Autobiographical Order No. 236: Cal Tjader – Soul Burst

Getting into jazz can be a tricky thing for a lot of people, especially when you don’t have much exposure to it outside of your own personal investigation. You can download all the top-rated jazz albums from AllMusic or whatever, but if all you’ve ever listened to was pop, then it might be hard to get into. This, I’ve learned, was the case with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which was heavily influenced by jazz records; if you’re not a jazz person, then a lot of it isn’t going to make sense. I was lucky enough to be exposed to jazz early on because my dad was always a big fan. Once I remember buying him a Cal Tjader compilation for Christmas on his request (at least I think that’s what happened), even though I knew next to nothing about the guy. He put it on almost immediately after opening it, and when I heard it, something clicked immediately. Maybe it’s because it’s not particularly abstract or avant garde; Tjader was a vibraphonist that mostly played Latin jazz standards, and for the most part they were all pretty accessible, even catchy. And in his most atmospheric and arty moments, his music could be downright gorgeous.

Soul Burst ended up being one of the first jazz CDs I ever bought, along with Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um (and I think I also bought a Will Haven CD on the same trip, and this was before I had Napster so I was just going for it, as you can tell). I was stunned, particularly by the final track, “Curacao,” which was loungey but haunting, and not at all dated sounding in spite of the somewhat hokey sound of some exotica records of the ’60s and ’50s. By the standards of the jazz canon, this is a minor release, but it’s pretty damn great, all things considered. And like all mid-’60s Verve releases, the cover art is awesome.

I ended up picking up a copy used about 15 years later at M Theory, a pressing from the ’60s no less. It’s not a perfect one; there’s a fair amount of surface noise at the beginning of each side, and like all vintage records it had some dust in the grooves. But it’s a lived-in, loved record, and I’m happy to be able to give it a home, dropping it on the turntable anytime my wife and I have a “Latin brunch,” or just when I need a reminder of one of those records that got me here way back when.

Rating: 9.0

Sound Quality: Good (Mostly decent sounding, with some surface noise in parts)

Advertisements

Autobiographical Order No. 234: Talking Heads – Remain In Light

Remain In Light isn’t like many other albums. It was something of a hit, thanks to single “Once In a Lifetime” being the group’s entrypoint to MTV, and that song is still celebrated today. It was also a critical success, named one of the best albums of the ’80s or all-time by just about everyone, and with good reason. It’s a massive step forward from their arty but comparatively simpler albums of the ’70s. And they got here in just a few short years. To put into context, the band I’m in now only has a couple years to get to this elaborate, polyrhythmic Afrobeat phase. Guess we have some practicing to do!

It’s not like Remain in Light is monocultural though. It sold pretty well, but not Michael Jackson sales—it went gold in 1985, five years after the album was released. (Though their next three albums went Platinum, so certainly it elevated them to a new level.) And when an album is this experimental and takes such an artistic risk, it doesn’t appeal to everyone. It shouldn’t appeal to everyone.

But it blew my damn mind. I knew “Once in a Lifetime” from when I was really young. I was born in the early days of MTV, so it was already out there, established. I always had some idea of the reputation the album had, even if I hadn’t heard it, and eventually I bought the CD in high school from… Best Buy? Most likely that was the case.

The first spin of “Born Under Punches” was like hitting reset for my brain. Everything I knew about music was totally turned upside down. This track was repetitive, full of groove, but never got boring, never lost what made it exciting or interesting. It was urgent and intense, and I couldn’t stop listening to it. This, in turn, introduced me to Afrobeat, which that particular track (and several others on the album) were heavily influenced by (both David Byrne and producer Brian Eno have been major, outspoken advocates for African music over the years) and now I’m kind of addicted to Afrobeat, Afrofunk, Ethiojazz etc.

The rest of the album is amazing as well, and though I bought a handful of Talking Heads albums before I bought pretty much any other albums, this one took a little while to snag, and I think I paid more for it than the others (but this is also because of the changing market; back then nobody bought vinyl and it didn’t move quickly, while now an $8 Talking Heads album would go for $15 minimum probably).

I don’t really know anyone who actively dislikes Talking Heads, though I certainly know plenty of people who like them without loving them. Not me though. I’d easily consider them one of the greatest bands of all time, and musical geniuses. If they reunited, I’d go. If they headlined Coachella, which I actively avoid, I’d go. But it’ll never happen, simply because David Byrne is the kind of artist who isn’t interested in living in the past and rekindling old glories (though they did perform together at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I can imagine it probably wouldn’t take long before there was some kind of disagreement).

In terms of what shaped my own musical tastes, cravings, and whatnot, this album is high on the list. Remain In Light is an album that can’t be celebrated enough.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 233: Slayer – Reign in Blood

Earlier this year I made a very non-controversial statement in saying that if you love metal, you absolutely are required to love Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. Those are the two prerequisites. Don’t like those bands? Get back to twee-folk or whatever, because metal clearly isn’t for you.

I’m very tempted to say the same thing for Slayer. But it’s more specific than that: If you love metal, you love Reign in Blood. I’ll admit that my journey into metal didn’t go through the canonical choices first. A lot of my education was kind of roundabout, picking up the classics on ROCK 102.1 back in the day (Sabbath, Judas Priest) along with some alt-metal stuff like Danzig and Alice in Chains and Faith No More, and then The Deftones, back to some newer stuff like Mastodon and Boris and then consuming everything I possibly could from there.

I had plenty of friends who loved Slayer when I was a teenager, and I think the first album of theirs I ever heard was Divine Intervention, which I thought was pretty cool but now realize that’s when things started their downward turn. But Slayer always appealed to me because they had more of a punk sensibility and tended to burn through their intense thrash tracks without wasting a moment. Reign In Blood is less than 30 minutes long, for instance, and it’s pretty much a perfect thrash album.

Because of how short some of the tracks are and how fast they are, there are sequences that blur by at high speeds, and the songs themselves aren’t always the most important thing. It’s the feeling and the intensity of it. But then again, there are some actually amazing songs, like “Raining Blood,” for instance, which is one of the greatest metal songs of all time. OF ALL TIME!

Reign in Blood is perfect. Slayer, however, is not, and they’ve released plenty of subpar albums. They’ve also done a lot that has made me cringe in recent years, from firing Dave Lombardo (and it ain’t Slayer without Dave) to Tom Araya’s political bullshit. (Kerry King was a Clinton supporter so I’m not sure if they just don’t talk about it or what, but c’mon Tom.) So yeah, Slayer ain’t perfect. But this slice of furious thrash metal (which I picked up on clear vinyl when Nuclear Blast reissued it)? You bet it is.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 232: Andy Stott – Luxury Problems

It’s always fun to drag up the old saw about “I love all kinds of music except (fill in the blank)”. Usually the culprit is country or rap, but you could put just about any type of music in there and it still gets the same message across: Whoever says it isn’t really as open minded as they intend to make themselves out to be.

Now me? I like all types of music. Even reggae, which is the closest thing to an exception I can think of. (But it isn’t; I like my share of reggae, I’m just not really into Bob Marley or whatever beach-and-sunshine fluff is popular.) But I feel like I’ve given the impression that I don’t like electronic music somehow, which isn’t true. I love electronic music. I just don’t really like the electronic music that everyone else likes.

Don’t get me wrong: The ’90s era groundbreaking stuff like Underworld, minimal techno, Big Beat, Bristol trip-hop, I love all that stuff. But over time I’ve kind of gotten bored with the rote EDM stuff that’s been popular in the past decade. I mean, who hasn’t? But in recent years there actually has been a lot of really cool stuff happening in electronic’s underground, particularly on labels such as Tri Angle and Modern Love, who get into the darkest, grimiest, most intense sounds in electronic music. Industrial dub techno and the like. Like Andy Stott.

I first discovered Andy Stott about six years ago when he released a pair of EPs that blew my mind. They were so eerie and cold and menacing. And then he turns around and releases Luxury Problems, which is both beautiful and terrifying in equal measure. It’s dystopian dub techno, and it sounds like it was made by evil machines.

I bought this on one of those whims you get, when you’re hearing something on your earbuds and think “I need to get a real copy of this right now.” And I did. Man, it’s a hell of a record, and it’s aged well in the past five years. If I ever need the temperature to drop about 20 degrees, this is my go-to.

Rating: 9.4

Sound Quality: Good/Great (mostly great but it’s cracklier than I remember)

Autobiographical Order No. 231: Real Estate – Days

There are certain records that just sound good any time you play them. They’re maybe not the albums you put on when you need a jolt of something intense or passionate, and they’re not necessarily the albums that change your life (though those are pretty rare anyway). But they’re albums you enjoy, you listen to somewhat regularly, and you always feel good hearing them.

Real Estate’s Days is one of those albums. It’s a very good album. It’s maybe even a great album. But it’s not the first thing I think of when I need an album that’s jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring…any of those hyperbolic, hyphenated statements. It’s pretty, it’s pleasant, it’s even hypnotic in a way. It’s not an exciting album, but not everything has to be.

I bought this the same day as Dum Dum Girls’ Too True, and it’s arguably the less dramatic, less flashy of the two. But it’s an album I’ve liked for a long time, and every time I hear it, it’s like having a gin and tonic or something. It’s refreshing, it’s satisfying, it’s exactly what you want it to be.

Now, that being said, it does have some spectacular songs. “It’s Real” is a jangly gem that felt like it could have been a hit were it released at the right time. “Easy” is an outstanding opening track, and “Green Aisles” is hazy and beautiful. Because of its breezy, feelgood (though slightly melancholy) nature, it seems like a perfect summer album. But that melancholy also makes it a perfect fall album. It could go either way (and works just fine in winter and spring, for that matter).

It’s not an album that made me listen to music differently, but not all of them can be. Days is just what it needs to be, and while I hesitate to tell any band to stay in their lane, knowing your strengths is something more valuable than anyone likely realizes.

Rating: 9.1

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 230: Dum Dum Girls – Too True

It’s always a good idea to check in with bands you don’t necessarily love on first listen. There are a good number of bands who make an essential debut album (and sometimes can’t follow it up—it’s a curse as much as a blessing), but by and large it takes most bands a while to build up to their best record. Dum Dum Girls is just such a band.

I remember hearing their debut album around the time my wife and I got kicked out of our house in South Park, and while I liked “Jail La La,” it seemed undercooked. Decent, not great garage rock. And the fact that I had associated the album with a traumatic time in my life certainly didn’t help matters. But over time they got better, their second album a marked improvement over the first, and an EP released after that an even stronger effort.

Too True, however, is the band’s best album, and ended up being their last (for now anyway?) since Dee Dee is now performing as Kristin Kontrol, which is pretty decent too. Too True appeals to my sensibilities because it’s the band’s most goth record. It has a bit of a vintage 4AD sound to it, as well as some elements of Siouxsie and the Banshees. It’s super catchy, glossy goth pop that I loved on first listen. In fact, I heard “Lost Boys and Girls Club” in an exercise compiling upcoming releases and didn’t really expect much from it. It quickly ended up making Too True an album near the top of my list of anticipated 2014 releases. And though Dee Dee is a San Diego music scene alumna, I bought the record in New York City (where she lives now, I’m pretty sure).

Dum Dum Girls have always been an image-heavy band, and this is no different. The cover art is a little over the top—Pitchfork made a joke about it being the goth version of Bangerz, which is their second best gag. (The first is giving a favorable review to emo rap hack/dufus Lil Peep.)

It’s not a mind-blowing album, but it’s stylish, catchy and a lot of fun. Plus I have the pretty baby-blue splatter vinyl, and that’s cool. But I listen to it a fair amount, and if I had written the band off entirely, it wouldn’t be in my collection. And who knows how long it would have taken to correct that mistake.

Rating: 9.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 229: Lee Morgan – The Sidewinder

I’m starting to think that maybe posts like today’s and yesterday’s should be grouped together in one, since they were bought at the same place and have a similar story and a connection that should be maintained. Something to keep in mind the next time I guess, but in the meantime, I found Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder at the Jazz Record Center, a treasure trove of jazz records, in New York, along with John Coltrane’s Coltrane. I’m pretty sure it was on sale, and while I would have picked it up anyway, I got it for something like $12 new, which is pretty good for sealed vinyl. Not that this is rare or anything, but still…

The thing about The Sidewinder that makes it kind of unusual among other jazz releases is that the title track is kind of a hit. Not that there aren’t other “hits” so to speak in jazz, like Miles Davis’ “So What,” or Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” or similar type songs. But “The Sidewinder” is the kind of jazz song you can put on at a party and won’t change the vibe. It’s got a swing to it, it grooves, it shakes, it feels fantastic. It’s the kind of jazz track that friends of mine who don’t even really listen to jazz can get into. That says a lot, because when people don’t like jazz, they tend to really not like jazz.

What that tells me is that Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder would probably make a great first jazz album. It wasn’t my first, though. I had a bunch of jazz CDs and digital albums well before picking this up on vinyl (and in terms of vinyl purchases, it’s 13th, which in hindsight seems like it took way too long to build up my jazz collection—though you’re never really done building up your jazz collection, right?). But if someone doesn’t really get jazz, play ’em “The Sidewinder.” They’ll get it.

(The rest of the album is great too, naturally.)

Rating: 9.4

Sound Quality: Great