Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Precious Jewels

Bahia Black
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artists: Bahia Black; Tin Machine
Albums: Ritual Beating System; Tin Machine
Source: Promo (BB); Bought new (TM)

In Noah Baumbach’s movie The Squid and the Whale, there’s a scene where Jeff Daniels is examining a copy of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The album itself would be kind of innocuous, except that it’s a tape. Yeah, a cassette tape. That one detail solidly reinforces the part of the 80s the movie is set in, because lordy knows if it was set much later, m’man would be downer-rocking The Wall on CD.

I’m about the right age to have been there when CDs hit the scene with an unbelievable force – it was kind of like one minute LPs and tapes were the only option, and then next time you blinked the mall record store was pushing the vinyl into the corner to make room for more and more CDs.

Attendant with the arrival of the discs was the jewel case. It’s easy not to think about it (what Paul Lukas calls “inconspicuous consumption” in his excellent Beer Frame ‘zine), but also impossible to escape. If you buy a CD – especially in the first days, before anyone had come up with alternatives like the Digipak – you’re also buying the subtly ingenious jewel-case storage system.

What’s so great about them? Well, for one, they roughly mimic the shape of an LP (though on a drastically reduced scale) but also have easier-to-read spines than you get on a 12-inch.They hold the disc just barely off the surface of the inner tray, protecting the bottom from extra wear. And best of all, jewel cases are modular: their component parts are interchangeable and user-replaceable. In other words, if one part of the case breaks, no sweat – you can just snap the broken part out, and snap a new one in.

Now in theory, this modularity sounds like its all upside, no downside. That might be true for the casual CD buyer, but real Music Nerds know that this swappability creates a whole ‘nother semi-hassle. See, the parts of these cases do break. And you do need to replace them. But when you replace, say, the front-cover piece of a jewel box, you’re generally taking it from another one…which now has only the back piece and the inner tray left. So you have to hold onto that, for the time when another jewel case needs a new inner tray. And even then you’ve got a perfectly good back section, which you know you’re gonna need sooner or later, so let’s not even talk about getting rid of that just yet…

And on it goes. Soon there’s a kind of Jewel Case Chop Shop running in a corner of the apartment, dead space filled with not-quite-whole cases that are destined to be farmed out to other needy CDs before long. Anyone who says perfected cloning technology won’t lead to farm-growing people for spare organs is dead wrong; the seeds have been sown with jewel cases.

Part of my system, to try and save some room, was to have some “B-list” cases: CDs that I wanted to keep but wasn’t too crazy about, so I’d switch their solid parts with an “A-list” disc’s broken ones. That way, the net number of jewel cases in The Beast wouldn’t increase; instead, some would be downgraded until, say, I was throwing out a bunch of unneeded promo CDs (which I would pillage for jewel-case parts).

Bahia Black and Tin Machine were, for a long time, my top go-to CDs for pawning off broken parts. There were times when either or both of these discs wouldn’t have a single intact section of their cases: long cracks along the back, toothless holders on the tray, both swing arms snapped off the front. The discs and cover/tray art were all there, but the once-good cases had given their lives for a damaged Yo La Tengo or John Coltrane case.

SISOSIG?Over time, this mismatched pair would keep getting new cases; soon enough, those new cases would erode. Somehow, I’d ID’d these discs as placeholders, not deserving of top-tier storage materials.

But y’know what? They took the hits, bided their time, and now I can safely say these things are off the Disabled List. Bahia Black, which sounded too far out to me in 1999, now hits my ears straight on. I’ve grown to love Bill Laswell’s approach to how world and avant-garde sounds fit together (talk about modular), and the South American rhythms of Ritual Beating System wrap around the contributions by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Henry Threadgill and other right-on/out-there cats in a way I can’t really resist.

And Tin Machine? Turns out David Bowie was a little ahead of the curve once again – this record took some hits in 1989, with Bowie playing “band” with Soupy Sales’ kids (they’re TM’s rhythm section). But Reeves Gabrel’s distorto-freako guitar style anticipates how the Seattleites would co-opt Sonic Youth into harder, sludgier (and, yes, grungier) forms a half-decade later. The songs themselves are only 50/50, but the sound goes to 11.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Men at Work

Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artist: Bahamadia
Album: Kollage
Source: Bought used

I’ve always been taught that having a job is an important, maybe the important thing. It’s no surprise – my dad is a headhunter, and his job of getting people jobs is what got me through my first 20 or so years. Jobs were the water of life, and there was never any reason to doubt that the hydrogen of labor and the oxygen of employment combined to make anything short of a necessity.

As such, I’ve never been without a job (except for 2 briefs periods when it really wasn’t my idea, thank you). There have been perks, for sure, including always having enough money for at least the food/shelter basics, and usually quite a bit more. Sure, there have been downsides, too (y’know: long bouts of tedium, the occasional run of soul-crushingness, that sort of thing), but in general I’ve been happy to have jobs and have even, it seems, been fashioning something in the way of a career.

But I’ve also learned that you can take your job too seriously and – yes, it’s true – work too hard. In the late 90s, I participated as a full-fledged member of the Internet Boom. I was there for the whole deal: long hours, no dress code, stock options, waves of layoffs and, most importantly, a sort of messianic faith in what we were doing. It was the other suckers who just had jobs; we were changing the world.

The particular corner of the world I was working on changing was in the Philadelphia office of a then-up-and-coming outfit known as America Online (which the swelling ranks of subscribers called AOL for short; that the company took on that moniker was just one early instance of the customer telling the company what its business was). I was there for a little under 2 years, but I worked a lifetime there. I woke up, logged on to check things and/or do some work; went to work, to do whatever bit of world-changing was on deck that day; then went home, where I would log on several times before bed, to check things and/or do some work. Sure, I went out and had fun and spent my Dollars, but I knew I had to get to a PC before long, and was perpetually thinking about what was next. Which was everything.

This sort of thinking was encouraged by the creative guru at the top of our little digital hill, Boss R. He was smart, goofy, fun, endlessly creative and open-mindedly supportive of whatever his crew wanted to do; the worst an idea could do was fail, but we always learned something to apply to the next idea. To call the environment Boss R created heady would just expose how insufficient a word can be to describe something. Boss R kept a keg of Kool-Aid tapped in the office breakroom, and everyone was thrilled to drink deep.

I bought this CD as part of my Kool-Aid guzzling. I was responsible for the local music coverage, and that involved writing about Philly bands every week, in a variety of genres. We had a local record store – Third Street Jazz & Rock – that would supply me with what they had, but it wasn’t always enough. Content was king, and we always needed more. Bahamadia, a local female rapper, had put out Kollage almost a year earlier than I wrote about it, but since she’d gotten so little notice at the time, we figured no one would care; we just needed to get something up on the site. I found a used copy at another record store, plunked down a bit of my own cash (we had no expense accounts to speak of; the myth of the free-spending offices did not spread to all corners) and I’d filled the gap for that week. Next week would be a problem for next week, and that always seemed a long way off.

Most people say the Dot.Com Bubble burst in the wake of the stock-market corrections of 2000. My bubble burst in 1998; as with anything/everything, it was a girl that did the trick. I’d folded my life so far into work that I took up with Girl R, a lady I had so much in common with largely because we sat across from each other in the office and sat reverently at the feet of Boss R every day. It was, of course, a capitally bad idea – Girl R and I imploded with staggering speed and force, propelled by our own inadequacies and the ridiculousness of our situation (and egged on a bit by Boss R, who it seemed had a bit of a thing for her, too). The smoke didn’t fully clear until after I’d left town about 2 years later.

The foolish illusion of the job that would provide it all – money, creative satisfaction, ego-gratifying success, and even love/sex – fell away, pretty hard. I’ve had jobs since, and good ones, including a great one now, but I’m smart enough to keep a bit for myself each day. I work hard, feel gratified and try to earn my keep, but I know it’s just a job; there are always things more important (Eileen springs to mind) and sweeter-tasting to be had in my off-hours.

SISOSIG? It’s entirely possible that I haven’t listened to this since I bought it for work in 1997 or 98. I recall it being OK, but it’s got neither nostalgic value nor completeist necessity to recommend it. I hadn’t heard/heard of Bahamadia before then, certainly haven’t heard/heard of her since, and wish her well in her travels away from The Beast…

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Chef Recommends...

The Bad Plus
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artist: The Bad Plus
Albums: These Are The Vistas; Give
Source: Bought used

I don’t take music recommendations from just anyone, because it’s too easy to be a casual fan. “Dude, I love this Jimmy Buffet song!” can be said (and meant) by anyone, but the person isn’t really listening to the music – they’re responding to a memory of hanging out in college or putting on a Hawaiian shirt at an outdoor concert, and, dude, we were all so wasted by the time he played “Margaritaville…”

But I don’t mean to pick on the Parrottheads, because I can be as guilty of sentimentalizing a record as anyone else. I mean to say that when it comes down to taking a recommendation, to putting down some money and investing some time on a band I’ve never heard before, there are only a few sources I’ll trust.

One of them is Jean, my friend JP’s dad. He has, without question, the largest, most comprehensive record collection I have ever seen; it makes The Beast look like an underdeveloped midget. It takes up a room in a fairly sizable house, and has long since spilled over the ample storage built into that room. There are LPs, EPs, CDs, singles and box sets of every stripe. I am confident that he has things he hasn’t listened to since before I was born; I’m also equally confident that he has at least some idea of what he’s got, right down to the last Thunderclap Newman LP. It really is a thing to behold.

I remember the first time I met Jean: It was Parents’ Weekend my sophomore year at college, and JP and I decided to get our folks together for some fine food at Kahn’s Mongolian Grill (where you pieced together your own bowl of food and they’d cook it right before your eyes!). All of the introductions were made, we sat down, and Jean turned to me: “I understand you’re into music.” Yes, I said, and then he asked pretty much the last question you’d expect from a just-introduced grown-up: “What’s your favorite Neil Young album?” Not, “What are you majoring in?” or “What’s good to eat here?”, but a sincere and probing query about Neil Young. I said it would be too hard to choose between Rust Never Sleeps and Tonight’s the Night. Jean nodded and said (and I’m not making this up), “Good. Those were the only two I was going to accept.”

Since then I’ve talked to Jean about records a lot, and with JP gone, he’s one of the few people I can have an entirely focused, deeply geeked-out conversation with about nothing at all but music. So when he told me that he’d picked up The Bad Plus’ These Are The Vistas and it was something I needed to hear, I didn’t even question it. Of course, he was right – it’s way-cool, real jazz made by a piano trio of guys who love rock music but don’t really play rock. They cover “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Iron Man,” but as part of a grand tradition of jazz borrowing melodies and harmonies from pop; more like Coltrane doing “My Favorite Things” or Miles digging into a hit show tune than the fakers the Bad Plus guys are sometimes thought to be. And anyway, it’s their original tunes that really make the records happen: big, complex, dynamic creatures that roar and purr and float and dive and turn on a dime, each only when it serves the song.
Give is more of the same, and I’m always a little surprised by how good these records are each time I put them on. I usually go for them when I’m in the mood for some up-tempo piano trio, but this ain’t no Oscar Peterson…it’s a whole ‘nother thing, and certainly worth recommending.

SISOSIG? Rock-solid keepers, from start to finish. One of the (many) nice things about The Bad Plus is that they hold a singular space in The Beast; they’re not quite like anything else I have, yet they’re very much a piece with things I dig. The band is young yet, so here’s hoping they get even better than this!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Swag Ahoy!

Babes in Toyland
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artist: Babes in Toyland
Albums: The Peel Sessions; Live at the Academy
Source: Promos

Why do I have these albums? I don’t like Babes in Toyland, and it’s entirely possible that I’ve never listened to them all the way through (though the Peel Sessions disc is pretty short, so it stands to reason I’ve spun it to the end at least once).

The Beast is filled with artifacts like this: detritus of my years in college radio. Whenever I go to certain gigs – like, say, Paul Westerberg at the Bowery Ballroom a few years back – I joke that the bouncers should skip checking IDs and just ask everyone when their college-radio shows were. 80s and 90s college DJs are a recognizable type, as benchmarked by the music of their youth as the people who maintain that rock achieved perfection in 1974 (it’s a scientific fact). We’re musically and culturally open-minded, but only insofar as we know nothing will live up to the controlled chaos of the Replacements’ middle period, Robert Smith’s careful sadness or pretty much the entire SST catalogue.

Like many a Music Geek before me, I was a college radio DJ. JP and I had shows together nearly every semester (except for my 1st semester of freshman year, when I did “New Day Rising” from 6 – 8am on a weekday; and the 1st semester of my junior year, when I was about to leave for Scotland and JP was home getting chemotherapy) that tended to be the highlights of any given week. I also did a year as WHCL’s music director, which means I got a metric buttload of swag from the record companies and promoters, including these two discs.

In a way, it was even better than the Music Critic Years: we’d get free copies (sometimes more than one) of pretty much everything, and there was almost nothing I had to do in return – just a weekly report to the College Music Journal (CMJ) and periodic trips to restock the stacks at the station. Other than that, the music was mine to enjoy, and anything that didn’t need to go on the air went to feed the baby version of The Beast.

On the other hand, it meant there was almost no quality control. Babes in Toyland had a moment of post-Nirvana glory (split three ways with L7 and the Breeders), and I suppose they were OK. I was (and remain) rarely inspired to listen to them, never went to a gig, and couldn’t tell you what a single note on either of these discs sounds like. Well, except that the Babes are pretty loud and reasonably angry. But wasn’t everyone in the early 90s?

SISOSIG? Oh, sweet lordy, forgive me for taking up precious room in the apartment with these CDs. I own two versions of “Ripe” (and one of “Swamp Pussy”), for which there is no absolution. I shall sacrifice them on the riot grrrl altar and say 10 Courtney Loves and 40 Steve Albinis.