Posts Tagged ‘music’


we used to buy CDs

Compact discs are on a precipice. There will be a time, perhaps in the next few years, when they are no longer the main way people buy and listen to music. Like records, though, I predict the CD will be around for the rest of our lives. Unlike tapes (or even the 8-track), CDs have staying power. If you like album art, the digital download doesn’t compare. The compact disc sound quality (to my ears anyway) is superior, and the discs don’t degrade unless you really abuse them.

This is a personal history of music purchasing, not music listening. I don’t think there is much writing out there on how people acquire their music, beyond the occasional hyperbolic article entitled something like “CDs Soon Extinct: Is This The End of Record Companies?” Of course listening to the music is the most important part of the process, but how we get to that step has changed over the years, and that interests me enough to share my own story.

I bought my first CD at Target in Tucson, Arizona. My parents had purchased our first CD player maybe a year or two before. I still remember the salesperson selling us the player: “CDs are indestructible. You can throw them like a Frisbee and they won’t break.” The promise of perfect sound forever, coupled with the amount of space you can save compared to a record collection, was enough incentive for my parents to take the plunge.

Being a kid, it took a while to accumulate the funds to purchase a CD (they were more expensive than tapes). I also had to decide what CD was worth buying. The late 1980’s and early 1990’s were not exactly a swell time for new music. Being a lifelong Beatles fan, my first CD was a Paul McCartney greatest hits album. It was new, and I already had the Beatles albums on tapes. I still have the CD, for sentimental reasons. It isn’t a great album, but it does include Band on the Run.

At first CDs came packaged in something called the “longbox.” It was a worthless rectangular cardboard box that you threw away as soon as you opened the shrinkwrap. The longbox’s only purpose – perhaps beyond discouraging theft – was to sit the CDs taller on the shelf. Because everybody knows you can’t see a compact disc when it’s just sitting on a shelf. It needs to be stilted so it’s staring you in the face.

I can’t remember when stores finally did away with the longbox, but it was maybe midway into the 90’s. Long enough that there are millions of these longboxes choking our landfills today. I would hope distributors learned something about packaging from that mess, but the cynic in me doubts it.

I had a few weeks to listen to Paul sing Silly Love Songs before my mom decided I was getting lazy. So, at the tender age of 12, she sent me to work in a warehouse. Speaking of packaging: my job was packing computer software into boxes. At the end of the day, I was called in to the manager’s office. “The owner found out that we hired a 12-year-old and she doesn’t want that liability. Here’s your paycheck.” I think he wrote out a personal check instead of a company paystub, such was the stigma of my being there. It was my first job and my first firing, all in the same day.

My mom picked me up and I told her the news. She took it way harder than I did. I think she had hoped my job would lead to me moving into my own apartment and becoming a productive member of society. Instead, I just went to school and made her buy me food, clothing, toothpaste, and underarm deodorant.

On the way home from my failure, we stopped at Target. I used my paycheck (almost all of it, as I recall), to buy my second CD: The Beatles’ Help. It was the first time I purchased an album I already owned. Later, we would call the reissuing of an album a “double-dip.” Double-dipping is actually the reissue of an album on the same format (like the recent Beatles Remasters). But in practice it had the same outcome: now I had Help twice.

Target used to have rows and rows of new and old music. After a few years, maybe by the mid-to-late 1990’s, I outgrew their selection. It was a combination of factors: my tastes became more diverse and less mainstream, and their music selection dwindled to a few new releases and some “Golden Oldie” greatest hits compilations. Once you have the Lynyrd Skynyrd Greatest Hits album and the Beyoncé oeuvre, Target isn’t going to help you anymore.

I moved on, like many young men of my generation, to that beautiful technological paradise called Best Buy. Best Buy stole my heart as well as my wallet. I spent countless hours of my high school years perusing the racks of CDs.

There were a few independent music shops in Tucson. Zia Records and PDQ had much larger selections than Best Buy even in its heyday. You could chalk it up to the longer drive to get to either independent store (driving 45 minutes to get somewhere is not unusual in Tucson), or you could point to my still fairly mainstream musical tastes at the time. Both would be right as to why I stuck with Best Buy for most of my CD purchases.

College changed my listening habits forever. I learned that there was good – nay, excellent – new music being made every day. There were bands I never heard on the radio because The Man was keeping me down. That musical oppression riled me up. Fortunately, the cure was all around me in the form of musically liberated friends.

Not only was there a great college radio station, but we had a whole Conservatory churning out classical and jazz players every year. Some colleges have basketball teams to follow. I went to free concerts dozens of times a semester. They wanted an audience and I was more than happy to oblige.

But this post is about purchased, not free, music. And so, just like you may have noticed I omitted the major musical revolution of the first decade of this century, I will linger no further on free student concert-going.

Today I buy my music in two ways. I don’t use iTunes unless someone gives me a gift card. I buy CDs from Amazon or from one of two fantastic music stores in Portland. Between those three sources I can find just about anything.

I suppose in this day of reducing our carbon footprint I should reconsider the purchase of physical media, especially when the digital download offers almost as good sound quality and far better portability. But when I want to listen to good music on my home stereo system, look through liner notes, or study stupendous cover art, the compact disc remains my format of choice.


live albums

I’m ambivalent about live albums.  On the one hand, it’s nice to hear familiar tunes sung differently, especially by bands long gone or (in Bob Dylan‘s case, for instance) a singular performance that can never be repeated.  There are times I like the “live” version better than the album one.  They naturally have more energy; they can be looser and can be played better simply because the artist has sung them more often.  A concert album can have a better track listing than any one album by a band because the band knows nobody wants to hear those album filler songs.  Live albums can make a better all-the-way-through listen.

There are, however, very few live albums I listen to frequently (say, more than two or three times).  Most keep way too much of the audience noise.  Applause is awesome if you’re up on stage, but it is annoying to hear on headphones.  If the album says “live” on the cover, we all know there was an audience.  Keep it to a minimum.

The individual songs, however good they may sound, are impossible to put on a mix.  Audience cheering is so annoying when it’s cut off abruptly.  For a while I had a program that let me fade out the cheering.  And really, how many times do you want to take those extra steps for a mix?  Is the girl worth it?

I’ve been listening to Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall.  Recorded in 1971, right before he released a little album called Harvest, Massey Hall includes many of the as-yet-unreleased Harvest songs.  In all, I like Massey Hall.  Neil puts on a solo show, switching between guitar and piano.  The in-progress nature of much of his material lets us peek into his process as songwriter.  This is partly a way for me to geek out about music.

But how many times will I want to listen to Neil tell people not to take pictures of him while he’s performing?  Or to tell the same story about ‘Old Man’?  Or, most egregiously, how many times will I be able to take the nearly 5 minutes of applause before ol’ Neil comes out for an encore?

Some of the same problems plague John Fogerty’s live album, Premonition.  John reveals himself as a goofball who mostly talks about his guitar and amp between songs.  He has something to say about almost every song, and it usually includes jokes that are corny the first time and downright aggravating every time afterward.

The saddest part is, these are probably the best version of his Creedence Clearwater Revival songs you’ll ever hear.  His band is actually competent this time, and he really tears into his older material. 

Dan Bern put out a live album that stands up to repeated listens.  Live in Los Angeles includes previously released songs as well as stuff he’s never put on any album.  When I saw him (live, for real) in Portland, he said what I’d been thinking of live albums all along:

“When I hear live albums, I think, They sound like they’re having a good time.  I’m not having a good time listening to this, but it sounds like it would have been fun to actually be there.”

He obviously kept this in mind when putting together his collection.  There is very little between-song chatter, minimal cheering, and no 10-minute guitar jams.

It is possible to make a superlative live album.  (Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison, and Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club are also good examples.)  But beware! when you purchase a live album or record one.  It is a journey filled with peril and a path littered with failures. 


at last, the bob dylan kid’s album

He is a titan who walks among us.  He has given us the musical treasures Highway 61 Revisited, Blood on the Tracks, Time Out of Mind, and about 75 other albums.  Last year, Bob Dylan saw a gaping hole in his catalog.  Thankfully, we now have a Dylan Christmas album to put on when we’re sick of Elvis, Harry Connick Jr., Amy Grant, and nearly every American Idol contestant.

But what could possibly be next for Bob?  Has he finally plumbed the bottom of his lyrical well?  Never!  This fall, get ready to be the first on your block to get Bob Dylan’s brand-new children’s album!rabbi-zimmy-sings-for-the-kids

Rabbi Zimmy Sings for the Kids is a rollicking, romping rockfest that is sure to have your toddler screaming to turn it up to 11.

Hear Bob sing:
Ringiddy-Ding Them Bells
The Times They Are A-Jumpin’
The Boy In Me
Spanish Harlem Incident
Happy Eyed Girl of the Highlands
Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie
All the Animals on Maggie’s Farm
…and much, much more!

In addition to all those instant classics, the album itself comes packaged with a sticker book depicting Bob’s musical milestones.  Have you ever wanted to populate your own Desolation Row?  Well, now you can!  Join Bob in his Woodstock basement when he played silly and soulful songs with The Band!  Hang out with Bob in New Orleans when he was recording Oh Mercy!  And kids under age 6 will love the colorful page devoted to Bob’s born-again period.

Yes, Rabbi Zimmy Sings for the Kids is sure to please anyone from ages 9 to 109.

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limbeck

There should be a word for the disappointment one feels upon discovering a new band, only to find out that band has already broken up.

For me, that band is Limbeck.  Thanks to itunes, I own all three of their albums.  Unfortunately I am afraid those are the only albums they will ever release.  According to their Wikipedia page, they broke up early this year.  It wasn’t so much out of band infighting as it was a case of the individual members being ready to move in separate directions.  I’m sure if they had achieved a greater success they would have been more interested in staying together.  Maybe if we all buy these fine albums they’ll reunite!

Their final, self-titled, album was the first I heard of Limbeck, due in no small part to the cover.  I may not judge a book by its cover, but I have often judged albums by theirs.  This has led me to some of my favorite musicians, including Andrew Bird, Modest Mouse, and now Limbeck.

Describing Limbeck’s sound, I would say they firmly fall into the “Americana” sub-category of Rock.  Some have compared them to Wilco in their early, more countrified days.  Limbeck’s songs are upbeat, warm, and make you want to sing along even if you don’t know all the words.

Trouble starts the album off with a happy song about that thing that starts with T and rhymes with P and stands for pool.  You know you’re in good hands when a band can be so carefree about a crumbling relationship.  Bird Problems, chronicling a lost weekend which went so well that all the narrator’s friends thought he had died, is similarly bouncy in melody.  Keepin’ Busy, smack in the middle of the album, is the hardest rocking of the set, and at two minutes and change it reminds me the most of 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll.  The final track, Sunset Limited, gets bonus points for being set in Tucson, my hometown.

It should be noted that Sunset Limited is not the only song to name-check Tucson.  The sheer number of place names mentioned in Limbeck’s three albums reflect the nomadic lifestyle of a constantly-touring band.

If you’re looking for a band that will make you happy, whose albums you can play loud in the car, and that might actually get you hipster cred due to its relative obscurity, Limbeck should be your new favorite band.

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rapid eye something something

It was something of a shock to hear that R.E.M. officially disbanded today.  Mostly I felt the need to reach out to my friend and partner blah-gger at West Lawn Park, fearing the worst but hoping for the best.  True to form, Slider wrote a contented-sounding and loving tribute to his favorite band.

 

My favorite band disbanded nine years before I was born, so it always comes as a shock to me when current bands break up.  This is how it’s supposed to be, though.  Our idols grow and change as we do.  That is part of what makes art so compelling; it can only be made at a particular point in an artist’s life and at a particular point in history.  Art is the most human thing we can do.  (Saving children from a warehouse fire is the most humane thing we can do.)

 

I discovered R.E.M.’s album New Adventures in Hi-Fi at just the right time in my life.  My senior year of college was definitely a time of transition, and the restless energy of an album recorded while on tour clicked with me.  I played the heck out of that album through my last year as a student and during the month-long road trip I took with my friend Andy immediately afterward.  Even now it’s hard to pick out single songs to play.  I have to listen to it in one piece.  Okay, maybe with the exception of Electrolite, which is one of the most beautiful songs ever put to plastic.  Play that at night, on repeat, and dream.

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this is water

My dear friend and fellow Obie Ian Wilson is releasing his first full-length CD, titled This is Water.  Readers of this blog may remember Ian’s EP, The Crater, a five song appetizer for this album.  Ian apparently liked my cover design for The Crater enough to invite me back for This is Water.

Ian took his title from a commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave at Bill Watterson and Paul Newman’s alma mater, Kenyon College.  (Kenyon, like Oberlin, is located in the great state of Ohio.)  I find Ian’s album title to be apt.  Not only are there mentions of water in most of the songs, but like DFW’s speech the songs illuminate without explaining, leaving the listener much to ponder long after the running time has elapsed.

Of course listening to This is Water is much better than reading my words about it, but words are all I’ve got.  Oh yeah!  And pictures.  This is the sketch that became the cover image.
Ian liked the idea of a windblown tree on the (possibly Oregon) coast.  Following his approval, I drew up a few more polished ideas.
Ian hated all of these.  Just kidding.  He liked them.  We both knew the final was going to be in color, so I drew up my final image with that in mind.
This was inked with my tool of choice lately, a Raphael sable hair brush.  After scanning it, all that remained was to choose a color scheme.  We decided a monochromatic scheme would look good both on the printed package and on a tiny thumbnail that people will see on the internet.  After a few variations of blue, we agreed on the final design:
You’ll notice I removed my hand-drawn lettering to make way for a much clearer typeface.

This is the cover, but you’ll have to wait to see the other five panels I drew for the package.  Soon!  Check back here and at Ian’s blog for information regarding the release.


this is water, by ian wilson

A while back I casually mentioned my friend Ian Wilson was releasing his first full-length album, This is Water.  I like making big announcements with an understated, New Englander nonchalance; I think it’s funny.  Time passed and Ian worked like an unpaid intern, tweaking a beat here and a backing vocal there.  Well, dear readers, Mr. Wilson has officially released his first magnum opus!
Ian asked me to return for album art duty and I wasted no time accepting the offer.  Listening to the demos, I was determined to draw something as grand as this was going to sound.  Ian added to the expectations when he dared me to dream in technicolor.  As you can see, I went with a muted, two-tone blue.  When you listen to the album, you’ll hear why.
The album has six panels, of which I drew six.  Here are the finished drawings before text was added.  I inked them using two (maybe three?) brushes of different sizes on Bristol board. Color was added using Photoshop.
And here is what the inside panels look like once text, including a quote from Mr. David Foster Wallace, was added.
There you have it, spoilers galore. Ian believes, like myself, that there is something inherently special in physical works of art, be they albums or books.  There are some things best enjoyed when not displayed on a screen.  Pop This is Water into your player (or, okay, put the CD on your ipod) and look at the album art while you listen.  It’s a fulfilling experience.

Purchase This is Water on CD Baby!