Autobiographical Order No. 310: Crystal Castles – s/t (II)

I wasn’t really sure how to approach a record like this. In this series, I’ve been including things like my personal rating of the record along with how good it sounds (due to pressing quality, wear, mastering etc.). But from time to time, artists end up being more difficult to handle because of their offstage behavior. I have a few records in my collection made by people who either possibly or definitely did some horrible things. I discussed this a bit when I wrote about Michael Jackson, for instance.

With Crystal Castles, it becomes a bit more complicated. I could potentially reason an artist like Michael Jackson because he was young when he was recorded Off the Wall and potentially uncorrupted, and he’s also dead, so there’s that. But the art/artist separation is always one that’s worth questioning, because maybe you shouldn’t make the separation. In fact, in most cases, I’d say you definitely shouldn’t. (You’ll never see me supporting Chris Brown or R. Kelly, for instance.)

But then there’s this. Last year, Alice Glass made a long statement about the long period of abuse she suffered from her partner Ethan Kath. Verbal, physical, sexual. It wasn’t necessarily shocking, because this kind of thing is sadly common. But it’s hard not to get that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you find out how much of a monster someone turns out to be. Even if you don’t know them or frankly have no reason to expect much of anything. (Although after they broke up and before this information came out, he really acted super condescending and dismissive of his former musical partner so I should have expected he was a shitbag.)

Since then, I haven’t listened to this record, but for some reason I still own it. And I think that’s because I think these songs should belong to Alice. She’s performed them live after Crystal Castles’ dissolution. Ethan Kath never gave her the credit she deserved but he also made her life miserable, so I think she should have them and he shouldn’t get the luxury of claiming otherwise.

I’m not sure when I’ll listen to this again—its songs have come up on shuffle and I can certainly still enjoy them, but it’s important not to make excuses when something like this happens. It’s even more important to support the person who’s affected, however, and I’d love nothing more than to see Alice Glass thrive in Crystal Castles’ aftermath.

 

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Autobiographical Order No. 309: The Cure – Pornography

There’s already been a lot that I’ve said about The Cure, most recently that they were the best band of the ’80s. And I stand by that. It’s hard to find a catalog in that decade that beats this band’s, unless you’re making the argument that the E Street Band and The Revolution count, though that’s even debatable, considering The Cure essentially released a string of flawless albums during that decade. (Exception: The Top, though it’s not without its charms.)

Early in 2014, when I started this interesting experiment—which is still going!—I participated in a kind of social media game: #JanuaryVinylChallenge (or whatever month it was) in which each day you’re supposed to post a new picture of a record falling under a different theme. One of them was the biggest collection of a single artist you have, and that one fell entirely to The Cure, and the reason they were the biggest in our collection was because of my wife. When I met her, they were her favorite band in the world. And arguably still are, at least in terms of the overall catalog. I had zero Cure albums when we combined our collections, and now we have pretty much all the essentials except Wish. (Which I’m not even sure is easy to find on vinyl.)

However, I made it my mission to fill in all the gaps. And that required purchasing a lot of items from fairly far back in the catalog. Happily Ever After was a fun find. And the Record Store Day version of Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me added a bit more value to the collection. But it wouldn’t be complete without Pornography. No collection is.

Pornography isn’t the number one most essential greatest Cure album of all time, which is obviously Disintegration. (One of the best albums released by any band in any genre.) But it’s sometimes my favorite, because it’s so dark, bleak and heavy. It’s angry and weird and psychedelic. It’s less a lament than a primal scream. The most abrasive and intense thing the band ever released, which they followed with “Let’s Go To Bed” and “Love Cats,” so clearly Robert Smith wasn’t about doing the same thing twice.

I never tire of hearing Pornography, simply because it’s an album that hasn’t been worn out through time and pop culture. It has no hits, just some weird and heavy dirges. And in 2015, a year after finally getting this on vinyl, my band spent some time learning “The Figurehead,” maybe the best song on the album, to play live for a cover set. That took some time to sort out to play it between two people, as the original arrangement is three (though arguably with more layers than that). But even though we played it countless times, I’m not sick of it. Maybe because the original isn’t the one that was played over and over again.

When I reached the conclusion that The Cure was the band whose records we had the most of, it was an educated guess based mostly on singles and EPs. But after my mad hunt to fill in all the gaps, I know it’s true. If we only had Pornography, though, that’d be a damn good start.

Rating: 10

Sound Quality: Great

 

Autobiographical Order No. 308: Kool and the Gang – Ladies Night

Four years ago—though really it started a lot longer than this—I had a song stuck in my head. For maybe two years, I couldn’t figure out what song it was. It wasn’t an obscure song, I kind of remember hearing it on VH1 as the background for a show, and I was pretty sure it was sampled in a rap song, I just had no idea the actual details about it, just that it was kind of a smooth, laid back funk/R&B song from the late ’70s or early ’80s. It might have been George Benson. It might have been Stanley Turrentine. It could have been someone much more commercial, but I wasn’t sure. I put a plea out to social media to try to figure it out. I even recorded my best approximation of the main riff. And I did this several times. Why? Because… I dunno, I just needed to know.

It took a bit of sleuthing and some cram sessions, but eventually two of my friends figured it out. The first was Glenn, who ruled out Zapp first among several other artists, and the second was Adam, who figured it out mere moments later. And it was sort of a relief to know that I could finally cross it off the list. The song? “Too Hot” by Kool and the Gang, an extra smooth disco-funk track that’s pretty easy to like, even if there’s some inevitable cheese factor.

So no later than that same week I ended up seeing a used copy of Ladies’ Night, which features “Too Hot,” at Record City for (checks price sticker) $5.99. It seemed only right to bring it home. It’s made its way into a handful of my DJ sets, including one last summer at Tiger! Tiger! when, indeed, it was way too hot outside. So yeah, “Too Hot.” Seemed like something that should have been easier for me to figure out, but we all have those gaps and blind spots. And since then I’ve heard some great songs in bars or restaurants that I wasn’t able to shazam in time or figure out through Spotify, but they were clearly much more obscure than this one. But that’s life—sometimes good songs get away from you.

Rating: 8.4

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 307: Duran Duran – Duran Duran

This is the part of the program where the details of the how and where I picked up every single record gets a little fuzzy. But, of course, there are price tags that sometimes give it away—this was a Record City used bin find for $7.99 in summer of 2014. So that’s how I got it. But other than I don’t know the details, and I’m guessing it was there, and I said “hey this is a good album, so I’m going to buy it.” And I did, and that’s that.

BUT my relationship to Duran Duran’s music goes back a lot longer than that. My sister’s always been a really big fan, and I have vague recollections of seeing the video for “Hungry Like the Wolf,” with its wild Indiana Jones-style look, back in the ’80s on MTV. But I don’t think I fully appreciated how good of a band they were until I was in college.

It’s pretty well established that the band’s best records are their first two, and their missteps, like the covers album Thank You, are either a result of too-obvious stabs at staying current, or simply victim to the time they were made (the “Wedding Album” was pretty good, for instance, but much of their ’90s material isn’t). But I was too young in the ’80s to have any wrong-headed (“rockist”) opinion about how these were male-model looking dudes and therefore can’t be a serious band. That was obviously nonsense. Now, it doesn’t mean their music doesn’t sometimes delve into pure hedonism or stylistic excess, but that doesn’t mean it’s not great.

The band’s self-titled album is their second best album (the best one will be on this page in a series of weeks, looks like), but it’s got some excellent songs on it. “Planet Earth,” namely, which is the best Duran Duran song. THE best Duran Duran song. (Fight me.) However, the first three tracks in a row, which also include opener “Girls on Film” and “Anyone Out There” are all 10/10 tracks. And there’s some arty weirdness on the B-side, including “Night Boat” and “Tel Aviv.” It’s not perfect, but it’s new wave/new romantic music at its best.

I like keeping some Duran Duran in my back pocket whenever I DJ because people, I’ve found, LOVE Duran Duran. At one event someone even came up to me and was like “This is music from MY day!” which was funny. I couldn’t have been that much younger, but anyway. Duran Duran belongs in your collection. I’ve taken that as a given, and internalized it to the point where I don’t even remember quite how this got into my collection, just that I know it needed to be there.

Rating: 9.2

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 306: Shuggie Otis – Freedom Flight

Back when I lived in South Park, I’d make regular trips to Safeway/IGA Market (or whatever it was called—it’s a Target now) to pick up a handful of things, like paper towels or bottled water or something we needed to make dinner. It was close to our house and was the closest proper grocery store, though there were a handful of other small markets nearby as well. And for a while, it seemed like every time I went there, I heard The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter #23.” A great, funky psychedelic soul track from the ’70s, “Strawberry” is one of those tracks you’ve heard probably a bunch of times, but maybe don’t know the name. (Or maybe you do, I’m not trying to be condescending or anything, but that’s how a lot of tracks are to me sometimes.) It’s a hell of a track, too, with an amazing coda that features some stunning swirls of guitar. And of course, this was the time in my life when I started to question everything. After all, I was the guy who liked the canned grocery store music playlist. (Don’t get me started about when I began hearing “Six Months in a Leaky Boat.”)

“Strawberry Letter #23” was originally performed and written by Shuggie Otis, however, a cult psych-soul artist who is sometimes seen as a proto-Prince. While he was nowhere near as versatile (only a handful of records in, oh, about 50 years?), he definitely had the versatility and talent. Freedom Flight was Otis’ second album (not counting a collaboration with Al Kooper) but it was really his first great work. Of course, a lot of that has to do with “Strawberry,” but that’s by no means the only great track. Opening psych-funk jam “Ice Cold Daydream” is a personal favorite, and the epic 12-minute closing track is a stunning work of soul-jazz fusion.

There are some less interesting blues tracks, but while Otis sets the bar high with some truly outstanding gems, everything here sounds great. And, of course, he wrote an outstanding soul standard. I hope for his sake he’s gotten some good royalty cash from it. God knows I heard it while shopping quite a bit.

Rating: 9.1

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 305: Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA

Anyone who’s followed this whole my-life-in-records series long enough should probably already be familiar with my affinity for Bruce Springsteen. Born to Run was one of my first real OMG finds (even though I was record shopping with someone I don’t care to associate myself with anymore, and is apparently super easy to find for around $5) and Nebraska is the kind of record that makes me listen to music differently. And, interestingly enough, I can also say the same of Born in the USA, Bruce’s big pop moment and an album that’s been historically widely misunderstood.

The front cover has a picture of The Boss’ backside in front of an American flag, and the title track was a staple on MTV in its early days. In fact, Ronald Reagan played it at his re-election rallies in 1984…which Bruce wasn’t OK with. Aside from the fact that Springsteen’s own values have never been in line with anyone who supports supply-side economics, Reagan’s team apparently didn’t listen very closely to the lyrics. The song is about a Vietnam veteran who’s been abandoned by his own country. “Born in the USA” isn’t a statement of patriotism, it’s a desperate plea that we need to take care of each other. And sadly, in 34 years, that doesn’t feel as if much has changed.

While not every song on Born In the USA is quite so dire (yet so anthemic!), there’s a consistent balance of Springsteen’s own characteristic highlighting of desperate or down-on-their-luck people with some of his most accessible and anthemic songs. Take “Dancing in the Dark,” famous for its video featuring a young Courtney Cox dancing onstage with the Boss, but whose lyrics tell of a frustration and depression—which may have come about as the result of his frustration of being told the album needed another hit single. (Mission accomplished though, amirite? Classic.)

And then there’s “I’m on Fire,” a song that’s rightly regarded as one of Bruce’s best songs, but which has created a rift in my household. In fact, my wife and I debated this on a recent podcast we did (on which I think I made a pretty convincing case, but your mileage may vary). There’s honestly a lot of great songs on this album, yet what makes it so interesting is that rock albums like this—that conquer the charts and become part of the pop landscape—don’t exist anymore. There are definitely albums that sound like this—it’s no coincidence that I bought this shortly after War On Drugs’ Lost In the Dream—just not albums that behave like this. In fact, as I searched for the video you see below on YouTube, it recommended me “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon, which is further proof of this concept. The ’80s were very different than the present moment.

At one time, I think even I didn’t quite understand this album, but over time it’s become clear to me that it stands as one of Bruce’s greatest achievements. They don’t call him the Boss for nuthin’.

(Note: See that Caldor sticker on the front cover? Wow, now there’s a relic—record shopping at discount department stores)

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 304: Fad Gadget – Gag

Every time I come up with a basic assumption about a specific style of music, it always ends up being challenged. As a youngster with an aversion to all things rootsy and twangy, I thought I hated country. But then I hear Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton and Glen Campbell (well, that was later on, I suppose) and I find myself realizing I’m wrong. That’s happened a few times throughout my life, but I think that’s a good thing. Having your assumptions challenged and opening your mind to new possibilities is why I write about music, why I listen to it all the time, and why I never get bored of finding something new to listen to.

I can’t say that I ever assumed that I didn’t like industrial music; I’ve listened to Nine Inch Nails and Ministry for a long time, and though I can’t say I love everything they’ve done (not by a long shot) that’s enough for me to know I’ll come back to their music (well, maybe not new Ministry, that’s maybe a bridge too far). But I think for a while I thought that industrial had a limited set of sounds to offer.

Here’s the part where I say I was way off. And I think the big problem was that I was fixated on industrial rock. Industrial comprises a much bigger world than that, from proto-industrial like Throbbing Gristle to EBM and industrial metal (like Godflesh, etc.) and boy, there’s a whole world of riches in there. I’m kind of obsessed now. A little bit.

One of the biggest gateways for me was Fad Gadget. Sometime in the ’00s, I heard “Collapsing New People,” and I’m pretty sure it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. The song is part homage to Einsturzende Neubauten, whose name means “Collapsing new buildings.” And the song itself features members of that group making various noises and whatnot, which is pretty fun. But it’s also just a great, noisy synth-pop song with lots of great hooks. I really want to cover this song at some point, but it’ll be tricky for a two-person band to pull it off. That’s something to figure out later.

OK, so that was over a decade ago (I think? It’s a little fuzzy, but it was a while ago), and for the next several years I was on a mad hunt for Fad Gadget records. And, in American shops at least, they’re not easy to find! In fact, a lot of Fad Gadget albums didn’t even have U.S. vinyl pressings. Even now, when people are buying and selling more vinyl than ever, it’s a rare occasion that I come across a Fad Gadget record. For some reason, they just don’t show up in the used bins all that much (and haven’t been treated to the reissue campaign a lot of others have—though the 40th anniversary of their debut is in two years, so Mute Records might have something planned). I have recollections of many disappointed trips to Amoeba. I know that much.

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So what do I do? Go to the Internet of course. And the copy of Gag I ended up tracking down is Canadian, with an upside down rear panel (whoops?). But it’s a pretty cool find. Not an expensive one either, despite a relative scarcity around these parts (maybe it’s different in the UK). Furthermore, the album features guitar from The Birthday Party’s Rowland Howard, which is pretty badass. It’s an excellent album, which is a shame it’s kind of hard to track down. But who knows—everything’s being reissued these days. Maybe it’s only a matter of time.

Rating: 9.1

Sound Quality: Great