Saturday, December 31, 2005

Mountain Goats
Tell Me on a Sunday

John Darnielle, who records under the misleadingly plural Mountain Goats moniker, largely built his reputation on a series of cassettes released by Shrimper in the early ‘90s. Although the songs were usually recorded in one take using a cheap boombox, sound quality was never the issue with Darnielle, who used a forceful voice and incisive songwriting to cut through the layers of tape hiss. Hot Garden Stomp, released by Shrimper in 1994, is the only cassette that I’ve heard, but it is nothing short of astonishing. (Shrimper, why hasn’t this stuff been reissued??)

I listened to “Tell Me on a Sunday” for years before I even realized it was a cover of an Andrew Lloyd Webber song. The fact that I didn’t realize this speaks volumes about Darnielle’s talent. I just assumed this classic piece of songwriting was merely another Mountain Goats song. The guitar playing is sloppy and the sound quality is even worse than usual, but Darnielle’s reflective singing perfectly captures the songs’ complex mix of idealism and sorrow. Hope, it seems, is a tricky thing. On the one hand it reflects the optimism inherent in all of us; on the other hand it probably indicates unhappiness in the present.

Darnielle has recorded many albums since his early cassettes and he now resides at esteemed British label 4AD. In 1995, I decided to start a microcassette label as a conceptual joke. Every release would be a limited edition of one. I emailed a bunch of artists and Darnielle was the only taker. Of course. I should have gone through with it. He probably would have recorded a gem.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Dollar Bin

In 1996, when I was a junior at the University of Florida, you couldn’t download music for free. There was no Napster, no Audio Galaxy, no iTunes. If you wanted new music, you had to either buy it or burn a copy off a friend. Even making burns of CD’s was rare back then. Stuck in town working during spring break, I found myself thirsting for some new and interesting music besides indie rock. I also needed to get away from the endless parade of half-naked girls on MTV that I would never sleep with. But as previously stated, I was in college and therefore broke. Buying CD’s just wasn’t an option.

I went to the local record store after work one night to see what was going on and it finally hit me: the dollar bin. Most of what I found there was exactly what I expected: broadway soundtracks, classical albums, Barbara Streisand atrocities, and of course, Herb Alpert. But there were also bands I’d heard of, classic rock behemoths who’d sold more records than there were humans on the earth. In a word: Frampton.

My first few purchases – Saturday Night Fever, The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, and something by America – were far from good, but at least they made me cringe in new ways. The real find though, the one that kept me coming back to the dollar bin for the next ten years, was Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything. Ambitious, original, and stuffed with inventive pop songs, this album was the gem I’d been hoping to find all along. And it was only a dollar!

Since I began perusing the dollar bin, I’ve noticed some gradual changes. Some would say it’s evolved, but that would imply that it’s getting better, and I tend to believe that everything is getting worse. When Esquivel suddenly became hip in the early-‘90s, I couldn’t walk more than two feet without running into some asshole who’d bought Esquivel’s entire discography for 50 cents at the local Goodwill. As annoying as this was, it still taught me a valuable lesson: there was gold in them thar hills.

Of course, Esquivel was an aberration; he was like the Arcade Fire of the dollar bin. His rise from dusty unknown to ultra-hip collector’s item was unexpected and meteoric. Moog records and Persuasive Percussion records also made the leap in the mid-‘90s, although the latter has inexplicably found its way back to the worthless pile as of late.

Many of the records that I used to call the dollar bin classics – albums by bands like Queen, ELO, Hall and Oates, Yes, Steely Dan, and Fleetwood Mac – have gradually moved off the floor and back to the shelves of self-respecting record stores. Sure, you can still find the occasional copy of Rumors or The Yes Album among the endless rows of Al Hirt LP’s but it’s getting harder to do, at least in New York.

For this article, I decided to go to three record stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan (Academy, Eat, and Gimme Gimme) to see what I could find that I would actually recommend for a casual music fan to purchase. Some of the records are extremely common – things I’m sure you could find with a little patience. Others are less common, and probably ended up in the dollar bin not because they were plentiful, but because no one cared about them. Below is the list of what I found.

1. Prefab Sprout – Swoon
Epic, 1984

This copy was in mint condition and looked like it had possibly been marked down a few times before getting consigned to the dollar bin. I can kind of see why it’s here, even though it is an extremely likable album. Paddy McAloon, the singer/songwriter behind this preppy British new wave band, is one of those smart alecks who can’t help reminding you of his superiority. There are songs about chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, the need to give up basketball and foil fencing, and falling in love with the wrong people. And yet, even at their most flowery and academic, the songs never fail to weave their way into your brain and ultimately, your heart.

2. Boz Scaggs – Silk Degrees
Columbia, 1976

I’m seeing this one less these days, but it’s still pretty easy to find. On principle, I always buy albums by people named Boz. Another good reason to pick this one up is the album cover, which shows Boz awkwardly perched on a bench by the ocean. A woman’s hand is visible, but we don’t see her face. I think we can safely assume that this is how Boz saw all of his groupies. And possibly his fans.

For some reason, Boz put all the hits on side two; I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to side one, so maybe it’s good too. The standout track is “The Lowdown,” which is a song you’ve most definitely heard at a doctor’s office or the supermarket, but never realized who sang it, and how genius it actually is. The guys who did the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever asked Boz if they could use “Lowdown” in the movie, but his clueless manager turned them down in favor of the not-so-classic Looking for Mr. Goodbar. The dollar bin is full of stories like that.

3. Doobie Brothers – Minute by Minute
Warner Brothers, 1978

The great thing about this album is that there is only a 0.001% chance that it will ever be stolen. If anything, Minute by Minute may mysteriously appear in your collection in place of another more valuable record. The only reason to own it, and the only reason why it is so common, is because of one song. And that song is “What a Fool Believes,” a critique of nostalgia that focuses on some hapless dude’s infatuation with a girl he kissed once in eighth grade. Many facts conspire against it -- Kenny Loggins helped write it, it’s on a Doobie Brothers album, and the song even won a Grammy -- but “What a Fool Believes” is great.

4. The Roches – The Roches
Warner Brothers, 1979

Don’t be fooled by the annoying intro track, “We,” this album is good from start to finish. This is what folk sounded like before the Moldy Peaches ruined it. Possessing gorgeous voices and dazzling wit, these three sisters from New Jersey charmed the world for a few years in the late ‘70s while harmonizing about strawberry apricot pie and the joys of screwing married men. Folkies had huge expectations for the band, but their next two albums fizzled and the rest went out of print before they were even recorded. Definitely worth more than a dollar.

5. Diana Ross – Diana
Motown, 1980

Here’s another album that sold oodles of copies at the time. Produced by Chic masterminds Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards, Diana is easily the best disco album unfortunate enough to be released in the ‘80s. Recently remastered and reissued, Diana has been migrating away from the dollar bin in the past year. Snap it up while you can.

Side one is jam-packed with disco gems, especially “Upside Down” and “Tenderness,” which sound exactly like Chic but with Diana Ross singing. It’s like if the DFA collaborated with Britney Spears or something. Oh wait, they tried that already? Nevermind.

6. Genesis – Abacab
Atlantic, 1981

A friend of mine was recently looking through my records when he uttered the words I’d long feared: “Why the fuck do you have so many Genesis albums?” Sadly, I didn’t have an answer. Well, now I do. Abacab is the answer. This is the album where Phil Collins finally stopped whining about his divorce and started delivering the goods. (The sappy balladry was yet to come.) Besides the obvious hit “No Reply At All,” other winners include the title track, which is like Trans Am without the irony or German techno with a soul, and “Keep it Dark,” which one-ups Gary Numan. In a few years, every band is going to rip off this album. Sure, I’ve been saying that for the last ten years, but this time I really mean it. Really.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Company - Silver and Gold

Ladies and gentlemen, step right up to the most un-googleable band name ever. Just type the word "Company" into Google and try, if you dare, to find the band's webpage, or for that matter, any info on the band. After seeing the Brooklyn-based band in 2002 at a friend's recommendation, I became an instant fan. But it wasn't until a chance meeting with David Janik at another band's show two years later that I finally found out the name of their website and figured out when and where they were playing again. Jesus.

Although they formed in 2001, Company didn't release an official album until this past October on Jagjaguwar subsidiary Brah Records. The band's website features 2 mp3's from the new album, but I decided to feature the song that blew me away when I first heard the band play live. On "Silver and Gold," singer Stephanie Rabins injects equal doses of callousness and yearning into her lilting, lonesome voice to portray a view of love that is both practical and sad. When she sings "Make new friends, but keep the old," at the song's outset, it almost sounds hopeful. By the end of the song however, we realize that she had to learn her lessons the hard way.

Company's website