Thursday, April 22, 2010

I can't define it, but I know it when I see hear it.

Tonight my friend Siobhan and I attended the Philadelphia "Get Together," a listening party for the new New Pornographers album (see what I did there?), Together. The event was held at Kung Fu Necktie in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia, and featured free PBR (of course), PBR-branded chapstick (thankfully not PBR flavored or scented!) and all kinds of giveaways, including a pretty awesome-sounding, unlabeled spring mix compiled by Carl Newman that, 5 tracks in, seems to consist mostly of vaguely psychedelic/garage-flavored obscure rock songs.

As for the album itself, the only song that I had been exposed to before tonight was the fairly rocking "Your Hands (Together)," which Matador had already released as an mp3 download. I was aware that first official single, "Crash Years," had been released, but I had not yet heard it. The only other pieces of information that I knew about the album were that Annie Clark of St. Vincent and Will Sheff of Okkervil River both made guest appearances on the record.

The album kicks off with "Moves," an arrestingly catchy Carl-led power pop gem featuring bright, crisp production that gives the song a sheen but doesn't defang the power of the hook; it sounds arena-ready yet still raw and immediate, and frankly after two listens to the album I think it may be second only to "Mass Romantic" as the best opening song on a New Pornographers album, and in spite of the glossier production the song presents a welcome return to the general sound and feel of the New Pornographer's second album, Electric Version.

"Moves" proves to be only the beginning of an absolutely brilliant opening three-song salvo that continues with singles "Crash Years" and "Your Hands (Together)" - which, by the way, becomes a completely different song when blared through the PA system in a bar. I found out tonight just how much better that song becomes the louder it is played. By this point in the album, you would be forgiven for thinking that it could end up besting even Mass Romantic.

The fourth track, "Silver Jenny Dollar," the first of three Dan Bejar-fronted songs, finds the Destroyer frontman in unusually poppy and accessible mode, and on first listen it seemed a bit of a let down. It's not that it was a bad song, it just didn't seem to offer a lot to hang on to. It fared better on second listen, however, perhaps because I was paying more attention to the song itself the second time through. "Silver Jenny Dollar" is followed by the Kathryn Calder-spotlighting "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk," the song that ended up providing the biggest surprise of the album; ever since she was added to the lineup, I have found Calder to be the weak link in the New Pornographers. She just never seemed to mesh with the rest of the band, especially when attempting to sing Neko's songs during live shows. She totally makes this song work, however, and avoids making it this album's equivalent of "Failsafe." The first half of the album wraps up with an engaging ballad-ish Neko Case number called "My Shepherd."

Halfway through the album, side 1 seems to hold up as one of the most consistent album sides the Pornographers have recorded thus far. This is obviously an immediate gut reaction and not the result of extended reflection and evaluation, but right now I would rank it at least equal with the first side of Electric Version, possibly even edging that album's first half out. It is certainly a more coherent and engaging listen than the first sides of Twin Cinema and Challengers.

The second half begins just as promisingly with the second Bejar-led song of the collection, "If You Can't See My Mirrors." As poppy as "Silver Jenny Dollar" had sounded, "Mirrors" may well be the most immediate and accessible song Bejar has written yet, and it does not suffer for it. On the contrary, it is a perfect song to kick off the second side of the platter, setting an infectiously playful tone. This gives way another Newman rocker, "Up in the Dark," that cheekily seems to crib its drumbeat from Simple Minds, coming off as a harder-edged older brother of "Don't You (Forget About Me)" - all it's missing is Carl shouting "Hey, hey, hey, HEYYYY!!!" at the beginning.

It is at this point that the album begins to lose steam and reveal its almost impossibly front-loaded nature. The well-meaning but ultimately clumsy Neko Case-sung "Valkyrie in the Roller Disco" presents the first lull in the sequencing of the album, and the remaining songs never quite recover from it. Even Bejar's remaining composition, "Daughters of Sorrow," seems somewhat lugubrious and half-hearted, as though the entire band had completely spent themselves on the first eight songs. Still, those first eight songs are almost unbelievably solid and consistent, and it is quite possible that the back third of the album will leave a better impression on me when I am listening to it in an optimal environment (i.e., not a loud bar).

My second time through I focused my attention on the instrumentation, trying to pick out the contributions of Clark and Sheff. It did not sound to me as though either one contributed vocals, although it's possible that I just didn't detect them over the din in the bar. The third Bejar song, "Daughters of Sorrow," seemed to have a distinctly Okkervil River-ish quality to the guitar tone and the interplay of the rhythm section, so I am thinking that Sheff may have at least made an appearance on that song. Throughout the album I heard several guitar lines that sounded as though they could have been the work of Ms. Clark, but I did not take not of which songs they were.

Overall, this record has immediately surpassed Twin Cinema and Challengers, and established itself as my favorite New Pornographers album in seven years. I heartily recommend it, and I look forward to being able to spend more time with it.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn't thank Siobhan for coming out, having fun, and just being awesome in general, Matador for presenting these listening parties, and Brian from Beggars for all his hard work organizing and hosting the event tonight.

Together will be released on May 4. If you pre-order the CD or LP from the Matador online store, you will receive a free three-song 7" single of non-album cover songs with your order.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Lifting the weight.

In which I take a step back from the controversy I have inadvertently stirred up, tackle something a lot more lighthearted, and hope that you, dear readers, will follow me down this road.

Aside from that pesky LP which will not be named, the other big release that I absolutely had to get my hands on this Record Store Day was the Life of the World to Come DVD from my favorite band, the Mountain Goats. I had already seen a screening of the film, at the New Jersey Film Festival a few weeks prior, and had intended to write a piece on it then, but circumstances forced to delay my write-up. As it is, I think a piece such as this is a necessary tension-breaker at this point, so it works out.

The film itself, directed by the talented Rian Johnson, the auteur behind Brick and the exuberantly fun The Brothers Bloom, is simultaneously simple and deceptively high-concept. John Darnielle returns to an auditorium in Pomona College in which he had once played a recital in his preadolescence. Accompanying Darnielle occasionally on vocals is his one-time musical companion, Rachel Ware. Darnielle and Ware perform songs from the most recent tMG album, The Life of the World to Come, an album of mostly reflective, ponderous (note that I intend to use this word without the negative connotation that usually accompanies it; I mean ponderous in the most objective sense possible), and low-key songs that are each titled after a Bible verse. The performance takes place on a mostly bare stage in an empty auditorium, the only audience being the film crew, the camera, and the silence.

Right from the beginning, it is clear that this is not your typical rock performance documentary film. This becomes even more obvious once it becomes clear that the entire film was actually shot on a single camera with one hour-long, unbroken shot. The camera follows Darnielle and Ware as they enter the college hall and make their way to the auditorium, the stage dressed with a piano, Darnielle's acoustic guitar, a stool, microphones, some portable lamps, and, most curiously, a circular track surrounding the performance area.

Anyone who has heard the album knows what to expect musically; these performances simply strip away the veneer of production from the album renditions, and improve most of the songs in the process. What I find most compelling about this film, however, and what I'd like to talk about, is the unique dynamic between performer and filmmaker. Ultimately, this film does not seem to be simply documenting a performance from afar, as the films of D.A. Pennebakker aim to do, nor is it using a live performance to weave an impressionistic story as the performance documentaries of Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme do. Rather, this film seems, more than even Demme's documentaries, to display a rare synergy and collaboration between filmmaker and musical performer.

Darnielle appears to be somewhat uncomfortable and awkward through much of the film, only losing his self-consciousness once he begins to really inhabit a song a few lines in. He speaks awkwardly to the camera as if speaking to a live audience, but seems to consciously keep his remarks less verbose and more relevant than they ordinarily would be; while this is likely due to not having the exchange of energy from the crowd, he still appears to be conscious of the banter in which he is engaging. Furthermore, the gorgeously crisp cinematography from the constantly-moving yet never restless digital camera often uncomfortably invades Darnielle's space, almost as if challenging him or goading him to retreat further into the song. Throughout the film you occasionally see crew members running across the stage to adjust something. You hear ambient sounds invading the experience as the cinematographer attaches his camera to the dolly on the track for a smooth orbit shot or as a member of the crew knocks something over. Crew members make constant adjustments to the levels on configuration of lighting. It seems as if Johnson's manipulation of the environment and willingness to invade Darnielle's space is a conscious attempt to remove Darnielle from his comfort zone, to push him and see what he will do. It is startlingly, unsettlingly intimate - as someone who has seen Darnielle perform some 35 times over the years, starting when he would play half-capacity shows at the Khyber in Philadelphia, this is by far the most intimate performance I have ever witnessed. It was simultaneously thrilling, uncomfortable, and ultimately fascinating.

The DVD also includes a lo-fi 45-minute Q&A with Johnson and Darnielle and is packaged in a gorgeous book designed by the wonderful Horse & Buggy Press and featuring song-by-song liner note commentary from Darnielle. If you can still get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend it, both for tMG fans and for fans of performance documentary or interesting cinematography.

Below, I've included a taste of the film by embedding the powerful rendition of "Ezeiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace" from the film, as well as Johnson's first collaboration with the Mountain Goats: the mind-bendingly brilliant video for "Woke Up New" from the Mountain Goats' 2006 album, Get Lonely.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Clarification, "good guys," and some free music.

I would like to think that my message was sufficiently conveyed in the subtext of my previous post, but just to be sure, because in the conversation that is now emerging in the wake of my post, it seems that some have perhaps misconstrued my main points. I would like, therefore, to make these central points explicit in an easy-to-parse bullet-point format.
  • It was not my intention to tar all indie record stores with the same brush. Just as with most subcultures, there are good seeds and bad seeds. I recognize that, have recognized that for some time, and I therefore tend to only patronize (and try to be a vocal champion of) those who I consider to be, to put it in very reductionist and polarizing terms which are perhaps a but disingenuous but ultimately kind of necessary, the "good guys."
  • Nor was it my intention to disparage the good folks at Record Store Day. As I said in the previous entry, on the first Record Store Day I visited, if memory serves, five shops, arriving at the first one an hour before opening to find that I was the only person crazy enough to do so. Anybody who went to a record store this past Saturday knows how exponential the growth has been in the past two years. That first year, there were very few publicized exclusives, and they were all, I believe, from upper-tier indie labels - Matador, Merge, and Beggars, as I recall. The co-opting of Record Store Day by major labels (Warner Bros. in particular) has been curious to watch, and ultimately a necessary step in the growth of Record Store Day that unfortunately causes the onset of the standard independent paradox - one feels happy for the growth and sustainability of the event, but at the same time feels a slight sting as it no longer feels like it is yours alone. It's like watching your favorite band suddenly become huge, which is obviously a sensation I know somewhat well. But seriously - no anger toward the Record Store Day people should be read into my post. I know they are doing what they can with what they have, and frankly, the sometimes disorganized and ramshackle nature of the proceedings lends it a charm that has been steadily disappearing from record shopping culture since the rise of the internet.
  • I am not a fan of individual "speculators" who purchase rare records for the sole purpose of resale value, and I have not tried to hide this at any time. Usually, somebody who knows the resale value of these records is himself (or herself) a music lover, and therefore knows how it feels not to be able to get one's hands on something one wants due to the opportunism and greed of others. So what you have, then, is music lovers screwing over other music lovers for a few bucks. I know the economy is tough, and I am not going to judge you as a person if you do this. However, I am going to make a judgment call on your particular action and say it's a shitty thing to do. It doesn't make you a terrible person, but it's still a terrible thing to do to one of your own. And I know that this point will likely get accusations of having a "holier than thou" attitude, but frankly, I think having principles and sticking to them is underrated these days, and I'm not going to back down on mine.
  • The thorniest issue in the resulting discussion revolves around the one that I feel most strongly about, and which was meant to be the main thrust and eventual target of my ire and frustration: the stores themselves that withhold this stock from the customers supporting the brick-and-mortar stores to flip on eBay, usually for exorbitant Buy-It-Now prices. Record stores flipping products on eBay, sometimes at inflated prices, is nothing new, but it's something that has seldom been talked about. And in the past, and even in general, I don't necessarily have a problem with this; it is an example of stores adapting to a new economic climate and business model. What does it matter if an old Velvet Underground 45 goes for $100 on eBay, or if it sits collecting dust in the basement of an obscure record store in Brooklyn with a $100 price tag on it? For better or for worse, this is a capitalist, free market economy. Supply and demand applies in person as well as in online transactions. However, the Record Store Day stock is another store. In the words of the founders of RSD,
    This is the one day that all of the independently owned record stores come together with artists to celebrate the art of music. Special vinyl and CD releases and various promotional products are made exclusively for the day and hundreds of artists in the United States and in various countries across the globe make special appearances and performances. Festivities include performances, cook-outs, body painting, meet & greets with artists, parades, djs spinning records and on and on. Metallica officially kicked off Record Store Day at Rasputin Music in San Francisco on April 19, 2008 and Record Store Day is now celebrated the third Saturday every April.
In other words, it is meant to be a community event. As I interpret it, and I believe that Ms. Colliton and Mr. Kurtz confirm this in their comments on my previous post, the customers are just as important a part of Record Store Day as the stores and the musicians are. It's about what happens when the three come together. As somebody who spent a significant amount of his free time growing up simply hanging out in an independent record store, and later becoming an employee in this same store (RIP Full Circle Records), the idea of community and socialization is important to my conception of what an independent shop represents. The brick-and-mortar customers are the lifeblood of these shops, and I read RSD as a way of rewarding them for their continuing loyalty to a business model that many have written off as anachronistic.

By withholding these releases, by not even giving the brick-and-mortar customers a chance at these releases, the record stores have in a sense broken an unspoken pact of responsibility. They have sold out the patrons who would support them and keep them afloat for a quicker buck. These shops do not deserve our support or our patronage if they are going to disrespect their customers so callously and blatantly. I have seen some comments from others stating that they would rather their record store flip the product without giving them a shot at it if it means they can compete with Wal Mart and iTunes - my point of view (and, again, my principles show on my sleeve here) is that we don't need stores that have no respect for or loyalty to the customers who support them. Loyalty goes both ways, folks.

No, we will never put an end to record flipping and amateur eBay entrepreneurship. That is just a fact of our economic system. However, in a capitalist environment, the consumer can vote with his or her wallet. We can point out the stores that are betraying their customers. We can make examples of them. We can spread the word. We can shame them. We can stop supporting them until they give us the same loyalty and respect we would give them.

Frankly, I am just happy to see that some conversation has started as a result of this post. I am a bit overwhelmed at the amount of attention that my little navel-gazing and venting blog post has attracted in a short amount of time, but if it gets people thinking and talking about this, and perhaps deciding what role principles should play in their own conception of retail ethos, then I have more than done my job. I want to thank those of you who have supported me, spread the link through internet fora, agreed with me, or even challenged or disagreed with me. Just keep talking about it. Keep the discussion going. Things can change.

For those of you who have gotten through the preachy and self-righteous portion of this post, I'd like to direct you to some of the good guys that I have had the pleasure of dealing with int he independent music retail world. Please, whenever you can, support these establishments, because they truly do deserve it.

And, finally, to reward those of you who have made it all the way through my screed, here is the promised free music. First, let's foil the entrepreneurs who are trying to profit by flipping copies of the Blur Record Store Day UK exclusive. The reunited band released their first new song in seven years, "Fool's Day," in a limited edition of 1,000 7-inch singles that are obviously woefully sold out. Fortunately, the band have made the song available to anybody who wants it for the price of an e-mail address. Click through below to download "Fool's Day" in either 320 kbps mp3 or uncompressed wav format.

Blur - Fool's Day (download)

Next, don't fret that you didn't get your hands on one of the 600 copies of the Hold Steady LP. Instead, courtesy of NPR, you can stream the entire
Heaven Is Whenever album and listen to it as often as you went until it is released on May 4 by Vagrant Records!

the Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever (stream)

NPR is also offering a full free preview of the new Broken Social Scene record,
Forgiveness Rock Record, also out May 4 on Arts & Crafts.

And, finally, experience the sheer addictive awesomeness that is the new LCD Soundsystem record,
This Is Happening, courtesy of their own damn selves. LCD really is getting better with each album, and I highly recommend giving this a listen or ten. This Is Happening is released on May 18.

LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening (stream)

I just want to give a huge thank you to Eric Harvey and the New York Magazine Vulture Blog for helping to spread my thoughts and get conversation going, and another thank you to all of you who are participating in the conversation.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

See also: devouring one's own young, biting the hand that feeds, and other clichés.

So. Yesterday was the third annual Record Store Day.

RSD is my favorite holiday, because I am a nerd. (The fact that I even consider RSD a holiday should tell you that, obviously). I have been attending and eagerly snapping up copies of the various exclusive goods produced and sold commemorating this day since it began in 2008.

(Here's where this post may start to seem a bit emo. It is not emo. Self-righteous and wistful, yes. But when you get down to it, I'm an idealist. Spoiler alert: I know that these are just records and this in the big scheme of things, this does not matter. I know that. But I do believe in principles, and ultimately, that the violation of these principles is what I am on about.)

I always manage to find the dark lining in everything somehow, and naturally, Record Store Day is no exception. For those of you who may not be completely aware of RSD, here's a quick breakdown: it began in 2008 as a way, to celebrate the local, independent brick-and-mortar record store as a meaningful community space and source of socialization, knowledge, and, yes, purchasing music. At least this is the way I understand it, and this is what the day continues to mean to me. It is about much more than the actual stores, it is about the spirit of the stores, and about the patrons who support and love these stores. The day itself is a community-based celebration involving in-store performances, contests, fun community events organized by local record stores, and the availability of special, usually very limited-run exclusive releases from independent-friendly artists.

The first RSD was pretty low-key, last-minute, not well-publicized, and frankly kind of disorganized. There were maybe 8-10 exclusives, all, according to my memory, offered by indie labels. It took visiting 5 different shops, but I eventually had acquired everything I had been looking for. In 2009, the first thing that struck me was how much bigger it had gotten in a year. Instead of 10 exclusive releases, I think there were closer to 50. Furthermore, many of these releases, curiously enough, were being offered by major labels, who seemed to be doing some music-nerd PR by claiming to support independent record stores (even as they offer countless iTunes exclusives, but that's another angry blog post, as even indies are guilty of that). All of a sudden, RSD seemed to be co-opted by the majors and turned into a much larger event. Sure enough, RSD was a clusterfuck last year - I arrived at Vintage Vinyl shortly after opening to find the line out the door. Still, with enough searching I managed to get everything I had been looking for last year, including the insanely popular Flaming Lips/Black Keys split 7" single and the coveted Jesus Lizard 7" singles collection.

This year was the biggest year yet - the official PDF of RSD releases was 10 pages long. Among the list, there was a clear gem of a release - an early, vinyl-only release of Heaven is Whenever, the new album from the Hold Steady, on clear vinyl and in a screen-printed sleeve, limited to (depending on the source you used) 600, 625, or 650 copies. (For the purposes of the rest of this article, I am going to be assuming the 600 figure is correct, as that is the number I have seen used most often). This release was more than two weeks prior to Heaven's official May 4 street date. It was quite obvious to me that I would not be scoring this record, although that certainly did not stop me from trying.

So, predictably, I did not get my hands or even my eyes on a copy of this record. No surprise there. Also predictably, a good portion of the run has already shown up on eBay. Again, no surprise there. This brings us to the elephant in the room (speaking of clichés). The idea of people buying these records just to flip them on eBay is unfortunate but also unavoidable. However, the idea of independent record stores, whose lifeblood is the devoted, music nerd customer, and for whom Record Store Day ought to be a thank you to and celebration of the customers who have kept them alive and viable even during difficult economic times, is frankly kind of reprehensible. And yes, I am making the charge that most of the copies of this record (as well as other Record Store Day exclusives) are not individual vinyl speculators, but rather independent record stores who acquired this stock with the implicit understanding that the patrons of the record store would not be exploited.

As of this writing, there are 18 copies of the limited RSD pressing of Heaven is whenever currently active on eBay, with 13 copies already sold. This is roughly 5% of the entire run of the record, which is a significant amount. The cheapest copy sold for $89; on the other end of the spectrum, one copy went for a whopping $199. It is worth noting that this seller, j_spo from Brooklyn, is selling or has already sold most of the RSD exclusives from this year, and has no other recent sales. The fact that he has/had all of the most in-demand exclusives suggests to me that this is not an individual but rather a record store. I could be wrong, but the acquisition of the Hold Steady record, the Beastie Boys record, AND the John Lennon singles set seems suspicious to me. Also note the use of the Buy It Now or Best Offer feature, as well as the uniformity and utter lack of real description in the item description field. So, yes, I am calling this guy out. It smells like a rotten indie store selling out the patrons who have supported it.

See also eBay user beck*hansen. The alleged Mr. Hansen, located in Waterville, Maine, has 13 RSD2010 items for sale on eBay, including a copy of the Hold Steady Record. He has also already sold 64 RSD items, including a whopping FOUR COPIES of the Hold Steady LP. So, yes, this guy allegedly had scored five copies of the Hold Steady LP to flip. Am I seriously to believe he is not an independent record store owner?

And let's not leave out record stores who are blatantly flipping this product after presumably withholding it from their potential dedicated customers by advertising their name in their eBay handle. Yes, I'm looking at you, Eclipse Records. Just because you are not using an exorbitant buy it now figure does not make your betrayal of your customers any less reprehensible.

This may seem like a lot of whining, and okay, maybe it kind of is. It doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. It just really makes me angry to see record stores publicly buy into the whole circle jerk concept of celebrating and rewarding the customers with limited-run releases and special events while simultaneously selling them out to the highest bidder without even giving them a crack at it first. I would love to see the Record Store Day folks crack down on this and take action against offending stores by blacklisting them from participation in future Record Store Day events and denying them access to RSD-exclusive merchandise, but my guess is they will not do that. So, in lieu of this, I propose that anyone who finds themselves caring even a little bit about indie retail ethos to please repost this, link to this, e-mail it to friends and allies, or find another way to share this with as many people as possible. If anybody has any connection with Record Store Day officials, please forward it to them. And let's all agree not to support record flippers by not buying the product on eBay, and if a local record store is engaging in the flipping, please let them know that you are aware of it and that you will not be supporting them until they stop devouring their own young. In a volatile economic climate, record stores are already an endangered species, and if the ones who survive continue to betray the trust of those who support them, they may find that support gone when they need it the most.

Also, props and a big Flaws endorsement to Vintage Vinyl in Fords, NJ and Princeton Record Exchange in Princeton, NJ, two record stores that have always been reliable to me on Record Store Day and on every other day of the year and who do not sell out their customers by flipping their own product. When in New Jersey, please support them!