Autobiographical Order No. 389: Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage

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I go through periods of deep dives, concentrations and obsessions, just like anyone else. Maybe more so. No, scratch that. Definitely more so. When I take an interest in something, I’ll become consumed with it until I essentially exhaust my resources or just become exhausted, period. And this always, always, applies to music. (Music is what I spend most of my waking hours thinking about, so naturally…)

In 2012, I spent pretty much the entirety of my summer—at least I think it was summer, since everything blurs together when you’re a part of the workforce—listening to the entire Blue Note back catalog. Well, maybe not all of it. That could take years. But dozens upon dozens of the best albums it ever released, from Kenny Burrell to Grant Green to Grachan Moncur III to Eric Dolphy. (In fact, I was obsessed pretty specifically with Out to Lunch! for a while and it’s still what I’d consider one of the most amazing jazz albums ever recorded.)

In short, it was the Summer of Blue Note.

And it was a good summer! I’d pretty much just have one hard bop, post-bop or avant garde album running through my headphones at all times, and it was sort of like paradise, even though I was working. Many of the albums I listened to have already been featured on this blog and many more will be in the future, but one that’s earned its place in the canon for good reason is Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage.

In spite of the title, it’s not his first albums—he released a handful beforehand, including Empyrean Isles, which I think I actually like a little bit more than this one. But that being said, they’re both perfect as far as I’m concerned. There’s so much talk about the ’60s in terms of rock and folk music, psychedelia and hippies. But it was a bonkers time for jazz. You couldn’t walk five feet without tripping over some amazing jazz music. And this is no exception. Herbie Hancock went through various phases throughout his career, from film scoring to funk to disco, but some of his early recordings feature some of his best gems.

Herbie Hancock albums aren’t hard to find, thankfully (save for a handful of his Japan-only releases from the late ’70s that provided a more elegant counterpoint to his bigger commercial disco sounds at the time), and this one found me without too much struggle, and an early copy of that—not a reissue. My Herbie journey was really just beginning in 2012, and it had progressed somewhat by 2015, when I bought this, but I still had a long way to go.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

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Autobiographical Order No. 388: Broadcast – Future Crayon

When you spend most of your waking hours listening to, writing about and thinking about music, you cross a certain line where you pay attention to the kinds of things that the average person wouldn’t really notice. Like winking musical references to other songs, or the sources of samples, or what have you. And there was a time when that meant seeking out rare b-sides.

Today, b-sides are easy to come by because you can simply download everything. It almost doesn’t matter what you’re looking for, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find it somewhere. Although one thing that hasn’t changed is who’s looking: It’s still pretty much nerds. Like me, naturally. I’ve said a few times that you can tell the strength of a band by the quality of their b-sides—the logic being that the stuff that doesn’t make the album isn’t as good as the album, presumably, so if it’s still amazing, then what they put out is gold. That’s kind of backward logic, considering people hear the albums before the b-sides, but I think it still makes sense.

One band to my ears that’s always had great b-sides is Broadcast. And there was a time when I went to great lengths to track them down. When I was a freshman in college, living in the dorms, I bought an import of a Broadcast single for the sake of its b-sides (one of them being the supremely weird “Locusts,” which is a cool track). The person at the desk said, “You got a package from Germany or something.” Of course, I knew it was obscure psych-electronic jams!

Had I more patience I could have just waited until 2006 when they released Future Crayon, which compiled all of their non-album material onto one disc. And not surprisingly, it’s a hell of a lot of good music in one place. Some of these songs could easily stand up to the band’s best: “Where Youth and Laughter Go,” “Illumination,” “Poem of Dead Song,” “Still Feels Like Tears” etc. In fact, I’ve been toying with slimming the tracklist down a little in an effort to create what could be a lost studio album from the band. Only it’s not lost, because you can find these songs. They’re right here on this compilation.

So while I put an extraordinary amount of effort into finding these hidden gems at the time, I’m thankful that they’re much easier to find now, and you better believe when Warp announced that reissue campaign I picked this one up asap.

Rating: 9.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 387: The Police – Reggatta de Blanc

Contradiction: I generally think most of the time white musicians do a pretty lousy job of playing reggae, and I’ve gotten a lot of heat for saying so (by fans of white reggae bands). It’s the execution more than anything, though. What’s always bothered me is that reggae has long been a music tied to politics, representing the struggle of people in a colonized nation. It shares a lot in common with a lot of black music in that sense, particularly blues, and as a promoter of reggae shows once told me, the style’s been colonized itself.

But look, I like plenty of reggae-ish music made by white musicians, it’s just that they’re generally not trying to wholesale adopt the culture as their own. That’s typically the difference. The Clash were a punk band, but they recorded in Jamaica, worked with Lee Perry, and gave due props to their influences. The Police were more of a pop band, and they’ve written a lot of great songs with no reggae influence whatsoever, but they also took a lot of their favorite reggae bands on tour and mostly walked the walk. (Though Sting recently offered an awkward response to the “cultural appropriation” question, and I’m not sure that collaborating with Shaggy is doing him many favors, but it’s fine, they seem to be having fun.)

Still, there’s some corniness involved in The Police’s reggae influence; the title of their second album is a bastardized way of saying “white reggae,” for instance. And for as awesome as Stewart Copeland’s drumming is on “Walking on the Moon,” Sting’s vocals are, well, a little corny.

That said, I still really love this album, for a handful of reasons. One is “Message in a Bottle.” This has been one of my favorite songs for as long as I can remember, and the main riff is an absolute classic. Likewise, Andy Summers’ riff on “Contact” is pretty great, and “Does Everyone Stare” is a pretty excellent and dark deep cut. In general, there’s a lot to like here, though it’s maybe not as strong overall as their last two, Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity. But if you’re going to mix rock music with reggae, you could do worse than this album.

Rating: 9.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 386: Shuggie Otis – Inspiration Information

A fairly decent chunk of my musical taste or affinity for deep dives, crate digs and an endless search for something new can be traced back to my four years hosting a college radio show. Long before I started experimenting with live DJing (which is just me playing records I like and people asking “What is this, bro?”), I hosted a two-hour show on KCR at SDSU. Then a three-hour show. And finally in my last two years, a four-hour show. Seem like a long time to play new records every week? Maybe, but I never got bored of it, even when I had to study for a test and filled my show with stuff like Tortoise’s “DJed” and other 20-minute tracks. But that was a super fun four years.

But I found a lot of music I probably never would have otherwise, as well. Some of which was new—the “red dots” section is where all the hot new jams were filed. And every now and then I’d pull out a piece of well-worn vinyl just to hear what was on it. But that’s not how I found Shuggie. In fact, it was through a new CD at the time, not an obscure LP filed back in the stacks. Luaka Bop had just reissued some of his music on a compilation titled Inspiration Information, which was half this album and half of his other major studio album of the ’70s, Freedom Flight. I didn’t know anything about him, but our music director was super enthusiastic about it, noting that he was kind of a spiritual ancestor to Prince. And yeah, that’s not too far off—super talented, psychedelic, groovy. Sounds about right!

At the time it seemed like some super-obscure thing, some piece of music saved from a dusty old shelf where it had been abandoned, never to be heard again. When you haven’t heard as much music as, well, someone like me has 20 years later (that’s a lot of time to catch up!), you have a skewed perspective of what’s been lost to time. Which Otis’ music maybe temporarily had. But it’s not like he was buried under the sands. He’d continued to perform later on in his career, and even fronted Love briefly after Arthur Lee died. His song “Strawberry Letter 23” became a hit for the Brothers Johnson, and I even heard it in the supermarket. Still, it came as a surprise to find this album without much struggle in a used bin in a local shop.

This has become something of a resurrected classic in the years since, the swirling, soulful title track even being covered by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings on a charity compilation. It’s a set of trippy, bluesy, sometimes low-key sometimes wild R&B that deserves a home on everyone’s turntable. So go ahead and look for it. It might not even be that hard to find.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 385: Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse

Do you know what the most valuable record in your collection is? You probably do, or at least have an educated guess. And if you’re on Discogs, you definitely know what it is, because you obsess about cataloguing everything on your shelves. You know, like I do.

I definitely know mine, and that’s partially because I don’t buy crazy rare collectors’ items that often. I mean, who can afford to, unless you find something at a garage sale that someone didn’t realize they had, or know that it was such a find. That happens. And I know some people who seek those out. About two years ago, my most valuable record was a Swervedriver album that was ironically reissued by a local label. Since then it’s been usurped by something else: Frightened Rabbit’s Pedestrian Verse.

I’ve been putting off writing about this one a little bit, since it’s pretty sad, actually. The reason that this went up in value is because the band’s singer, Scott Hutchison died last year of an apparent suicide. And as such it’s gone out of print. Doing a reissue wasn’t the top priority of the band, which came to a tragic end, and in situations like this, the marketplace just isn’t important anymore. But here I am with this mixed blessing of a thing. I don’t really care that it’s rare and valuable. I have trouble even listening to it. And the weird thing is that it wasn’t even my favorite album of the band’s. It’s good. I enjoy it. But I haven’t listened to it in the past year.

It’s a strange thing when an artist you like dies. And this is far from the last you’ll be seeing me discuss this, but it’s even harder when that artist is close to your own age, and not someone who lived a long, full life, and it was simply their time. There’s a harsh irony about how someone whose music probably saved someone else’s life couldn’t do the same for the person who wrote it.

I’ll get there eventually. Like I did with Elliott Smith. Or other artists who were gone too soon. And yes, that includes artists much older than I am. For now it’s just odd to have something with a big pricetag and a much heavier emotional burden.

Autobiographical Order No. 384: Van Morrison – Saint Dominic’s Preview

Last week I was discussing how one of my favorite things about being a music writer is discovering great music from peers and colleagues—who are also friends. (Friendship is cool too.) But to take that a step further, I love the feeling of becoming interested in music when I read about it. One of the reasons why I started on this cockamamie path in the first place is because when I was a teenager I’d read magazines cover to cover and buy music based on those articles. I had a record guide of some sort that my brother gave to me as, I think, a birthday gift? It led to me picking up albums by a bunch of artists (Television’s Marquee Moon is the first one that comes to mind), and honestly, I could go on and on. But you get the idea.

As a result, one of my goals as a writer is to always make people want to listen to and engage with the music that I’m writing about. It’s not always easy to do; the vast majority of music is nice to listen to but not necessarily gripping or significant. And even if I’m tackling something I really don’t like, I still want to draw the reader in enough to make them curious. To not reveal so much that they don’t want to experience it for themselves, if for no other reason than curiosity. (Writing about Lulu, I’m sure, was one of those cases.)

Saint Dominic’s Preview is a perfect example of an album I pretty much had to buy after reading about it—and on a website I run, for that matter! My chum Paul chronicled Van Morrison’s Warner Bros. years, and among that retrospective were several perfect or near-perfect ratings: Astral Weeks (obviously—I’ll get to that one in a bit), Moondance, Veedon Fleece, and this one.  And I’ll admit to having not listened to it prior to that article. Look, everyone has gaps, alright?

But I was convinced: This was clearly a Van album I needed to hear, and when I found it used at Red Brontosaurus, an album I needed to own. And it’s quite good. At turns soulful and sprawling, boisterous and understated, it’s representative of a period during which Morrison was pretty much putting out one great album after another. (Another friend of mine claimed His Band and the Street Choir was his best, probably intended as hyperbole, but that’s another story.)

Considering how rare it is for me to buy an album without having heard at least some of it before, it’s kind of cool to not know what’s coming when the needle drops. But this was one that definitely lived up to expectations. I just hope that, in turn, something I’ve written can lead to a similar experience.

Rating: 9.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 383: The Sisters of Mercy – Floodland

I’m what you might call “goth by marriage.” I believe Rob Sheffield said the same thing once on a radio special he hosted on Sirius, and I know the feeling. Back when I met my wife many years ago, the first thing I knew about her was that she loved The Cure. And in turn, I came to appreciate them nearly as much (We’re going to Pasadena Daydream this summer, and I for one am really excited). That meant at some point we started eventually going to some goth nights here and there, but we were never really satisfied with any of them. Some were too ’80s. Some were too ’90s (Just queue up the Metropolis Records catalog on shuffle and then walk away!). And none of them ever quite matched up to our own eclectic tastes. Surely everyone loves hearing the hits, but why not a little more variety?

Later into the ’10s, I started DJing more, though never with a specific theme in mind. My own library is all over the place (AS YOU CAN SEE ON THIS HERE BLOG) and I have kind of a short attention span. But my wife suggested, “Why don’t we do our own goth night?” Crazy idea, but we did it. In 2015, we started St. Vitus Dance Party, which we did every month for nearly two years. It was exhausting, and it was challenging at times—Wednesday night is always tough, but being a slow night regularly, even bringing a few more people in that night than usual was a win for us and for the bar. We had some really packed nights. We had some really slow nights. And once I DJed after being up for about 24 hours. That was rough.

But it was a lot of fun. And more than anything it gave me a great excuse to buy a shit ton of records. Goth records. Post-punk records. Weird, dark electronic records. I wasn’t super faithful to the canon. I’d throw out contemporary stuff like HEALTH and The Knife that some people loved and some people hated. But San Diego already has 3 million goth nights. We did it our way, and if we were to do it again, we wouldn’t have changed it. (The bartenders always told me they loved what I was playing, for what it’s worth.)

One of the albums I had to have, though, is Floodland. As goth albums go, it’s almost cliche. It’s also made by someone who hates being associated with “goth,” but basically patented the look/aesthetic. And it’s a damn good one. All the tracks are fairly club-friendly mid-tempo jams, with some highly recognizable hits, “Lucretia My Reflection” and “This Corrosion,” chief among them. The latter was usually popular when I played it. The former not as much, but what can you do?

Regardless, it’s an album I thoroughly enjoy listening to, and even if St. Vitus ended—though trust me, the stories about it have just begun—I can have my own private goth night whenever I want.

Rating: 9.0

Sound Quality: Great