heard before. It's much easier to hear the details on a record like this than in the movie, and I was fascinated to hear that it's about 50% synthesizers (fulfilling most of the bass and comping duties) and 50% sax and clarinet (playing all the lead lines, including the iconic clarinet melody). It's a very cool take on a dixieland feel in an alien setting.

The synth patches are actually quite cool, although they now might be seen as somewhat cheesy, since these are the kinds of sounds that inspired a thousand digital synth presets in the last 30 years or so - patches with names like "SquishBass" and "DrmsofSteel".

The song itself has some weird tonal business going on, some weird energy killing harmonic leaps back to the tonic - but the melodies are killer throughout. Most of this song, as I recall, is obscured or cut out entirely in the cantina scene itself, so the bulk of the tune struck me as brand new. The main theme is repeated quite a few times, and indeed this version ends with that section, on a long fadeout.

Interesting too that the Cantina Band song is credited to the London Symphony Orchestra - while I would believe that the woodwind section played all the horns, I find it unlikely that they convinced their regular pianist to play the synthesizer parts, and indeed I would bet they were played by John Williams himself. Likely the credit is due to contractual obligations.

Lawrence Welk - Out of a Clear Blue Sky/Theme from My Three Sons (Dot)

"Hello! This is Lawrence Welk. You've made me a very happy man by helping to make my Dot record of 'Calcutta!' sell a million copies. So, do every DJ, everywhere; thank you, from the bottom of my heart."

So begin both sides of this record, with a little shout-out from the Welkmeister himself. I actually have two copies of this from my avant turntablism days, and I used that same vocal sample in a piece that I wrote as a composition student in college.

Anyway, this is a promotional 45 of typical Welk schlock. There are a few very cool production choices, particularly some great harpsichord playing and some very cool use of a group of female vocalists, but if I'm going to listen to Welk's releases, I'll stick with the Dixieland record above.

The Blue-Tail Fly (Cricket)

I really hate to use an already overused meme, but;

This looks like a record from the '40s though, so I'm guessing the producer would disagree. Since this is apparently for "Little Americans", I'm assuming Evon Hartmann felt that an old black man in raggedy clothes entertaining aryan looking kids in front of a corn field (with a spotted dog looking on, no less) is a classic American scene. To me, our guitar-weilding protagonist looks like he's just been blackmailed by his audience into singing for them, lest he be falsely reported for child abuse.

I dont know how much farther I can go with this, so let's focus instead on the pretty awesome-looking inside label.

Much better.

Ironically, after all that hubub it turns out the singer on this track is pretty obviously white. Ultimately what we get is a pretty mediocre and really long running arrangement of "Jimmy Crack Corn", with the original narrative intact - a slave intentionally allows his master to die via negligence.

So, uhm...

Well anyway, apparently "CRICKET BONUS PLAY RECORDS give you the greatest plus in children's entertainment" which I guess means indoctrination into a culture where our national history of racial struggle is re-appropriated as consumerist children's entertainment. I mean c'mon, 29¢ was a lot back then!

Oh, and side two? Side two is totally phoned in. Based on the audio quality and the credit given to "Chorus" for singing, I'm pretty certain they pulled an old 78 out of the archives and re-recorded both sides onto one side of this 45. Decent a-capella versions of "Oh Susanna" and "Camptown Races" populate this side. Nothing to write home about - basically the equivalent of the "shovelware" on 90's CD-ROMs. Thanks, Cricket!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Natural History Magazine - The language and music of the Wolves (Tonsil)

This record is a hipster favorite, for obvious reasons.

And it's pretty much what you'd expect. One side consists of Redford, "actor and nature lover", offering his sage thoughts on the plight of wolves in the domesticated United States, punctuated by wolf howls. The other side is the exact same wolf howls, repeated, layered, re-ordered.

The key here is that they actually replay the same samples over and over again. One band is actually called "Single Howls Joined to Give Illusion of Pack Howl". Why they felt the need to assemble that track even though they finish off the record with a number of legit group howls, nobody knows.

Redford spins a true and important tale of the misunderstood wild wolf, losing its traditional predatory hunting grounds to agriculture and then having its food source cut off by possessive humans. I have a tough time believing him as passionate wolf-lover with his deadpan delivery and stock photo gaze on the back cover. From beginning to end of this record, Redford's droll musings fail to present the copied and spliced wolf calls that are expected to carry the weight of this record and the whole effort falls flat.

I can imagine the conversation with his agent now. "I've got this great gig for you, Robbie," (I imagine his agent wearing a tweed suit and chewing on a cigar) "It doesn't pay much... okay it doesn't pay at all. But this environmentalist thing is big, big I tell you, big!" I also see this as a pretty one-sided conversation.

Oh, also; Art Director George Lois, you're friggin' fired. I mean, I know it was 1971 and you only had so much to work with, and I realize this is only an "American Museum of Natural History Special Member's Bonus", but I just feel like you could have gone a little farther here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Lawrence Welk - Calcutta! (Dot)

This is probably one of the most common records to be found in US thrift stores.

I once used a sample in a turntable piece of Mr. Welk talking about this record (taken from a lead-in track at the beginning of another single, probably set up for radio airplay). Although I figured I knew roughly what it would sound like, I was always a little curious. Well, I guess I can tick that one off the list.

I seriously have nothing to say about the dreck on this record (seriously, a shuffle-time version of "In the Hall of the Mountain King"?), but I have a lot to say about the philosophy of record production. Even though Welk was to some degree an accordionist, he was really a musician only second to acting as a producer and resident control freak on his show and during his recording sessions. His insistence on soulless, inane and bland stylistic decisions was a wild commercial success that changed the face of popular music for the worst, and is still affecting us today. In fact, I would argue that no recognizable change was affected in commercial popular music until Britney Spears took on her "bad girl" image. Until then, every overproduced record had the clear goal of pulling as many fans as possible, at all costs. Is that really necessary?

No. Plenty of amazing artists have spread their music far and wide without cow-towing to the lowest common denominator. The effect of this has been the lowering of the bar for decades. I want to say that there is finally some degree of recovery of artistic integrity going on, but I'm biased since I've managed to surround myself with so many fantastic musicians doing good work.

Speaking of artistic integrity, see how big Welk's name is on the cover? Good ol' Lawrence didn't write or arrange a single tune on this record. I'm pretty certain that he didn't even play much if any, since he has a fantastic accordionist in his (again, uncredited) band and choir.

That's the end of my rant I suppose. Hopefully the next record won't trigger such a vitriolic response, but I'm glad to say this particular experience is over.

Oh, one good thing about the record; the back says "FEATURING FRANK SCOTT AT THE HARPSICHORD", and Frank Scott is pretty awesome at the harpsichord. I do love the harpsichord.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Crazy Otto (Decca)

Fritz Schulz-Reichel was a classically trained German jazz and pop pianist who was quite popular in Germany and became known in the US in 1955 thanks to a medley of his songs created by an American musician. Apparently there was some confusion between Fritz and the creator of this medley afterwards, both being dubbed "Crazy Otto" in the US. Perhaps this 1955 record was an attempt to clear up that confusion by appealing to an American audience with a record of American tunes.

After reading the rear notes, I had pretty high hopes for this record, only to find them summarily dashed.

The back cover is adamantly plays up how "different" Fritz Schulz-Reichel is - I mean c'mon, he plays the melody with his left hand and rhythm with the right! He's got to be a whacky guy. They also talk about his "brilliant improvisations" and about his reputation as a "serious, well-known and well loved German composer-pianist". They also talk up his secret weapon, his "Tipsy Wire Box", a secret effect he uses to simulate the detuned honky-tonk piano effect, presumably without actually detuning the piano. Craaaaaaaazy I guess.

So you've got this kooky and quirky fella (by German standards, anyway), who writes some great music - what better way to highlight his abilities than to stick him with an uncredited rhythm section and have him play a bunch of pseudo-ragtime versions of a bunch of standards?

Well, I could have thought of a couple better ways, but I guess Decca was in a hurry to get some records out in 1955. A string of uninspired takes populate both sides of this recording. The rhythm section is never given any chance to shine, and Otto doesn't exactly have much to say himself. Well, not with the piano anyway.

One of the saving graces of this record is what apparently makes Otto "Crazy" - he's a chatterer. He loves to sing and warble along with the songs, shout and whistle. It's endearing, and it kept me listening through the record, hoping to hear more. His vocalizations are the only source of any real energy on the record.

The other positive element is the recording quality; the clarity of all three instruments - on a mono record no less - is truly astounding. A couple things may have made this easy to accomplish - there's very little bass drum present, and Otto's "Tipsy Wire Box" and his backwards playing style seem to remove almost all low end from the piano, leaving a wide open space for the bassline to live. Otto's honky-tonk sounds also ring loud and clear, and it does indeed sound pretty fantastic.

Unfortunately it's all a waste. The end of side one features the worst rendition of "In the Mood" that I think I've ever heard. Traditionally, the things that make this song so great are its dynamics and its heavy swing feel; both are eradicated in this straight ahead, droll take on the tune. In fact, parts of the melody have been un-syncopated in places, sucking away the character of the piece. Why, oh why would you do this? I for one can't see any reason, but I guess buried somewhere in his brilliant composer-pianist mind, he had a purpose. I suppose we'll never know.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

"Pee Wee" & "Fingers" (Capitol)

These guys, amirite?

I think what these guys have is now commonly called "swagger".  Listen, I'm a trombone player myself, so I can say this; What is it with trombonists and our predilection for silly bowties and funny hats? I mean clearly these gentlemen are aiming to dress period to the music they're playing, but perhaps its not worth perpetuating the stereotype. I also just noticed something very typically 50's - yes that is a cigarette between his fingers there, right next to his mouthpiece. I can't imagine it helped his breathing, but apparently the guy lived into his 80's and was playing right up until the end so, whatever works.

I definitely can't fault the guy for his coat though, man that is awesome. I wish I had the guts to pull that off. I digress though, this definitely isn't a fashion blog.

The back of the record claims a "musical first", namely a combination of ragtime and dixieland. Specifically "Mr. Ragtime" (Joe "Fingers" Carr) meets "Mr. Dixie" (Pee Wee Hunt). Calling Pee Wee Hunt "Mr. Dixie" is a choice only a record label would make. The story apparently goes that his "serious" jazz group was screwing around in the studio at Capitol one day and tracked a silly, improvised dixieland tune. The label released it and it was a huge hit, and Hunt basically started a dixieland band as a direct result.

Whatever the background, it's working for him. This fast paced record showcases some fantastic playing by all the members of the (uncredited) ensemble. Although drums and bass are downplayed as usual (typically this is a technical issue as much as a musical one), the horn work is tight and fun, the arrangements are clean and concise. The tunes are short, sometimes too short - I would have loved a little more open solo space to let some of the talented horn players shine, but that can be forgiven for the sake of brevity.

Fingers does a fantastic job as well of course, but it's hard to call this a blend of dixieland and ragtime; it basically sounds like a great piano player playing with a dixieland band, and occasionally using stride or rolling techniques. Only in a couple places does anything happen that really sets a ragtime tone. Obviously this wouldn't hurt the record a bit if they hadn't promised a wild combination of styles on the record cover, but I can forgive them when the tunes are this good, and the energy is high.

The engineering, too, is solid, clear and simple, the way old-timey music should be recorded. Very little done to it at all, letting the musicianship shine. Joe's piano sounds absolutely fantastic, with all the upright clink and charm one could ever ask for. The horns are miced clean and direct, and while the trombone is definitely featured, it is never overbearing.

I gotta say that I'm also digging the song titles. There are two different songs that mention gentlemen named "Charlie", although one is spelled "Charley". There's also a song called "Barney Google", which I suppose is a search engine that helps you research 90's live action children's shows. And of course, "Last Night on the Back Porch", which apparently has the unprinted subtitle "(I Loved Her Best of All)". No originals unfortunately, but that's pretty common for a "let's throw a band together, jam out a bit, and call it a collaboration" type of record like this. Great selections, regardless; no fiddling around with slow moving ballads, or down tempo sloth. I didn't catch a tempo any slower than 109 in the whole record.

Its pretty hard to go wrong with good dixieland, so I'll gladly keep this record around. I'd even go so far as to say that, if you're interested in early jazz but don't know a thing about it, this wouldn't be a bad record to start with, since it lacks the drawn out indulgences of some such records, and it references many of the tropes of the style without sounding super cheesy. There's plenty of clarinet squawking ("O, Katharina!" I'm looking at you) and trombone glissing (pretty much every song on the album, I'm looking at you), but you never feel like you're trapped in a cartoon. So excellent work, gentlemen.

Oh, and a quick side note.

I usually get my first look at these records in the dark, and it took me quite awhile to figure out that this was not, in fact a razorblade. For a minute I thought Capitol had a very depressed artist on their hands.