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Friday, May 13, 2011

A Quick Blurb About the Vinyl Lovers Label

Even though they've been putting stuff out since 2008, I just discovered this Russian reissue label called Vinyl Lovers. Apparently it's a subsidary label of Lilith Records and somehow related to 4 Men With Beards. They have some sort of contract with Universal and have a pretty impressive catalog. And that's about all I know about that.

I picked up a couple of Os Mutantes albums and a purple vinyl pressing of the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat" at Half Price Books, who seem to have gotten a bunch of these titles in new. I'll start with the positive and tell you that these are quality pressings. Nice vinyl, flat records, very quiet.

The problem is in the mastering. These all have some harsh upper mids. The Mutantes records just sound kind of thin overall. The VU isn't too bad, but it still gets a little trebley at times. I'd also lay money down that these are from digital masters, if you care about such things.

Would I recommend this label? Probably not, especially at the $30 a pop most places seem to be charging for their stuff. I paid $10 a pop, and that's about what a Scorpio/ reissue would cost and quality wise, I'd say sound quality these are similar, though the pressing is definetly nicer.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Record Store Day Thoughts

Record Store Day is a bit of a scam. There. I said it.

At the same time, there I was, lined up before opening with all the other hipsters and record collector scum, waiting to spend, spend, spend!


Well, I had a ton of in-store credit burning a hole in my pocket. And, at the same time, I'm enough of a sucker that there was some stuff I actually wanted to buy this year. Sigh. Hook, line and sinker.

But first, let me reel off a quote from the excellent Numero Group which kind of sums up a lot of how I feel about this retail holiday:

For openers, most Record Store Day records are trashy cash-ins. Bogus 7″ repros, expensive and needless live LPs, and perhaps the worst culprit of all, records that aren’t actually limited but are marketed as such (We’re looking at you Flaming Lips Dark Side Of the Moon)

Of course, they then go on to pimp their own Record Store Day special, available in the oh-so-trendy and completely worthless cassette format. Waddayagonnado?

Speaking of worthless, how about that Beach Boys double 78rpm set? How many of those do you think will ever get played? How many people even have something to play 78s? I don't and yet, here I sit looking at #3794 of however many thousands they cranked out, unwrapped and on my table.

The one item I was actually out for, the Big Star Third "test pressing" set, is pretty cool, even the cynic in me must say. But, it's still a fetish item. I had the music already. There's nothing new there. But I still had to have it, for some reason.

Ditto a few "bogus 7" repros", though I stayed away from the live stuff. And I did actually get around to buying some Black Angels stuff I didn't have. So there was that.

But really, at the end of the day, it's all kind of silly. The false scarcity and silly collector's editions and whatnot are, in my not so humble opinion, some of the worst aspects of the music biz. They do nothing other than trivialize the music, which is what it is supposed to be about, I think.

Let me tell you though what I do like about Record Store Day: seeing the stores packed. Sure, it's a herd of folks grabbing at those exclusives, but ultimately, they are putting money in the cash drawers at some of the few record stores we have left. Who knows? Maybe this one day could mean the difference between paying bills and getting evicted for a store?

But it also kind of gives me pause. If they have to go to all this hype and gimmick to get people in, are record stores still relevant in today's world? I know I've moved a lot of my purchasing to on-line and digital sources for reasons of both price and convenience. Yet I still find myself at the record store, every now and again. I don't think I could imagine life without them completely.

And apparently a lot of other people feel the same way. Both of the stores I went to were packed, and I can't believe they were all eBay scalpers. People weren't just buying the exclusives. There must be something to it that people would stand in the kind of lines I stood in for pieces of plastic with music on them.

So I still think Record Store Day is a bit of a scam, as I do any retail holiday, but at the same time, it does make me appreciate living in a town that can support three independent record stores. Though I don't frequent them as much as I used to, I'm glad they're still around. And, even though it's kind of ridiculous, I'm glad to have this Big Star set sitting in front of me.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

A Secret Stash of Fake(?) Funk

Recently, I've picked up some releases on a label called Secret Stash. The albums seemed right up my alley, claiming to be lost porn and blaxploitation soundtracks, funk from Russia and a reggae version of Kind of Blue. However, something about these albums just didn't seem quite right.

Each one of these records is kind of mysterious, which already set alarms off with me. Absolute minimal credits and a suspiciously perfect backstory accompany each record. Me being me, I wanted more info about what I was listening to. If the recordings were really as obscure as they claimed, not knowing the musicians who played wasn't out of the question. But, I figured there should be some reference somewhere to some of the movies the tracks from Porno Grooves are from. Or surely someone is looking for that lost blaxploitation film Mad Dog's Hustle.

Suspiciously, all the information I found about the Porn Groove and Mad Dog's Hustle albums either linked back to those albums or a source which took Secret Stash's promo material verbatim. In other words, outside the scope of these albums, these movies don't seem to exist.

Regarding the Soviet Funk albums, they sure smell fishy, if they aren't out right fakes. This blog post, was one of the first I found and it led me to this message board thread. Pretty damning stuff.

Now I'm not going to say that these releases are fake just because there's no information about the movies or any of the people connected to them out there. And just because there are some wonky Russian titles doesn't necessarly mean it's a fake either. But the evidence sure casts a heap of doubt on the authenticity of these records.

But does it matter? If the music is good, does it really matter where it came from? Well, I kind of think in this case it does. If you're selling something as vintage Russian funk, it's kind of shady to have some guys from the local throw it together for you. I took an interest in these records because of what I thought they were and yeah, I feel a little ripped off that they appear to be fakes.

So how is the music anyway? Well, the one record I haven't mentioned, the Reggae Interpertation of Kind of Blue is very good, though the dub versions on the B side are lacking. The Porno Groove and Mad Dog's Hustle albums are pretty much standard library sounding tracks. Mad Dog leans a little heavier in a blaxplotation groove. Not too bad, but neither is essential.

However, when it comes to the Soviet Funk albums, the origin and back story on the records isn't the only bit of questionable labeling. To be generous, one could call these Jazz-Funk records, but really they are more in an early 70s fusion bag than anything like funk. Aside from not being what I expected, there really wasn't anything that grabbed me on the records. That could be because I was expecting Meters and James Brown and got Return to Forever and Weather Report.

If I'm wrong about these releases being fake, I'd be the first to admit it. I'd also be very suprized. It seems to me like Secret Stash has wrapped some pretty average music in an interesting, but phony, back story and put it out there. Oh well, at least the colored vinyl is nice.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Weird Al Show

In 1997, Weird Al Yankovic hosted a Saturday morning show on CBS called, appropriately enough, The Weird Al Show. The show ran 13 episodes before being canceled. A typical episode unspooled like this: an educational objective is displayed on a parchment and literally yelled at the viewer. Al, playing a jerky man-child, behaves in a manner contrary to the educational objective and his friends awkwardly reiterate the message to him. A Fatman cartoon is played, TV is watched, a tween friendly band plays. Finally, Al learns his lesson. Roll credits.

Sound kind of dull? Well, sad to say, it is. But, I think it's safe to say it's not the creative team's fault. It seems they envisioned something more along the lines of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, aimed at a middle school audience. CBS had other things in mind.

Since the network had been stung by past controversial kidvid, like Pee-Wee and the New Adventures of Mighty Mouse, they were looking to play safe with future Saturday morning fare. Additionally, new government mandates required three hours of educational television in the Saturday morning slot. How CBS was pitched The Weird Al Show and decided it would be safe and educational is beyond me.

What appeared on the screen was the product of back and forth between the show's creators and CBS, who insisted on things such as the educational objective and more or less dumbing down the show to reach a Barney aged crowd. Aided by an ever changing time slot, the result was the show never found an audience and was off the air a year after it started.

It is exactly this behind the scenes wrangling that may have ruined the show, but makes this DVD set worth watching. Not because the show itself has improved with age. It hasn't. But because it allowed Al, director Peyton Reed and producer Thomas F. Frank the opportunity to create one of the most blunt and fascinating commentary tracks of all time.

If you are expecting a laugh a minute track like say the one from This Is Spinal Tap, you will be disappointed. However, if you enjoy knowing how the sausage is made, or not as the case is here, it doesn't get much better than this. I'm not talking technical details of how they made shots and things of that nature. Sure, that's there too, but I'm talking pretty blunt airings of the many ways CBS mucked up the show.

The three commentators turn their bitterness and disappointment into a fascinating look at how major networks really view their audience and how removed they really are from the creative process. It's also interesting to get takes on what was removed vs. what was allowed. For instance,Al proudly proclaims the show had the fist television puppet vomit and then marvels that this was allowed while other, much more innocent things, were axed.

The tone of the commentary isn't all bile. They seem very self-aware and willing to poke fun at their own shortcomings as well as dish earned blame to the network. For example, Al notes if they had wanted to avoid comparison to Pee-Wee's show, they probably shouldn't have used the same set designer. There's also some fun trivia, such as they were originally offered the Family Guy characters for the show and Randy "Macho Man" Savage only agreed to a skit where he is pinned by Al's hamster sidekick after he was assured Harvey the Wonder Hamster wasn't a girl. It's also amusing to hear how Al lined up guests by accosting them on the Tonight Show set (which was down the hall) and they aren't afraid to poke fun at some of those same guests. ("John Tesh? There's one for our target demographic. Kids love John Tesh.")

To be fair, the show, as crippled as it is, has it's moments. On the rare occasion Al is allowed to be Al, it works well. The channel surfing bits, especially the Mr. Rogers parody Fred Huggins, are quite funny. And Emo Philips, who makes a guest appearance (much to the networks chagrin, it seems,) is great. But, it's hard to see The Weird Al Show as anything other than a giant missed opportunity, just like it's creators do. It's hard to deny these DVDs are much better with the commentary track on, and I'd highly recommend anyone interested in how messed up network television really is have a listen.

Random thought about Blade Runner

I know it's popular opinion to hate on the voice over version of Blade Runner originally released, but I don't. Maybe the fact that I saw the original version first helps. (It seems to me a lot of the people really against the voice over version, saw it after the "Director's Cut".) Yes, Harrison Ford phones it in, but that only adds to the noir feel of the film. (Really, it pretty much gives the movie a film noir feeling all by itself.) It also helps me accept the movie as a separate entity from the book. Watching the "Director's Cut," I tend to get mad about all the stuff they cut from the book.

I would stop the projector five minutes before the end though. The ending they tacked on is disgusting anyway you look at it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rifftrax DVDs

Once upon a time, a company called Legend Films, who specialize in colorizing old movies, decided to put out a DVD of their version of Reefer Madness. In their infinite wisdom, they hired Mike Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 to do a humorous commentary track. And it was funny. The project proved successful, so more DVDs followed. Soon, Mike was joined by Bill Corbin and Kevin Murphy, also of MST3K. As the commentary tracks were proving to be very popular, RiffTrax was born, which allows you to purchase commentary tracks for a wide variety of movies, including the public domain fare Legend was releasing.

Soon, the old commentary tracks were remade with all three of the MST3K alumni. These tracks were available for download and synced to the appropriate movie as video on demand. But then someone had the idea to issue new DVDs with the so called "three riffer versions" of the old films as well as two collections of short industrial films the RiffTrax crew had been doing as well. You can buy these discs individually for $9.99 or as a ten pack, which I got for around $60 on Deep Discount.

The only of these I'd seen prior to these DVDs were the shorts and the original Reefer Madness with Mike solo. The shorts are absolutely hilarious. When films like this were shown on MST3K, they were always one of my favorite features and the RiffTrax crew hasn't lost its touch. Reefer Madness is also a hit with few jokes being repeated from Mike's version (or at least few that I can remember.)

After that however, the laughs slow down. I'd passed on Mike's versions of Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead as I'd read some mixed reviews on these. The new versions are pretty mixed as well. The laughs are sparse and I'm not sure why that is exactly. My hunch is that those two movies, aside from being low budget, are fairly well constructed and among some of the best horror films ever made. It's not as easy to riff on something that doesn't give you much to work with.

On the other hand, Plan 9 From Outer Space is one of those movies that bad movie fans know so well, there aren't going to be too many jokes that haven't been thought of already. In an official MST3K FAQ, they said something to that effect in response to the question of why they hadn't done Plan 9. I think this RiffTrax disc proves it was a pretty wise move. Plan 9's jokes practically write themselves and unless you haven't seen the movie before, or if you have no imagination, there's not a lot of new chuckles to be had.

And then there's Swing Parade and Little Shop of Horror, which show the difficulty of riffing on comedy, even when the film is so threadbare as Swing Parade is. You just can't make that much fun of a film that isn't taking itself seriously.

On top of that, these DVDs are pretty barebones. You don't get the colorized versions and, in some cases, it looks like you don't even get the restored prints Legend used to make their colorized versions. Night of the Living Dead and Little Shop of Horror in particular approach streaming web video in quality. Other than that, you get a new song over the menu (meh) and a download code for a Riff on one of the Harry Potter films. Unfortunately, it's the same card in all the DVDs, so once you've downloaded it, there's not much point to the other nine codes you have.

As much as it pains me to slag anything MST3K related, I have to this time. It's pretty difficult to recommend buying all these. The Shorts are really funny and so is Reefer Madness, but if you buy just those, you're halfway to the ten pack in cost. On the other hand, I really can't see myself re-watching any of these other than those three and, my life would be no poorer having skipped the other seven. It's really a toss up. I think I'd say the smart move is to try to score those three used and do a video on demand rental of the rest if you must see them.

Friday, June 05, 2009

eMusic, SonyBMG and how not to roll out a service change

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while know I've been a huge fan of eMusic. The service, for those who don't know, is a subscription based music service that offers very low rates and a fiercely independent catalog. Earlier this week, eMusic causally announced changes to both of these core features.

From the official statements, the most heralded change is the addition of SonyBMG back catalog. This is a fairly major coup for the service. In the past, the major labels have avoided eMusic due to their low label payouts so for SonyBMG to join up is a pretty radical change of thought on their part.

Or is it? The second announcement was an across the board (a New Your Times article called it "slight") rate increase. Technically, rates are staying the same, but the number of downloads that same money buys is going down. And here's where the story gets really interesting.

The way this was rolled out could be a text book example of how not to handle service changes or how to piss off nearly all your loyal customers. Rather than sending an eMail to subscribers, users would have to log into the site and notice the link on the homepage announcing important changes to your account. For a company that has tried to build a large sense of community, this came as quite an affront to many subscribers.

The SonyBMG announcement, a blog post ironically titled "More of the good stuff" is rather ambiguous and worded heavily with corporate speak. The addition of a major label is certain to change the face of a service that has always been a feisty independent, a fact downplayed in the official word. And one would have to do a bit of leg work to see that this deal is for "selected" SonyBMG back catalog without mentioning what or when it's coming. Neither of the official statements to subscribers mention this, but this LA times blog post fills in some gaps.

Most importantly are the rate changes, which were rather casually tossed in near the end of the statement. A while back, eMusic raised it's rates and sent out an eMail assuring current subscribers they'd have their current rates as long as they remained members in good standing. Two years later, these most loyal, longest subscribing members are seeing their rates more than double without even a proper eMail alerting them to the changes.

Needless to say there's been a healthy sense of outrage at eMusic over these changes and the way they were handled. On eMusic's message boards, the consensus is overwhelmingly negative mostly for the rate changes but the way this was handled and SonyBMG itself isn't exactly popular either. While I think this was really carried out in the worst manner possible, especially for a company that needs customer loyalty in the form of long term subscribers to survive, after the shock has worn off, I'm cautiously optimistic about what lies ahead.

Let's get this out of the way first; I'm not happy my rates are going up. I was grandfathered in on a plan and I'm now paying about double what I was per track. One of the major things I liked about eMusic was the low cost that made experimenting with music rather painless. the new rates are going to make me, and seemingly all other users, a bit more cautious about what I'm downloading.

But, I'm also a musician with music on the service. Our per track take from eMusic is less than half what it is from iTunes or Amazon. In the last couple of years, eMusic has lost major indies like Epitaph and Drag City over these lower per track payments. As an artist without a label selling through TuneCore, the lower payments aren't as big a deal as they may be to a real label with overhead.

I've had arguments with other eMusic users on this point, but I just don't see how the service could have continued to keep the labels they have, let alone attract new ones, with the rates they were charging. There was an unofficial statement now buried on the message board from the site's editor, and public face of eMusic to many of it's subscribers, Yancy Strickler which sounds to me like eMusic was looking at the potential of a mass exodus of labels if they didn't find a way to increase the payouts.

The problem is, they tied this in with the SonyBMG announcement, which was a huge mistake. While the arrival of SonyBMG is certainly related to the rate increase, I don't think it's the only reason for the increase. I can understand why many users feel it is. I did too for a while. But, knowing what little I know about the behind the scenes and label side stuff, I really don't think it was just luring SonyBMG that was the reason for the hike.

But the bigger problem is the way this whole thing has been handled. Most of what I've written is speculation as both a subscriber and a music provider, I know very little other than rates are going up and some SonyBMG back catalog is coming. I'm not trying to suggest my situation entitles me a seat at the board meetings or anything like that. I do think I, and every other subscriber, am entitled to better communication than we've been given.

I find myself very conflicted about everything right now. As an artist, I'm cautiously optimistic that the new rates will mean better payouts. The big question is, will users be as adventurous with fewer and more expensive credits? (This is an issue I addressed a few years ago when Epitaph left.) This may end up going much like iTunes new $1.29 price point where the increase in per track rates doesn't make up the shortfall from users choosing not to download things they would have at the older rates.

As a subscriber of the service, I'm really hoping my hunches are correct and the increased rates mean keeping the quality labels they have as well as adding new ones. Many users feel that Sony is the entire reason for the hike, which, if true, would be a pretty drastic swing in what eMusic is all about. I don't think that's the case, but the rate increase will be much easier to take knowing the money is going towards courting more labels I care about than attracting the back catalog of one I don't.

Whatever the case, the way this was handled has given me some serious doubts about the future of eMusic. Hopefully this was just poorly planned and isn't a sign of the way changes to the service will be handled in the future. But the silence from the top since all this exploded doesn't exactly do much to make me hopeful.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Review: Zachariah (1971)

Spoilers ahoy, if you care.

Zachariah and his friend Matthew (played by a very young Don Johnson) decide to go off and be gunfighters. They meet up with an inept game, have a few heists, then Zach gets the big idea to meet up with Job Cain, the fastest gun in the west. For some reason never really explained, Zach gets cold feet and he and Matthew split up. He then meets up with a mystical old coot who takes him for a romp in the desert that somehow fills in all the blanks. Matthew guns down his boss Job then comes looking for Zach. He finds him, they don't have a shoot out but instead wrestle and then when Matthew realizes the ridiculousness of it all, they ride off into the sunset together. The end.

Zachariah is clearly a product of it's time, and by that I mean the post-Woodstock, post-Easy Rider era. The movie just reeks of the tail end of the hippie era. That in itself isn't necessarily bad, but the problem comes in when Zachariah tries to be both a deep, loner looking for the greater meaning of life movie and a comedy and a head trip movie and a western. It succeeds at none of these things.

Simply put, this movie is a mess.

Part of the problem is that it is trying to be all those things I mentioned above and succeeds at none. The comedy (written by the Firesign Theater, who I always find the definition of hit or miss) really isn't all that funny. The drama isn't that compelling. The mystical stuff is clearly in the who cares category. Very little of this movie makes sense, motivation for any of the characters is really hard to figure out.

It's clear that this movie was trying to be a hip drive-in flick, so the fact that I'm watching it 35+ years after the fact with no chemical enhancements seems to be the rest of the problem. I have to say though, I'd be curious to know what combination of drugs would make some of these sad sack jokes funny. This movie wasn't for me, so maybe I just don't get it.

However, there are two shining moments in this film and I'm using this review as an excuse to post them. First, you get a totally gratuitous (and nonsensical) opening sequence featuring the James Gang. (They return later in the movie as Job Cain's house band.)

Next, and this is truly the highlight of the film, Job Cain is played by none other than Elvin Jones! And Elvin is truly awesome in his role. This is the best scene in the whole movie, though the beginning is truncated a bit.

I mean, damn. He just shot a man and then he busts out a crazy Elvin Jones drum solo. It really doesn't get much cooler than that.

Well, I just saved you the trouble of seeking this one out as there's really nothing else redeeming about it. Unless you are a hippy western completest, stay far away. If you do get it, do yourself a favor and skip to Elvin's scenes and revel in his awesomeness.

(Here's an alternate viewpoint that goes way more in depth than I think this movie deserves. Two points he makes are especially interesting to me: one is the gay overtones between Zachariah and Matthew, which I noticed but thought it was just my imagination. The second is the film's relationship to Siddhartha, which I missed but find myself slapping my forehead about now.)