Tuesday, February 5, 2013

I'm a Jim James Vinyl Scavenger Hunt Champion!

Criminal Records today announced they'd gotten in copies of the new Jim James solo album, Regions of Light and Sound of God. What's more, they also announced that they'd gotten their hands on one special copy, housed in a white sleeve, that was autographed by James himself. One lucky digger would be able to keep this signed copy of the album if they could find it hidden among the store's vinyl bins.

Only a few clues were Tweeted as to its location:

  • The album was not stashed under "My Morning Jacket," nor "Jim James." Nowhere obvious.
  • M, J, and Y sections were also out
  • There were many bins of vinyl in the store to consider

So I figured I'd take a shot at this hunt on my lunch break. Why not? On my way over to the store, Lillian, the social media face of Criminal Records, Tweeted one more clue...
"In my mind, it's obvious where the treasure is hidden."
OK. So I showed up and started looking...

Used new arrivals? There's treasure there sometimes!  Nope.

Under "K," for Kentucky where MMJ is from?  Nope.

Treasure is sometimes under the sea? Look in the Cs!  Nope.

Another guy on his lunch break showed up and started skimming through every alphabetized bin as quickly as he could, so I knew he was also on the prowl. I did a little bit of this random hunting, too, to no avail. I stopped for a minute to think...

Maybe it's not under any letter? Where else are there records in the store? Where would one obviously find treasure?

It dawned on me I never looked in the "new releases" section at the front of the store, but nothing really stood out. They wouldn't be lame enough though to just throw it in with the other "regular" copies of the record...? I'll check anyway. Nope. Just then, I noticed the last bin of the new releases section housed a few copies of Coexists by The XX – complete with their trademark giant "X" on the cover. The XX marks the spot! 

Jim James autograph, Regions of Light and Sound of God

Indeed it did. I found the autographed Jim James album just behind 4-5 copies of Coexist, and in my first-ever vinyl scavenger hunt, I was champion! I exhaled after casually walking up to the counter as the winner; it was surprisingly more a rush than I thought it would be. Shortly after I found my prize, Lillian snapped a photo for Criminal Records internet fame.


Surprise!


The vinyl itself is very cool, heavyweight clear blue. I'm assuming this a part of a limited batch of test pressings or simply a limited number of promo copies. With a simple white label, the only identifying marks on the record are the run-out etchings. Interesting instructions were applied to the label...


No eBay!
Limited edition of only 50 copies.

Clearly someone doesn't want people reselling these limited pressings. Anyway... Best lunch break ever. Success!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Milt Jackson's Good Vibes

"It sounds like Fraiser, the TV show, in here."

I was listening to a jazz record featuring Milt Jackson, the legendary vibraphone virtuoso, when my fiancée said that. The obvious comparison in sound is an easy one to make, as the signature jingle of the Frasier theme song is marked by the melodic roll of the vibes. It's an easy pairing with the character Fraiser Crane, who strives beyond all else to be sophisticated. In my mind, that's what she really meant.

"It sounds sophisticated in here."


Milt Jackson, 1946

Credit: Tom Copi—Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


Milt Jackson was certainly was that. The foremost master of the vibes, Jackson's playing added an extra melodic layer to an ensemble that elevated the air of any tune. He was precise and soulful at the same time, distinguishing himself by focusing on a more rhythmic approach to his instrument. Jackson is best known as a co-founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ), a group grounded in the concept of counterpoint. Each member so skilled as to improvise simultaneously while still maintaining the momentum and idea of the whole. MJQ bolstered the chops that Milt Jackson brought to many remarkably cohesive collaborations with some of his most innovative contemporaries.



Miles Davis and Milt Jackson ‎– Quintet / Sextet

Prestige 7034 (second pressing, 1958)

Miles Davis recorded some of his most iconic music with the help of Milt Jackson. The above 1956 album Quintet/Sextet was one of many albums Davis recorded for Prestige in the 50's. Here Jackson is co-billed and given a big spotlight throughout the work. A short record at just over 30 minutes, this more obscure release is full of great music, and the chemistry between these two modern jazz giants is apparent in their interplay, especially on tune like "Bitty Ditty." The stellar results no doubt added enthusiasm to their sessions to follow.



Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants
(1958) and Bags Groove (1957)


Prestige 7150 and Prestige 7109 (second pressing, 1958)

Most of the material on these two records originated from the same legendary recording session on December 24, 1954, famous for an alleged scuffle that almost ensued between Miles and Monk (see the liner notes). It also produced some amazing music and a definitive version of Milt ("Bags") Jackson's signature composition "Bag's Groove." It's not surprising to find Jackson working so early on with Miles Davis, as Davis always had a penchant for propelling a great player's exposure in exchange for his skills.



Bags & Trane
(1961)


Atlantic 1368 (mono, white label promo)

Milt Jackson eventually collaborated with another player Davis launched to stardom – John Coltrane – and the thrilling result is called Bags & Trane. Once again, Milt Jackson creates an instant rapport with his collaborator, and he and Coltrane produce superior hard bop that establishes within the first few bars a palpable atmosphere of instant chic. It's an album worth hunting.



Soul Brothers
(1958) and Soul Meeting (1961)


Atlantic 1279 (black label), Atlantic 1360

Perhaps the most interesting of Milt Jackson's collaborations are the albums he recorded with Ray Charles, Soul Brothers and Soul Meeting. Over the course of these two instrumental records, Jackson and Charles can be heard playing their signature vibes and piano, but there's much more going on. The music here is exceptional and rooted in the blues with a dose of bop – Soul Brothers' liner notes describe the collaboration as a tribute to Charlie Parker. On the title track "Soul Brothers," while Jackson takes over the piano, Ray Charles plays Parker-esque alto saxophone with fluidity and purpose. It makes you wonder why he didn't play sax more often, and it's enlightening to hear Charles' jazzier side. Also for the only time on record, Milt Jackson busts out the electric guitar for "Bag's Guitar Blues." There's plenty of soul and intuition here for sure – not surprising for a Milt Jackson session.

Jackson's affinity for the blues and his intelligent approach to his instrument made him the most legendary player of the vibes, and he created some incredibly expressive recordings while complementing some of the most famous figures in jazz; there are plenty of other examples. If you're looking for the sound of cool – of sophistication – check out any Milt Jackson record. It's where style meets substance.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The White Knight of Jazz, Dave Brubeck

The December 5, 2012 passing of Dave Brubeck was an ordinary occurrence in the life of an extraordinary man. As humans, we all know the fate at the end of our respective roads, but few know first-hand the world nor understand the impact of mutual respect the way Brubeck did. Dave Brubeck was, in every sense of the word, a legend, and he understood his place among his peers, the importance of protecting the legacy of jazz and how strongly music connects people. 


Before and after

Diving into the history of jazz reveals an artform caught in a custody battle. Born in the streets of New Orleans by African-Americans, jazz' initial wild popularity as a dance music lead the genre's creation to be claimed by white musicians of the era, and this was only compounded by the eventual segregation of the city. But jazz intrinsically is an idea with too many possibilities to be confined or restricted. The music's evolution and emergence of innovators, both white and black, propelled jazz along, and while racist attitudes continued in the decades that followed, any musician's success mainly depended on two things: 1. not falling victim to addiction, and 2. chops. Dave Brubeck was clean and supremely talented, and he championed musicians of any color.

Brubeck's view of racial equality was born at an early age when his father introduced him to a black friend who had been branded on his chest and professed to his son that things like that "can't happen." Later as an in-demand band leader, he was in the position to defend the rights of his African-American bandmates, canceling gigs in opposition to segregationist venue owners. He never took for granted his success as a white musician in the jazz world. One doesn't achieve the type of success Brubeck did without a grasp of the contributions of people before and around him nor without an authentic joy imparted in the music he created, advancing the admiration he felt for his idols and contemporaries. The following is a great clip about Brubeck from the Ken Burns documentary Jazz.



Head of the class

I've heard so many jazz snobs scoff at the music of Dave Brubeck, but I've never really understood why. Perhaps it's simple over-saturation or a distaste for the west coast "cool" that was part of his clean, upbeat sound. Regardless, "Take Five" is easily in the top-five of classiest songs of all-time, and there are many other great tunes and renditions attributed to Brubeck. Whether you're tired of his music or not, the fact remains that Brubeck was an ambassador and steward of music as a whole. He performed throughout Europe and Asia and evolved with the musical ideas he found there. He toured colleges bringing live jazz events to campuses across the U.S., and in 2000, Brubeck's alma mater University of the Pacific established the Brubeck Institute, continuing Brubeck's "commitment to music, creativity, education, and the advancement of important social issues, including civil rights, social justice and the environment. It provides a focus, venue and inspiration for distinguished musical performance, education, research and cultural advocacy," as described by Pacific's website. Along with countless awards and accolades, Dave Brubeck earned a ton of respect – even the snobs will tell you that.

The vinyl frontier

In paying my respects to the man, it's my pleasure to share a great Brubeck record and one of my favorite parts of my collection. Jazz at Oberlin features selections from a 1953 concert during Brubeck's college tours and was originally released as a 10-inch LP by Fantasy Records the same year. The recording captures Brubeck's early quartet playing with energy and precision. The recording itself is very nice for a live album from this time period. This is the 1957 12-inch re-issue.

Dave Brubeck Jazz at Oberlin LP Fantasy Records
Jazz at Oberlin (Fantasy 3245, 1957. Re-issue of Fantasy 3-11.)

I really dig the lush cover art and use of the architecture; the duotone of green and black compliments well the record inside. Fantasy Records was one of the earliest companies to issue colored vinyl pressings. Many of their 10-inch and 12-inch LPs were offered in red, blue, green, purple and black. This particular pressing sports the rarer "red splatter" vinyl – it's really more akin to a tortoise pick guard on a vintage guitar. It's an amazing looking record, and just like Dave Brubeck himself, super classy.


Dave Brubeck Jazz at Oberlin LP Red Splatter Vinyl Fantasy Records
Really kind of an even mix of red and black vinyl. Makes me want some scotch.

Dave Brubeck Jazz at Oberlin Red Vinyl Fantasy Records
In the light.

Time in

The death of Dave Brubeck is a prompt to explore his music more actively. Like so many things in life, you often realize, only too late, what was there all along. I'd argue that he and Miles Davis opened more ears to jazz than anyone else in history. Being a huge fan of jazz music, and admittedly owning only a handful of Brubeck vinyl, I want to know more of his catalog. That's one of the great things about vinyl: having a library of tangible music history within easy reach, each album a document in the lives of the artists who created them. Dave Brubeck deserves more time.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I Was First! ...to Leave • The Record Store Day Black Friday That Wasn't

Black Sheep

Record Store Day has become the hottest annual release day for both record collectors and independent music store owners. In keeping with the age-old American tradition of milking something for all it's worth – just like network television – it has generated its own spin-off: Record Store Day Black Friday.



Boycotted by some for being a capitalist affront to hard-earned vacation time or for simply not wanting to join a herd of materialist consumers, Black Friday has traditionally become this generation's "biggest shopping day of the year" regardless of any negative spin. I mean, people camp out to shop. It's the day to finally "save" money by spending on one-time discounted products, and most retailers limit the numbers of these sales, first come, first served. Limited availability and exclusive deals is not a new concept, and those tenants of titillating commerce lend themselves perfectly to the vinyl world. Record Store Day, since its inception in 2008, has afforded exactly these kinds of one-off opportunities, inspiring the Black Friday approach to scoring the most sought after wax. I suppose it's predictable that RSD would have its own holiday event. This time around I was determined to have first-crack at one limited release.

There Can Be Only One

Upon scanning the list of 2012 RSDBF releases, I wasn't all that excited. I have original mono pressings of all the Miles Davis releases, and I was never a huge Incubus fan. The soundtracks were intriguing, but I figured once the hype died down, I could score a "Moonrise Kingdom" 10-inch relatively cheaply in a few months. "Reservoir Dogs" is cool, but I'll hold off and hope for a 2014 anniversary repress of the "Pulp Fiction" soundtrack. There just wasn't anything particularly motivating (looking back perhaps mine was a common reaction).  Then I discovered the news of the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs limited edition pressing of Sea Change by Beck.

The objective in question.

Only 1,000 pressed on 180g pink vinyl with the glorious quality of MoFi production, this was something to seek out, to crave. I missed the chance to pre-order a copy online by only minutes, and being offered in such a limited number, I knew any store would only get one or two of them at most. I had to be there to grab one. I had to be first in line.

Sea Changed Mind

For the last Record Store Day in April, I showed up ten minutes past 6:00am, and I was still 9th in line. I missed out on a couple of the more interesting items available that day, so knowing that my only shot at this Beck record likely hung on being at the front of the line, I arrived at Atlanta's Criminal Records (my usual spot) at 5:15am. I was, indeed, first. Seemingly, I was the only person alive at that hour, save for the random passing car on the main drag a block away. Maybe everyone else was at the local Best Buy to score that $300 3D television or already back in bed from a post-midnight spree at Target, but I was the sole patron waiting to buy records.

Water bottle marks the spot at Criminal Records, Atlanta, Ga.  •  Nov. 23, 2012  •  5:15am

No one else in line. Probably no one else awake, either!

There I waited, actually hoping someone else would show up to have some company. I mean, it's Record Store Day! Where are all the salivating collectors, the enthusiastic noobs, even the online flippers? Plus, it's Black Friday! If ever there was a day to venture out ridiculously early in the name of record shopping, this was it. But no one came until 6:30am, when a Criminal Records employee arrived early to start arranging the store for the 10:00am open.

"Just felt like being first!" I chuckled to Eddie, the diligent Criminal clerk.

"That's cool. What were you hoping to score?" he asked, unlocking the door.

"I really want to sang one of those pink vinyl MoFi's of Sea Change by Beck," I said.

"We didn't get any of those," Eddie said.

I was dumbfounded, even a tiny bit embarrassed, definitely tired. I'd been standing there, in the cold, for close to an hour and a half for one reason, one record, and Eddie – who embraced the comforts of a heated store and a locked door – had crushed my ambitions with six little words. Mind you, it was no fault of his own that my plan was now a flop, and I was honestly grateful for the information I had just acquired, but how could this be? I went over the list of releases in my head and for a few minutes contemplated still hanging around, after all I was first. I tapped on the door, asking Eddie back. I asked him if he was sure about not getting a single copy of the Beck record, and he regretfully confirmed. It was time to go back to bed.

Dead Wax

I visited a couple other local stores later in the day, and they too said the Beck release never made it to them. There are always a few things that stores don't get with their orders for the RSD sale, and I've heard various employees say they never really know how many of any item they will actually be sent. Such is the nature of limited releases, but having been witness to previous RSD lines at the crack of dawn, I'm curious if this relative lack of interest was universal or limited to my area. One of the busier stores said their line was only three deep at 10:00am, compared to a line of 60, last April. Was it the turkey coma? Or just a lack of intriguing titles this time around? I'm sure the participating stores did well, and the available releases sold out for the most part, but is RSDBF really anything more than a holiday cash grab to compete with usual Black Friday activity? Whatever indie stores need to do to stay afloat, I support, but it does kind of muddy the concept of Record Store Day to have more than one.

Oh well. See you in April...

Friday, November 16, 2012

Stereolab: A Gateway to Vinyl Obsession

Welcome to VRB

I'd like to first welcome you to Vinyl Record Blog ("VRB"), what I hope to be an entertaining and informative destination for fellow vinyl enthusiasts and collectors alike. If you are like me, your obsessions are a conduit for new avenues of exploration and learning. Music itself is limitless in its ability to constantly reveal new tangents and tastes, and I've found vinyl to be the most satisfying transmission and curation of this universal artform. I'm constantly discovering new things about this old format, and I think this is a great way to share and invite discussion. From time to time I'll also be posting links to pieces in my collection I'm interested in selling. Feel free to inquire about anything. Thanks for reading.

Stereohabit

I can trace the tipping point of my obsession with vinyl to one friend, one meal and one song. One weekend a few years ago I was back in my college town of Athens, Ga., a city whose center is roughly 20 square blocks containing an astounding 80 different bars, a city of late nights. I was there visiting a friend of mine named Patrick. As friends, we share many interests, and both being musicians, music is easily the most significant. Patrick had amassed a small selection of LPs from various genres and bands, including Stereolab – a group we both admired. He decided to throw on one of their records to start the day while he spun us up some breakfast to cure any sign of hangover. The album was Margerine Eclipse, and the opening song, "Vonal Declosion," had never sounded so alive, just as it looked, turning, there in the corner of the room. The music was intrinsically more kinetic, and the mere fact of having to flip the record added a new layer of intention and attention to listening. Maybe it was the remnants of many India Pale Ales or the mind-opening morning toke, but suddenly, this music that was familiar to me sounded somehow different, better. Either way, I was hooked.

Stereolab - Margerine Eclipse
Margerine Eclipse (Duophonic UHF-D29, 2004)

I owned a few Stereolab titles on compact disc and in digital format, but soon Margerine Eclipse became the first thing I'd ever bought on LP. With a long history of interesting physical releases, the band has always exuded qualities that make them a perfect catalyst for getting into vinyl: complex music, unusual and exciting art direction, and a consistent emphasis on limited releases.

"They Just Sound Better on Vinyl"

It's what record collectors always say about listening to music on vinyl, and I agree – in some instances more than others. Stereolab's music is textural and layered and benefits from the separation heard in analog playback. Much of their sound incorporates low-fi elements, too, and the presence of any surface noise seems to compliment that character. Admittedly, this first point is subjective (most observations are), and the idea that any group is more enjoyable in or suited to a particular format is just something you have to experience yourself. It's all the more appealing in Stereolab's case when you see their albums.

Rock Art

The art direction of Stereolab's releases expresses an evolving visual language that is always eclectic and analogous to their music. The designs are never the typical, run of the mill treatments – far from it. Colored vinyl, screen printing, halftone imagery, vibrant hues and futuristic minimalism are all elements that are visually exciting and unusual. That's Stereolab.

So shut up already and show us something!

Ok! Here are a few things I pulled from my collection.


The labels from Margerine Eclipse

While things may seem kind of random, there always appears to be intention behind the direction of Stereolab's album art. The restrained use of color found in Margerine Eclipse places more emphasis on texture and form. There's always a high level of interest in the typography, and it is treated very intentionally. Each release has its own distinct visual personality. 

Emperor Tomato Ketchup, employs very crisp aesthetic matching its mid-90s release date. The limited edition original pressing even features clear yellow vinyl infused with gold glitter. A look well-suited to its off the wall title.


Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Duophonic UHF-D11, 1996)

Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Gold Glitter Vinyl

Possibly my favorite Stereolab album art, 1997's Dots and Loops sports one of the simplest designs in a clean, futuristic contrast between greens of different color temperatures along with the music delivered in bold, solid colored pressings.

Dots and Loops (Duophonic UHF-D17, 1997), Front and Back

Dots and Loops, Vinyl

The 2008 Stereolab album, Chemical Chords, continues the tradition of bold colors, this time set against a black background that makes the neons really pop. The cover is particularly interesting, allowing different interpretations of what's actually being pictured. Is it a women's figure? Just a glittery blob? Whatever you see, it's bursting with energy.

Chemical Chords (4AD CAD2815, 2008)

The inventiveness connecting the sound and look of Stereolab is obvious. The visual language evolves throughout the catalog just as the music does, and for a band that explores so much sonic territory, it only makes sense. It also makes owning their albums that much more compelling. What's even more compelling is the number of limited releases the band issues purely on vinyl.

Power in Numbers

Some bands have carried the torch in the argument for vinyl, offering limited editions of otherwise unobtainable music. Stereolab has long been issuing short-run 7-inch 45s, 10-inch EPs and "tour singles." Many of their LPs were initially released as special, limited pressings. As always, the art holds true to the illustrative Stereolab brand. Such a small populations of these little treasures only creates more demand for them.

Tour Singles: The Underground is Coming (1999), Rose, My Rocket Brain! (2004), Solar Throw-away (2006)


For the Record

There exists a handful of musical acts that somehow just seem more suited for vinyl, and few have created such a unique universe of form, color and sound as Stereolab. (Hell, they're even named after a test record, borrowing from those album covers in their album art.) Their music is, at once, singular and diverse with an elaborate sonic signature, so much of which translates into very creative visual representations. Stereolab simply never bores me, and if you haven't heard much of them, I recommend checking them out. Even their more obscure songs and releases are worth finding, if you can. So much of my record collection owes its existence to hearing Margerine Eclipse that day and the thrill of "the hunt" that helped inspire. If there was ever a reason to buy more vinyl, Stereolab is it.