Thursday, November 15, 2007

Paleontology for Dullards: A Consumer's Guide

This feature is for you, the consumer, to use when rummaging through used LP bins. Some of you may find a record by an artist with whom you are unfamiliar and think "I've heard of these guys. Are they any good?" or "How do I know this isn't their one dud album and a terrible entry point to their body of work?" or, most importantly, "Is this really worth $3.99?" This guide is for you, least your home become filled with nonessential vinyl and your significant other begins giving you the evil eye whenever that damn Radio Shack commercial comes on. Not only will I review a plethora of used LPs amassed from many a used bin but I will assign them actual cash value. In other words, you, the consumer, may rummage with confidence knowing full well whether or not the piece of vinyl in your hand is worth the same as a value meal at Arby's.

Ratings are based on the percentage of the authentic value of an LP in ratio to what I actually paid for it. For example, if I paid $5 for an LP but it's only worth $4 the LP will receive a rating of 80%. If I paid $3 and the LP is worth $1 the rating is 33.3% and so on. Please note: scarcity is a factor in determining value. Black Sabbath LPs are much easier to find than Go-Betweens LP so while they both groups may be of equal musical value the rating of the latter will be inherently higher. This is not snobbery, it is simply the economic principle that mass production degrades value. You should never pay more than $2 for a Buckingham/Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac LP (if it's Tusk). Also note: when records receive maximum ratings of 100% it is not necessarily the top dollar amount you might want to pay for that particular LP. You may want to pay more if you wish. A top-of-the-food-chain, life-affirming album for which I happened to pay $7 may be worth picking up for $8. Or even $15 or $20. Or not.

Feedback on ratings will likely be erroneous but is welcome and will amuse me. And finally, no, I will not tell you where I found these LPs. Frankly, if you're blowing up my spot and finding all the bargains, this feature will become expendable. And we couldn't have that.

(Ed. Note: this feature was inspired by "$2.99 Wax Necessities" by Tim Midgett (formerly of the excellent Silkworm, currently of the similarly excellent Bottomless Pit and well respected rock crit) wherein Mr Midgett gave you a host of LPs worth purchasing for $2.99. I would link this but it seems to have disappeared from the world of the Internet. Nonetheless, I tip my hat to Mr Midgett and note that while his writing may have the edge in insight and general scribe skills I make up for it in hubris.)

Roger C Reale and Rue Morgue Radioactive
In my younger days I had a bit of an infatuation with Killed By Death/Bloodstains-type compilations. If you have no idea what I'm talking about... that probably means you're a well-adjusted human being with no need for such folly. However, if you're curious...

Killed by Death and Bloodstains were two series of bootlegs compiling very rare (usually a couple of hundred copies pressed) late 70s/early 80s punk records. These collections were assembled for the type of punk rock fan/collector for whom records by the Damned or the Dead Boys were easy to find as sand at the beach. KBD and Bloodstains were the most commonly used monikers (being bootlegs no one compiler had rights to the name of a series so other enterprising bootleggers quickly co-opted the titles as their own) but there were other series (Teenage Treats, Break the Rules) and a ton of one offs (Cheap and Nasty, Deep in the Throat of Texas). My first exposure to this phenomenon came from some of the earliest comps (Killed By Death 1, Bloodstains Across the Midwest and the all Australian Murder Punk) and I was totally floored. They were simply fantastic: all killer and no filler. I dove headfirst into this "scene" and started snatching up every comp I could find. This was no easy task as these comps were often as rare as the records they compiled and few were legitimate releases. Many were excellent but the law of diminishing returns eventually set in. There were only so many impossibly rare punk 45s to compile and only so many of those are worth repeated listens. Soon most comps were nothing more than one or two cuts worth of collector bait (the original singles sometimes go for hundreds of dollars. Search "KBD" on eBay and see what I mean) and mediocre at best filler. Soon the excitement of buying a comp and possibly hearing some previously unheard classic punk scorcher was replaced with inevitable disappointment until I swore off buying new comps altogether.

What does this have to do with Roger C Reale you ask? Well Reale had one of his songs, "Kill Me," on of one of the volumes of esteemed German collector Peter P's Break the Rules series, one of the few legitimately released series of its kind and because Mr P has exclusive rights and could exercise some quality control also one of the more consistent. (Remind me to tell you the mildly amusing anecdote of the time I met Peter. I'd recount it here but requires both visuals and onomatopoeia.) "Kill Me" is a slammer: just a minute plus of over the top aggression. When I saw Radioactive in a used bin containing "Kill Me" and with a sticker price of $2 I thought I stuck gold. My first clue that this was not the case was that guitarist for the Rue Morgue was G.E. Smith. Surely not that G.E. Smith? Yeah, that one, the former Hall and Oates sideman and SNL band leader. Needless to say, this is not the work of teenagers picking up instruments for the first time for the sake of anarchy and giggles. No, this is pros playing "regular dude" rock reminiscent at times of Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen but with lesser songs and more explicitly punkish leanings than either. The unintentionally hilarious notes on the back cover by one "Doc Cavalier" try and make the case Reale as a bold blender of genres but that's hyperbolic malarkey. I can easily believe the Roger and co. rocked the house as a bar band but other than "Kill Me" and a sort of neat take on the Troggs' "I Can't Control Myself" there's little here that's rewarding. I'm probably destroying any chance I have of reselling this for some decent scratch to some gullible punk collector but that's the kind of integrity you deal with when you're dealing with me, people.
Price paid: $2 Rating: 100%

Ed Kuepper Everybody's Got To
Anybody familiar with my all time musical favorites knows that I am a huge fan of the Austrailian punk combo the Saints, or at least a huge fan of their output when guitarist Ed Kuepper was still in the band. (What I've heard of singer Chris Bailey's led post-Kuepper Saints hasn't thrilled me much.) Despite my obvious assumption that Kuepper was the real talent behind the group, I've heard very little of his post-Saints work, either solo or with his band Laughing Clowns. It's not that I wasn't curious, it might be more that I had little time to devote to tracking down Australian imports. Everybody's Got To, however, was one of Kuepper few (only?) albums to come out in US with major label (Capitol) distribution so I suppose I was likely to come across it eventually and I'm glad I did. While it displays little of the raw, high energy, frothing-at-the-mouth, jumping-off-the-rails punk of the Saints, it does seem like a logical progression from his later work with the group, even with my 10-year-long ignorance gap of his work in between. Think of "Memories are Made of This" from Eternally Yours as a starting point and you're about halfway there. Kuepper reveals himself to be an exceptional songwriter of elegant, stately rock n roll not too far removed from contemporary Aussie modern rockers like the Go-Betweens or the Church but with a touch more raw punk rock bluster, as you might expect. Every cut is strong and some ("Too Many Clues," "Nothing Changes in My House") are outstanding. My only complaint is that the production is a bit too 80s-fantastic for my taste. While some of these flourishes benefit the songs (Rebecca Hancock's backing vocals are a particularly nice touch), some sound rather dated (snare drum WAY too high in the mix, horns that sound more like synthesizer than actual brass). Kuepper actually produced the album himself so it's hard to assign blame elsewhere. Still, aside from that small caveat, Everybody's Got To effortlessly demonstrates why many of Kuepper's devoted following insist his career does not begin and end with the Saints. A minor classic? Perhaps.
Price paid: $4 Rating: 100%

The Yachts s/t
This is a neat slice of keyboard heavy new wave pop in the vein of the Cars or very early XTC. The Yachts self-titled debut, often erroneously referred to as S.O.S. (mainly because of the giant red letters spelling out "S.O.S." on the cover), was produced by Richard Gottehrer, co-founder of Sire Records with Seymour Stein and making waves at the time for his work on Blondie's early releases. I have to wonder why this thing wasn't any kind of hit even in the group's homeland of the UK. Gotteherer's production was state of the art for the time and well suited for the band. Plus the Yachts actually have the tunes to back it up. The singles ("Yachting Types, "Look Back in Love," and "Suffice to Say") are the best things here but the songs are consistently catchy (if a bit samey) throughout, featuring strong melodies and solid hooks. I've gotta believe these guys must have been really physically unattractive to meet such indifference from the pop buying public. Yachts is not a masterpiece but new wave and power pop aficionados will probably eat this up. For everyone else, it's worth a listen for a few bucks.
Price paid: $4 Rating: 100%

The Necros Tangled Up
My first exposure to the Necros came via Sebadoh's cover of "Reject" on the b-side of the "Soul and Fire" 45. Even if Sebadoh's verison is superior, it's easily the best song on the Necros' 1981 9-song I.Q. 32 EP, which otherwise featured nothing but substandard Minor Threat-imitating hardcore. "Reject" slowed down the tempo and featured lyrics that displayed some uncommon sensitivity for a hardcore band: "You've lost compassion is that so?/Well I stopped caring so long ago." The first emo song, maybe? Like many of their hardcore brethren during Reagan's second term, the Necros evolved into a kind of punk/metal hybrid. I'm not exactly sure what the reason is for this phenomenon. Were the bands owning up to the all the Ted Nugent and Aerosmith they dug in their pre-punk days? Did they realize that metal was where the bucks were and aggressively tried to sell out? Both perhaps? Whatever the reason, most of it hasn't aged particularly well and Tangled Up is no exception. The opening cut, "Gun," is convincing thrash but the album goes downhill quickly from there. For example, the title track, noted as a superlative example of punk evolution by respected rock critic Chuck Eddy, sounds like little more than Mötely Crüe played at Bad Brains tempos. Shockingly, after 10 songs worth of mosh pit machismo, the band ends the album with an austere piano and synths instrumental. Seriously guys, what the fuck? You're not Hüsker Dü and this isn't side 3 of Zen Arcade.
Price paid: $3 Rating: 33.3%

Yung Wu Shore Leave
Further proof Hoboken's Feelies were one of the greatest bands ever: they could cover both Brian Eno and Neil Young without batting an eye and absorb the unique stylistic qualities of each equally into their sound. Yung Wu is essentially the Feelies circa The Good Earth except percussionist Dave Weckerman steps to the forefront, singing and writing most of the songs with the rest of the band backing him up. Feelies guitarists Glen Mercer and Bill Million not only produced the LP but provide their patented guitar interplay as well. If that didn't perk up your ears, it really should have. On the Feelies 1980 debut Crazy Rhythms, Mercer and Million scaled heights of rarefied twin guitar bliss equal to Reed/Morrison or Verlaine/Lloyd. No easy feat, I assure you. Shore Leave is not at the level of greatness achieved by their debut (what did you expect?) but it holds up more or less as well as any of the Feelies less transcendent but still thoroughly listenable mid-80s to early 90s work. Weckerman isn't much of a singer but a handful of his songs are sublime ("The Empty Pool," the title track) and the aforementioned covers (Young's "Powderfinger" and the Eno/Phil Manzanera collaboration "Big Day") are fine and distinctive takes on the material. If the rest is fairly typical 80s indie strum and jangle at least it's of the distinguished sort. Collector's note: apparently less than 5,000 total copies pressed.
Price paid: $2 Rating: 100%

Various Artists The 20th Anniversary of the Summer of Love
This 1987 compilation was the inaugural release from the Shimmy Disc label, owned and operated by the musician/producer known as Kramer. (No, not the "Seinfeld" character portrayed by race-baiting failed comedian, Michael Richards. This one.) Shimmy Disc was label that brought the world King Missile, Ween and GWAR which should give you a pretty decent idea of their modus operandi. This album doesn't have any overt "joke rock" but rather provides a snapshot of the "downtown scene" in NYC circa the mid 80s. The beat generation/dirty hippie vibes are still present but you can tell they're trying to get on board with this whole punk thing. It's probably the same impulse that led David Peel to put out G.G. Allin's records. Much of the first side of this record consists of folks possibly well into their 30s trying to emulate (parody?) hardcore but not really having the conviction or raging hormones to pull it off. The highlights here are a Half Japanese song, Fred Firth making an effort to be catchier than Henry Cow and the spoken intro to Shockabilly's live cut: "If any music critics have arrived late, could you help me tune my guitar?" After some nonsense from Bongwater and Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs not even bothering to disguise a big sour grapes fuck you to Bill Graham as poetry, side two actually settles into 5 or 6 cuts of some pretty convincing avant rock before Allen Ginsberg chimes in to remind you why you hated that long-haired English professor you had freshman year. Still, as uneven as it is The 20th Anniversary of the Summer of Love is a fascinating document. The wheat is pretty good stuff and the chaff is so contrarian to the ideals of Reagan's America you almost of have to admire it just for that. Almost.
Price paid: $5 Rating: 60%

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