If you want to hear a band that refuses to compromise its sound and instead chooses to evolve on its own terms, transcending their influences, you should check out Beach House. The duo of singer/keyboardist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally have endured comparisons ranging from Nico-era Velvet Underground to Dream Pop. Sometimes they have been even more egregiously lumped in with the chill wave movement. But really, they’ve turned an affection for vintage organs, exercises in looping guitar lines and echo effects to encapsulate their personal experiences with a deep-seated connection to their instruments and the crafting of melodies. When I spoke to Legrand a few years ago (Beach House’s Victoria Legrand talks recording upcoming new album: ‘Bloom’), she revealed just how intimately she feels about Beach House’s music, bristling and the chill wave comparisons and explaining an almost spiritual connection to the creation of music when I asked her who the song title “Irene” refers to. She told me:
It’s not a specific person. It’s the name that describes the entity of that song, which is, in itself, a person. The song for me is a spirit, so it’s no different when I say, yeah, it is somebody. It’s this character, this song. It’s this kind of mystery of: What is in that? What is in that room? Why am I compelled toward this? And that’s for me, one of those songs where it feels like sort of a question and answer within itself. It’s like, why am I drawn towards this, but I can’t help it?
With Depression Cherry, the Baltimore duo take both a step forward in their song-craft while glancing behind. Gone are the live drums that made their latest albums sound more organic. Instead, the duo brings back the electronic precision of the drum machine, a key element to their early sound. The strength of their last album, 2012’s Bloom, could be found in the raw moments where the members gelled and ran with a song. The tension between the musicians playing together and the song leading them on a journey felt palpable in these blissful moments of chemistry. These instances are few on Depression Cherry, due to a lack of a live drummer. However, the control of the songwriting and a sense of experimentation with the Beach House formula makes this album one of the duo’s most intriguing records in its history, standing up heartily to repeat listens.
It opens with a slow burn. “Levitation” is at first just skittering drum machine and twinkling keyboards. As the keyboards swell, Legrand sings in a higher pitch than usual, enjoying the end of her breath, as she says, “You and me…” The song slowly builds with spare notes of added keyboards, hushed harmonizing vocals and even an additional programmed rhythm. After some potent, yet unobtrusive synthesized stings, Scally breaks out a rumbling, soaring guitar line where Legrand sings, “There’s a place I want to take you…” and her voice layers up, tangling in a helix of vocals, as a shimmering drone emerges and overtakes all the instruments, which swell in layers of harmony before they fade off and meld into space as a sparkling drone swells and overtakes the song. It’s as if the band has slipped away into the darkness. It’s a charming opener that highlights how the duo can play with so many of layers of sound for a simple yet immersive mood.
The layers of unintelligible voices and harsh guitar work, topped off with massive organ chords that open “Sparks,” feels like a harsh follow-up to the majestic opener. “Sparks” was released on July 1, as the first single to hype the release of Depression Cherry. It certainly hinted at the experimental spirit of the new album, albeit a bit heavy handedly. It’s a dense track that feels a little over-whelming for its own good. The best bit arrives when Scally shifts to screeching laser like loops from his guitar at the song’s center. Beach House has an instinctual sense of dynamics that even keep their weaker tracks interesting and compelling.
On the other end, the highlight of the album has to be “PPP.” It was released as the album’s second teaser single last week via Spotify. Scally kicks the song off with a sort of bright, circular guitar line that will remind some of “Lazuli” (ironically, the second single off the previous album). Legrand plays around with some speak-singing at the start before going into her usual dreamy voice. “Did you see it coming? It happened so fast.” But this is really Scally’s track. He has an amazing moment at the center of the song, repeating a line he kicks off as he climbs down his fret board, repeating it in a kind of loop, but each time exploring its subtle possibilities with an extra note here or a different emphasis on the notes there. Each time the loop grows more thrilling and entrancing. It’s a brilliant moment as grand and as the epic finale of “Irene,” from Bloom. I dare say “PPP” makes the album, casting a pall across the tracks that follow it. Still, close listens grant payoffs.
“Days of Candy” closes the record, and it seems like a deceptive snooze at the start, sounding like some unformed, skimpy Cocteau Twins song. Legrand sings in an uncharacteristically higher octave as the song churns along on a slower beat, propelled by a monotone piano and some cheesy zaps of a synthesizer. But a turn in the song redeems it, reaching a surprisingly charming climax propelled by the sudden appearance Scally’s churning guitar as Legrand sings, “I know it comes too soon, the universe is riding off with you … I want to know you there, the universe is riding off with you.” It’s a beautiful line that captures the fleeting moments that define one person to another by also proving definitive to a life joined in intimacy that is a universe unto itself. It’s the perfect closer to an album that lives up to its title, sounding a bit sad … in its own sweet way while celebrating the remarkable chemistry of Beach House. With Depression Cherry, Beach House shows an incredible maturity in its songwriting, dropping the more gimmicky elements of their early years, like the vintage-inspired sound, and shows a blossoming, a coming into its own where there’s an assured exploration of a sound that stands on its own merits.
Our vinyl is in the mail, so I cannot comment on its sound quality (the album sees official release this Friday, Aug. 28). I will offer this one tidbit: The album was recorded last November at Studio in the Country in Louisiana. The press materials have not said what equipment was used, but the studio does have the capability of recording to analog tape. When I spoke to Legrand about recording Bloom, she noted the band had recorded to two-inch tape, and that was important to them. I can only imagine it still is, so we have some high hopes for re-experiencing this album as a vinyl record. It’s also worth noting, the album cover has a distinct fuzzy quality (see close-up in the gallery below), adding another tactile layer to the experience of listening to a record. Also, of the posting of this review, the limited “loser edition” clear vinyl was still available at the Sub Pop shop. Click here to order direct from them. If you want to support this blog with a little commission, click here to order it from Amazon, where it is currently on sale for the super crazy price of $8.99 (yes, cheaper than the mp3s and CD!).
We got a streaming link to the entire album back on Aug. 11 after pre-ordering the vinyl from Sub Pop. All images above provided by Sub Pop.
The news came last week via the official website of David Bowie: Bowie’s 1999 album hours… will finally see official release on vinyl by Music On Vinyl on June 15. There are two limited editions on colored vinyl. One is mint green, the other is mixed purple and blue. Both are limited to 2,500 copies. There is also a regular black vinyl version that is not limited. All vinyl is weighted 180g. The records also feature 12-page booklets.
None of the press I read has noted the audio source, though I have sent MOV an email asking what it might be. If you are a true audiophile, you want to know what generational loss you might be getting here. It’s a good sign that Bowie’s site announced the release, and not long ago, the same label reissued Heathen, which they said came from the same source as the original release (David Bowie’s ‘Heathen’ album to see vinyl reissue).
I reviewed this album around the time of its official release, in Oct. 4, 1999, in Vol. 25, No. 25, Issue 505 of “Goldmine Magazine.” Those familiar with the music writing on this blog know, Bowie is a favorite (check out the articles tagged here). Though I often write fondly of this musician, I could sense something amiss on this album. The album before, 1997’s Earthling, was so much more interesting, so when this album arrived it came as a disappointment. Below you will find the original draft of the my review for hours… before it was edited and published. I can’t find an archive featuring the original published review. I think I might have given it two-and-half stars out of five. All these years later, I don’t think my opinion has changed much, but I would not call it a terrible album, just a little weaker than what I expect from Bowie, so pardon my use of “balls” and “blemish,” as it’s still better than a lot of music in general:
Virgin (7243 8 48157 0 7)
For David Bowie, the ‘90s were a strong bounce back from the hit and miss decade of the ‘80s. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a perfect bounce back, and his final installment of the decade, Hours…, is just another blemish among some of the greatest music of Bowie’s career. With this new album the oomph of Earthling is gone, and the charming whimsy of The Buddha of Suburbia is nowhere to be found.
What made Bowie so great in the ‘90s was his lack of pretension. With his ‘90s albums, whenever Bowie thought too hard about his songs and music he screwed it up. In 1992, he gave us Tin Machine II out of an obligation to counter the press; cynicism that Tin Machine was just another Bowie experiment, and 1995’s Outside was constrained by its being a musical interpretation of a short story by Bowie. Hours… fails because of its empty-hearted message of “woe is me, I’m getting old,” which rings hollow. Bowie is too content and too rich nowadays (he’s worth millions after putting his catalog up on the stock exchange).
The only good material on hours… comes after plodding through the first few tedious, opening numbers, including the “Quicksand”-like “Seven” (note the 12-string strumming that drives the song) with nary the existential angst of the original (“I’ve got seven days to live my life or seven ways to die” versus “Should I kiss the viper’s fang/Or herald loud the death man/I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought/And I ain’t got the power anymore”?).
It isn’t until we get to the center of the album that we find some redemption, even if the atonement is superficial. “What’s Really Happening?” was a result of a contest by Bowie to challenge a fan to write lyrics for him. Alex Grant won and deservedly so. His “Grown inside a plastic box/Micro thoughts and safety locks” is more Bowie than Bowie. “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell,” finally brings some balls to the forefront, though it still falls short of the calmest number on Earthling. It’s not only Bowie who sounds diluted in his performance. Guitarist Reeves Gabrels has also lost some punch, and, as co-writer for every song, he is as much to blame for the weak music on hours… as Bowie.
Calling hours… a mellow album would just be excusing it for being bland. Once again, Bowie falls prey to his self-consciousness, unintentionally diluting the power of his creativity by making a contrived attempt at this coming of age album. Come on, David, any real Bowie fan knows your immortal. Just give us Bowie.
All images provided by Music On Vinyl, click to zoom in.
In honor of Record Store Day, which takes place this Saturday, April 18, today’s post is dedicated to the best films that feature record stores or vinyl as a crucial part of their storytelling. At Independent Ethos we take vinyl seriously and love independent record stores, as one of those places that are a necessity for the cultural enrichment of any neighborhood. One of the most fun days of the year, Record Store Day is an opportunity to celebrate those independent record shops that many seem to take for granted most of the year. The day is filled with events, exclusive releases, and a gathering of people that appreciate vinyl and independent music. In short, if you have not yet experienced a record store day click here now, find your nearest independent record shop and get out there!
The link between film and music is undeniable, it can change the meaning of a narrative eliciting all kinds of emotional responses. These five films present characters who are deeply invested in music themselves, as it makes an important part of their persona. As someone who spent countless hours of her idle youth in record stores, it’s a joy to see that many others wonder what happens in that place, how our life stories cannot be told in the absence of those objects of affection — yes, I mean vinyl albums — and the music on them.
High Fidelity (2000)
A classic now, High Fidelity stands out thanks to its brilliant character development. The sardonic and comedic elements are modestly familiar to anyone who has made their record shop their second home. Rob (played by John Cusack) is a record store owner reeling from a breakup. His sadness comes with a soundtrack, and many an introspective conversation about what went wrong, how to get the former lover back and elaborate discussions about music minutiae that informs that. In short, a relatable tale that will leave you satisfied and amused. A perfect companion to an afternoon of unwinding after you unpack your record store finds.
This is Spinal Tap (1984)
The mother of all mockumentaries, This is Spinal Tap documents the fall of the eponymous British rock band, as the band arrives to America to tour their soon-to-be released album Smell the Glove. To the surprise of the band, the album is released with an all-black cover, as the original cover idea, a naked woman on a leash with a gloved hand in her face, proved offensive. It’s just one of the elements leading to the unraveling of the band and many more deftly funny moments in the film, like when the band goes to a signing where only black Sharpies are provided.
The film relied on comedic improvisation, but had at least one hilarious moment of what comedians call corpsing, where they break character to laugh at a joke. Early in the film, the band sits down with documentary filmmaker Marty Di Bergi (a deadpan performance by the film’s director Rob Reiner), who probes the band members on their feelings about former album reviews, and the band’s history. For Shark Sandwich, one of the band’s earlier albums, the two-word review “Shit sandwich” catches Christopher Guest off-guard, as he can be seen laughing at the idea. I could go on about the merits of This is Spinal Tap, one of my most-watched favorite movies. It will be the perfect companion to your Record Store Day exploits, and really any day of the year.
Antoine and Colette (1962)
Antoine and Colette is the second installment in the series that follows the life of Antoine Doinel, of 400 Blows Fame. The film was part of Love at Twenty, a series of short films produced by Pierre Roustang. When we catch up with Antoine in this short film, he lives on his own and works at Philips Records, first packaging vinyl and later manufacturing each record by hand! The short film explores Doinel’s first love as he falls fast and hard for Colette, who he gets to know by stalking her with regular visits to a concert hall. They get to know trading books and, of course, records. In this short film Truffaut manages to capture the nostalgia and melancholia associated with that one first love, as well as the restlessness, yearning and infatuation that are part and parcel of that first love. A true gem, proof that a sequel can also be a great cinematic experience and how two people can connect through music.
Empire Records (1995)
In Empire Records, a cast of Gen-Xers who work at a record store experience a crisis as they are about to lose their jobs when the store is sold to record store chain Music City. The film encapsulates 24 hours of the lives of these store clerks as they go on about their adolescent what-the-future-may-hold indulgent conversations. The best thing about this movie is how it captures the quirky details of these music-centric characters, like the sardonic Lucas (Rory Cochrane), who doles out unrequested music advice to potential customers that might look for rock but should be listening to jazz, based on their violent tendencies.
In Once, the story does not necessarily revolve around a record store, but it culminates with a recording. The film tells the story of a street musician (Glen Hansard) who meets a Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova) that challenges his status quo. The exchanges between them are the most powerful when music is involved, as if for musicians language is a barrier and music is the best way to convey meaning. The two fall in love by just being themselves, the feelings are so visible and so impossible that it makes for a bittersweet ride. A surprising film for its subtlety and power. It may make you pause and wonder about the story behind the making of that killer independent album in your treasured collection.
* * *
Where are you going on Record Store Day 2015? Our favorite local record shops we plan to hit are Radio-Active Records in Fort Lauderdale (the best “just-in” bin in the region) and Sweat Records, who is celebrating 10 years tomorrow with a 48-strong line-up of bands playing into the night. Click their names for details.
November 1, 2013
For those who know their music, Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter, Kurt Vile would like to clarify something: When his parents, Mr. and Ms. Vile, named him Kurt, they did not know anything about the early 20th-century German songwriter Kurt Weill, whose last name is properly pronounced “vile.” Speaking over the phone from his home, the 33-year-old Vile said of his parents, “They had no idea who the composer was … I do have German in my ancestry, but my running joke is I always forget my family tree.”
It’s a great sign when a musician reveals a sense of humor about what is possibly a question he might have heard more often than he has cared to answer. As suits such a giving artist, Vile spoke frankly and was not above giving credit where due. From sonic ideas to his influences, he seemed happy to talk about it all. It was therefore easy for this writer to produce not one, but three different articles on Vile for the “Miami New Times,” ahead of his first live appearance in the Magic City tonight at Grand Central (see details below, as well as more tour dates).
The first article appeared last week, which also appears in print in this week’s issue of the “Miami New Times.” On the publication’s “Crossfade” music blog, the headline for the article tempted some commentators to answer Vile’s rhetorical question:
Vile spent even more time talking about long songs than was fit to print. His new album, Wakin On A Pretty Daze features a plethora of rambling, lengthy tracks. He admitted he has long had an affection for indulging in riffs that invite the listener to get lost in the music. He pointed to Neil Young as an example. “Like that song ‘Cortez the Killer,’ it can go on forever because he is just playing the right cords,” he said. “It has the right feel, the right groove. That’s an example of a song that doesn’t matter how long it is, and I was just taking that without exactly thinking about ‘Cortez the Killer,’ but there’s a million artists. It’s like the beginning of time, just people in the fields are playing blues riffs forever. So it’s just fine-tuning that and making it your own thing.”
Vile revealed that he felt a new-found ease with these new songs after getting his 2010 breakthrough album Smoke Ring For My Halo out of his system. Though the new songs flow easy and organically, he said they did not necessarily come out in single writing sessions. A lot of the songs were written in different parts of the world while he toured. “Different parts of the songs I write in different places,” he said, “but it all just kind of works cohesively and finally, ultimately when you go into the studio, you’re still not sure it’s all going to work out, and then you hear it back. Then there are sections where you just keep it going and think maybe you’ll just fade it out, but then you think this is where a solo will happen and then you listen back and you just realize you got to a place where the whole thing is good like that or at least good enough for you to not cut it out, whereas, in the past, I’ve done long songs too where they are seven, eight minutes long, but it’s still kind of primitive, though.”
Long songs have been something Vile has tried to fine tune for several years. He looks back at earlier experiments with modesty and without shame. “You listen back, it’s primitive. I like it, but I didn’t quite nail it in the recording cause it just kinda sounds all the same, all the way through to me. There were a lot of long songs for Smoke Ring too, but we just had to edit them down because after a while you weren’t bobbing your head. And also you wanted a single. It was that kind of record where a song like ‘Runner Ups’ was longer, cut it down. ‘Society Is My Friend’ was longer, cut it down. Stuff like that,” he added with a laugh.
Humility seems to be part of Vile’s character. The second article for “Crossfade” came easy: his confession to feeling insecure about the recording and production process:
All there was to say on the topic appeared in that article. What was left included more technical insights into his craft but also his demystification of analog recordings to vinyl. A self-proclaimed fan on vinyl records, Vile said they just do not make them like the used to. The picture below is a still image from a home-made video for “Never Run Away,” from Wakin On A Pretty Daze, featuring his then 3-year-old daughter and his record collection. After the jump to this third article, you will find the video.:
Kurt Vile and the Violators with Beach Fossils, VBA and the Band In Heaven. Friday, November 1. Grand Central, 697 N. Miami Ave., Miami. Doors 8 p.m. Tickets cost $15. All ages. Call 305-377-2277 or visit grandcentralmiami.com.
His tour continues up Florida and later in Europe:
11-02 Orlando, FL – The Social *
11-03 Tallahassee, FL – Club Downunder *
11-05 New Orleans, LA – One Eyed Jack’s *
11-06 Houston, TX – Walters *
11-11 Oxford, MS – Proud Larry’s *
11-12 Chattanooga, TN – JJ’s Bohemia *
12-07 Stockholm, Sweden – Debaser Medis
12-08 Lund, Sweden – Mejeriet
12-11 London, England – 02 Shepherd’s Social Club
12-13 Leeds, England – Brudenell Social Club
12-14 Manchester, England – Manchester Academy 2
12-15 Glasgow, Scotland – Arches
12-16 Bristol, England – The Fleece
12-17 Brighton, England – Concorde 2
12-19 Paris, France – La Gaite Lyrique
12-20 Tourcoing, France – Le Grand Mix
* with Beach Fossils
More tour dates into 2014 and several dates in Australia can be found on Vile’s official tour page (that’s a hotlink).
May 13, 2013
Thanks to NPR Music’s “First Listen” series, Deerhunter’s new album Monomania has had two weeks to seep in. It soon became apparent that this album was a marvelous continuation of the Atlanta-based band’s arty noise-pop sound. Any doubts about this album for this writer lasted only halfway through the band’s premiere of the title track on Jimmy Fallon’s late night show a few weeks ago. Deerhunter would give one of the most brilliantly subversive television performances I had ever seen. Lead singer/guitarist Bradford Cox hid most of his face under a disheveled mop of a jet-black wig. He gripped a microphone on a stand with his right hand and snarled through the song. But the scene-stealer was a missing middle finger on his left hand. His face mostly hidden, one could not help but notice the bandaged and bloody nub where one of his fingers should have been. Though later proven a stunt (he had just curled up his finger and wrapped it tight), this “prop” raised the performance to an entrancing level, especially when one has to think what this might do to the guitarist/songwriter’s process considering the wall-of-guitar sound of Deerhunter.
Then, a little more than halfway through the song, as the band dove into a roaring cacophony of dueling guitars, Cox walked off the stage. A cameraman followed him backstage, as his mates bent over their respective instruments to squeeze the life out of their strings, seemingly oblivious to the disappearance of their frontman. Guitars still wailing in the distance, Cox walked past a couple chatting in a backstage hall, snatched a cup from a woman yapping and either chugged the cup of water or threw it in his own face (I can’t recall, the video is no longer on-line). With the band members still pounding on their instruments, he walked over to an elevator and pressed a button, as “Monomania” came to a sputtering end. Fallon walked over to the stage holding a vinyl copy of the album. “Deerhunter, everybody!”
This is the genius that informs this music that I have consistently celebrated since I first heard of Deerhunter via their third album, 2008’s Microcastle. Three albums later and Deerhunter have not lost their touch to these ears. The new album opens with two noisy tracks with vocals so loud they rattle eardrums, distorting beyond perception of lyrics as guitars screech and shimmer, dipping into sporadic bits of feedback. Then comes relief in “The Missing,” a pretty melody crafted by guitarist Lockett Pundt, who also has a noteworthy solo project called Lotus Plaza. Pundt’s shy, breathy singing is the perfect complement to the delicate songcraft: pretty guitars and synths sighing an iridescent harmonic whoosh under the bright guitars. None of these songs on their own would feel as potent taken out of the context from one another. It’s a great bit of dichotomy. To reduce Deerhunter as a grungy shoegaze/noise pop outfit interested solely in reverb is to overlook the patchwork brilliance of the entire experience of its albums.
Last week, the vinyl version of Monomania arrived, and it provided yet another layer of revelation. What becomes immediately noticeable, thanks to the clarity of vinyl, is the acoustic guitar strumming within the din of the opening track, “Neon Junkyard.” There are also various whirs and fizzes that comprise the noise from unknown sources. The lyrics are also clearer, and the first line may as well be Deerhunter’s manifesto: “Finding the fluorescence in the junk/By night illuminates the day.”
The great thing about noise pop albums on vinyl is how the format clears up the din like a high-definition video screen. There is finesse in the racket. The clarity of the instruments, from the strum of acoustic guitars to the pluck of bass strings, pops out with not just crispness but dynamism. “Blue Agent” contains a staccato lead guitar line the oozes liquidity. However, its terse delivery features a new dynamic in each pluck on vinyl. The sonic range via vinyl turns what could be regarded as a cute gimmick in playing to elevating the song with a deeper character that sounds far more human and real.
“T.H.M.” opens with a delicate guitar line and soft beat decorated with a shaker. The song picks up on a sprightlier beat with hand claps as another guitar jumps in to add another terse melody before returning to the more spare verse. The kicker comes when Cox supplements his growling lyrics with a chorus of asthmatic coughs.
Side two opens with a billowing whir and then bright guitars drive the song along toward a chorus featuring an echo effect capping off the end of each line Cox sings before more guitar strums pile up to swell and suddenly back off and let the initial hook trot along to the song’s finale. It’s a brilliant tease of noise versus melody. In fact, this side more than side one features the catchier tunes and reveals the early ‘90s/late ‘80s noise pop sonic influence from bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement. However, whereas those bands were usually against keeping keyboards and keeping synths out of the mix, Deerhunter has no fear of using them to supplement its sound. Then again, there is that roar of an outboard motor that takes over from the crush of screeching guitars at the end of “Monomania.”
Beyond the gritty sound juxtaposed with brightness are the dark lyrics by Cox. That’s where the true heart of darkness of this album lies. As bright as “T.H.M.” sounds musically, the lyrics reference a violent death (“Took two bullets to the brain”) coupled with “coming out” and insanity. Throughout Monomania, the lyrics seem to wallow in misunderstanding and a frustrated solitude. It comes from a very real place, as Cox rarely sentimentalizes his homosexuality. Even Pundt’s only song, “the Missing,” fits the vibe of the album lyrically.
Deerhunter has always known its way around darker subject matter, and such deep exploration births an honest sound that does not always produce pure melody. The members of Deerhunter consistently prove themselves crafty with guitars and pop songs, but they know how to dig deeper to offer something much more dynamic with not only volume but cacophony. As ever, Deerhunter proves there is a beauty in noise. Monomania may have frayed and weathered edges but it’s representative of a real humanity beyond the songcraft.
March 18, 2010
It has happened: the Flaming Lips are now taking pre-orders for their collaboration with Stardeath and White Dwarves, Henry Rollins and Peaches doing Pink Floyd’s the Dark Side of the Moon. . . on regular 140 g weight vinyl, which comes with a bonus CD! Click here to pre-order the item direct from the Flaming Lips’ website.
The official release date for this reportedly limited edition vinyl is slated for April 17, which happens to be National Record Store Day. The CD-only version comes out later, on May 4.
Originally released as a digital-only album on iTunes, Napster and other sources, this collaboration blew my mind from the first few seconds, when the Lips and Stardeath crew decided to turn the original mellow, wash of “Speak to Me/Breathe” into a driving noisy bass hook. The rest of the album comes across just as inventive while still showing great affection and respect to the original work of Pink Floyd.
I immediately pined for how this might sound on the openness of vinyl, and I wasn’t the only one. I’m glad to see this is coming out on my preferred music format.
As for that annoying Parental Advisory sticker, I don’t know if it will really be on the album sleeve, but the Christmas on Mars LP was supposed to have it, and mine does not.
November 18, 2009
Since David Bowie is my unequivocal favorite recording artist, I was excited to have received a promo copy of the 40th Anniversary pressing of Bowie’s Space Oddity record (It was officially released in the U.S. yesterday). But I’d be remiss not to note my disappointment. The sound quality was nothing new to me, as the only other vinyl version I have of this record is the long out of print Rykodisc reissue from about 20 years back. Both are digitally sourced. It doesn’t matter much the remasters might differ, as digital recordings lack the warmth of the original analog tapes, the ideal source for vinyl.
Some of the apparent faults of digitally sourced vinyl can easily be heard on the first side of this record. The jam at the end of “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” especially where the horn comes in, pierces the ears. Following that track is “Letter to Hermione,” which has some unfortunate, distracting amplified sibilance throughout (which actually sounds less annoying on the Ryko release). Then, during “Cygnet Committee,” I thought I was hearing things, but after checking back three times, when Bowie first sings, “Because of you I need to rest/Because it’s you that sets the test,” I could hear distant voices and/or music. It reminds me of what a re-used cassette might sound like when you copy over music that was already there, and you can hear the ghost of that music below the new music you recorded on top. I wonder if this audio “ghost” may have been chit-chat in the studio that the microphones might have picked up…*
The reissue packaging is OK. EMI has done better with their “From the Capitol Vaults” series: The jackets are sturdy and painstakingly reproduce the quality of the original release (Space Oddity was not first issued in a flimsy high-gloss sleeve, though this vinyl reissue for the first time returns it to its original self-titled glory on LP). The package also includes a giant poster that reproduces a poster promoting a concert featuring Bowie during the record’s original release, which reeks of its digital source, an unfortunate visual reflection of the quality of the audio (you can see some of that psoter in the image of the record above). Personally, the Ziggy Stardust era image on the back cover of the original RCA reissue (seen left) would have made a way cooler poster, when the album was first re-titled Space Oddity (thanks to Epiclectic’s cool Flickr photostream featuring original album art for the image!).**
But the joy of this record is having another close listen to the songs. I first heard it when I was a young teenager in the 80s, having only been familiar with “Space Oddity” as a single collected on one of Bowie’s greatest hits (a cassette of either Fame and Fashion or Changesonebowie). What stood out to me then was how different some of the songs sounded in comparison to the trippy quality of the title track.*** This was Bowie in his short-lived hippie persona, which would later suffer a violent end with his 1970 follow-up, the pre-heavy metal tinge of The Man Who Sold the World.
What still strikes me is how sad some of these songs sound: the passionate delivery of the social critique that is “Cygnet Committee,” the lovelorn longing in “Letter to Hermione,” the pathos of “God Knows I’m Good,” the over-the-top melodrama of “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud.” Even “Memory of a Free Festival” has this mournful nostalgic quality, a beautiful moment that has died, similar to another cut on this same album, “An Occasional Dream,” except that the former recreates a shared experience with like-minded bohemian souls, while the other portrays a more private experience with a soul mate.
This album truly was Bowie with soul bared naked at the time (I believe he was 22 or 23 at the time). He wasn’t hiding behind some over-the-top persona, nor was he the self-conscious fame-seeking pop artist of prior failed attempts for notoriety as a soulful mod rocker and pop crooner. He also was yet to begin the more abstract cut-up lyric writing technique he took from famed beat writer William S. Burroughs–that would first occur on 1974’s Diamond Dogs.
For me, the strongest bits of the album include the otherworldly finale “Memory of a Free Festival” with its refrain of “Sun Machine is coming down, and we’re going to have a party” (noise poppers Mercury Rev would later record an appropriately strong version of this song). The jam that ends “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” was a revelation for Bowie at the time, since all his earlier songs were mostly compact pop numbers. Which leads me to the epic grandeur of “Cygnet Committee,” a song that grows from delicate sing-song to its soaring, pounding finale over the course of nine and a half minutes, his longest song to that date.
Though probably his strongest work at the time, Space Oddity was never the strongest album of his career. It really shows a newfound sophistication for him both lyrically and musically since his prior work, where his biggest inspiration was the cheesy pop of Anthony Newley, which sometimes resulted in some embarrassingly zany moments that shall remain unmentioned out of respect. He would later temper these naïve self-conscious themes with deeper existential musings in much stronger songs like “Quicksand” and “Life on Mars” or the more surreal “Bewlay Brothers,” all from 1971’s Hunky Dory.
Finally, a 2-CD version has also been reissued at the same time as this vinyl version, which collects some songs never officially available to the public.
*After checking, yes, this audio “ghost” is also on the Ryko LP version, and, yes again, I checked the Ryko CD, 1999 Virgin CD reissue and the Japanese mini LP CD—it’s on them all. I guess I never heard it before because I never had the system I now have (more on that in another post). I’m only left to wonder if it’s on the original RCA CD or LP (it probably would not have come out on the cassette due to the inherent hiss of the tape).
**Before the album had been simply titled David Bowie, just like his first full-length in 1967 on Deram Records, adding to some confusion. To top it off, when it was first issued by Mercury in the U.S. the artwork was changed somewhat and the shameless (unapproved by Bowie) title Man of Words/Man of Music was added on. It became Space Oddity in 1972, when RCA bought the rights to Bowie’s back catalog and reissued it during the Ziggy Stardust craze that again saw the cover art altered to feature Bowie’s Ziggy persona on the covers). Ahhh, the marketing strategies of early music labels, how fun.
***It’s important to note that, per the liner notes on the inner sleeve by Kevin Cann, that “Space Oddity” was produced by Gus Dudgeon, and not Tony Visconti, who recorded the rest of the album (and continued to work with Bowie here and there on some of Bowie’s greatest records, down to his last release, Reality). Cann notes how Visconti had an aversion for the song and refused to record it for Bowie, so Bowie, asking Visconti’s permission, went to an outside producer to record it anyway. It would famously become his hit single thanks to the timing of its release with the first Apollo moon landing, though it was actually inspired by the grim future vision of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. It would turn out that none of the other songs, as strong as some still are, ever had single quality, to the frustration of the label and Bowie. Fame would elude him until his other interstellar ride as Ziggy Stardust, three long years later.