Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Party Like It's 1983

Yes, I'm a party animal. As always, I will spend New Year's Eve watching Big Country's homecoming show from Barrowland, Dec. 31, 1983. I was already a big fan when I first saw this concert as a mesmerized 13 year old via MTV, at the height of the band's popularity here in America, but what really grabbed me was the atmosphere of Glasgow's legendary ballroom. I had not been to concerts yet, and I was lured into the misguided impression for quite a while that all live outings were that way... the floor stomps, sing-alongs and chants of "here we go." The crowd was so supportive. The lads had just returned from taking the United States by storm, but Stuart and the fellas were their boys, and they were ready to welcome them home.

In 1990, I moved to Chicago to attend college. I took a part-time job in Lincoln Park. There was this shop a few doors down on Clark Street called Video Beat. It's difficult to believe, but all they sold was music video. Heaven. I found a VHS copy of this show from my youth and bought it on the spot. I have rung in the new year with Big Country ever since. (Last year I included Big Country's Dec. 31, 1984, concert from the Edinburgh Playhouse from the new 'At the BBC' box set for good measure.) Some years I have actually timed it so that my clock would strike midnight at the same time as it did on stage all those years ago. The show is well-known for the Deysart and Dundonald Pipe Band sequence at 12 o'clock. I imagine this is a first (and only) for a rock show, and it's a special moment as the importance of ringing in the new year for the Scottish people is vividly illustrated to the rest of the world. Here is the band performing "The Storm," followed by the bagpipe brigade.

I retired my VHS copy of the show in 2009 when the show was released as a CD/DVD combo by Track Records. There are some video extras, including Big Country's appearance at New York's Peppermint Lounge in 1982. I also have the show on CD as a King Biscuit Flower Hour release. Even though I don't really need multiple copies of the same concert, I have hung on to this one for many years because there is an interview with Stuart Adamson about this special concert that didn't make the 2009 reissue.

Interview With Stuart Adamson About NYE Show

I could go on and on, but I have written so many posts about this show since 2009 that I'm starting to bore myself. I'll just add, in case you're new to this blog, one of my biggest dreams came true in 2012 when I finally stepped foot inside Barrowland. I saw Mark, Tony and Bruce, with Mike Peters on lead vocals, perform 'The Crossing' in its entirety. I stomped my feet, sang along and chanted "here we go" just liked I had imagined in my head so many times. I cried a little too. Here are a few quotes from the band, along with a fine moment from the 1983 show. Happy New Year to you all!

"The Barrowland Ballroom is a great rock venue. It became our spiritual home. This gig could go down as one of the best moments in my gigging life. Long live the Barras and all who play in her." -- Tony Butler

"Even just before the gig the atmosphere was electric, and just walking on stage can only be described as being at a cup final and scoring the winning goal." -- Mark Brzezicki

"The excitement going on in the room that night was really a Scottish thing. We tried to make it a huge party, as much as possible." -- Bruce Watson

"That was a memorable show. It was New Year's Eve, and everyone was out of their heads. I remember in the middle of the show - at midnight - an entire bagpipe band came on stage and did a few numbers. It sounded so cool, we decided to keep it in the recording." -- Stuart Adamson

In a Big Country/Auld Lang Syne

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

No Monkeein' Around; Papa Nez Turns 72

I'm taking a page out George's blog, Jim McLean's Rabbit, to mark a birthday. There are so many reasons to celebrate the first 72 years of Mike Nesmith's life, not the least of which is his pioneering work in television, video, film and music video, and he's an author to boot, but it's his musical talents that have had a hold on me since I was a child.

I see Nesmith's music in three distinct parts. There's the Monkees, of course. Nesmith's songwriting contributions during that period are grossly underrated because, well, it was the Monkees, and I'm not going to get doubters to change their opinions on that one (but they are wrong). Some of my favorite Nesmith songs include "Mary Mary," where Mickey Dolenz took the lead, and "Circle Sky" from 'Head.' Tops for me with Nesmith on lead vocals would be "What Am I Doin' Hangin' 'Round?" He didn't pen that one, however. So, today's pick from that period is "You Just May Be the One," which he did write and sing, from the 1967 album 'Headquarters.'

After the Monkees, Nesmith recorded several wonderful country-rock albums. 'And the Hits Just Keep on Comin'' from 1972 is my go-to from the era. He wrote it while still a member of the Monkees. The formula is simple: Nesmith on acoustic guitar and Red Rhodes on pedal steel. "Tomorrow & Me" is not only my favorite from the album, but it's my favorite Nesmith song. Period.

After his country-rock phase, around 1977, Nesmith began becoming involved in music video. He created a promotional video for his song "Rio," from the album 'From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing.' This would later become part of a one-hour program of music videos and comedy shorts he put together called "Elephant Parts." I'm just repeating what is already well known, but the "PopClips" music-video show Nesmith assembled for Nickelodeon in 1980 and 1981 was MTV before there was MTV. This was America's chance to see videos from Madness, Squeeze, Split Enz and other cutting-edge artists otherwise ignored by the mainstream. Nesmith's own music was on display as well. During this period, his sound was much less country and much more eclectic. Enjoy "Rio," a song that did quite well in the UK and Australia.

I know there must be a few of you out there that share my affinity for Nez because my Michael Nesmith Week series in 2011 still stands as my all-time most viewed posts. Happy Birthday, Michael. You continue to entertain and inspire.

"You Just May Be the One" (from 'Headquarters')
"Tomorrow & Me" (from 'And the Hits Just Keep on Comin')
"Rio" (from 'From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing')

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Holiday Mood

Other than my annual ode to Big Country's 1983 New Year's Eve show, this is probably it for me this year. So, I would like to wish you all happy holidays with a few of my favorite seasonal favorites. Like many of you, this is Spector time, but I enjoy listening to Ella Fitzgerald's 'Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas' (1960) and Booker T. and the MGs' 'In the Christmas Spirit' (1966) nearly as much as 'A Christmas Gift For You' (1963). Hopefully, this little mix will help you get in the holiday mood.

The Apples in Stereo - Holiday Mood
Booker T. and the MGs - Jingle Bells
Ella Fitzgerald - Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
Freedy Johnston - Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
James Brown - Please Come Home For Christmas
NRBQ - Christmas Wish
Otis Redding - White Christmas
Ron Sexsmith - Maybe This Christmas
XTC - Thanks For Christmas

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Favorite Albums of 2014

1. The Popguns - 'Pop Fiction'
2. The Luxembourg Signal - 'The Luxembourg Signal'
3. Real Estate - 'Atlas'
4. Lunchbox - 'Lunchbox Loves You'
5. Allo Darlin' - 'We Come From the Same Place'
6. Primitives - 'Spin-O-Rama'
7. Spoon - 'They Want My Soul'
8. Alvvays - 'Alvvays'
9. The Hit Parade - 'Cornish Pop Songs'
10. Cosines - 'Oscillations'
11. Roddy Frame - 'Seven Dials'
12. The Woodentops - 'Granular Tales'
13. Slow Club - 'Complete Surrender'
14. The New Pornographers - 'Brill Bruisers'
15. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - 'Days of Abandon'
15. Gruff Rhys - 'American Interior'

Because a Top 16 just didn't sound quite right... that's why.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Favorite Reissues (and Such) of 2014

Before the unveiling, I wanted to mention a few fantastic reissues that deserve attention but didn't make my list. The reasons vary a bit, but it often comes down to me not pulling the trigger on a purchase due to already owning too much of the material. Cherry Red's 'C86' box, for example, was arguably the best of this year's bunch, but I have the original release and a majority of the bonus material. The same goes with Pixies' 'Doolittle 25.' It's a quality collection worthy of inclusion, and the packaging is impressive, but most of us already have the original album, as well as the B-sides and 'At the BBC' discs. I don't have the demos, but that's just not enough "new" material to make me buy it... even at the very fair sticker price.

For the most part, I stayed away from including pieces of music that were eligible only because they were on vinyl for the first time. If there was bonus material included, then that's fair game, but without this caveat there would be far too many candidates. Having said that, the original releases of 'Blue Bell Knoll' and 'Heaven or Las Vegas' from Cocteau Twins can be bought on vinyl now, and it was tempting to include them here.

Much of the Wedding Present's best work was re-released this year as positively stuffed three CD + one DVD editions, and not including them here is a travesty, but I haven't bought them (yet!). Most know
the Jayhawks from early works like 'Hollywood Town Hall' and 'Tomorrow the Green Grass,' but there were a few albums after that worthy of your attention. 'Smile,' 'Sound of Lies' and 'Rainy Day Music' can be got on vinyl now, and there is just enough bonus material to make me want them (again). McCarthy has a four-disc box seductively titled 'Complete Albums, Singles and BBC Sessions,' but it's not complete, and there are a few other problems I won't get into here. The band has been grossly underrated forever, however. So, I feel like I want to recommend it anyway. I could go on and on, in fact, I just remembered the Wolfhounds' 'Unseen Ripples From a Pebble,' grr, but let's just get to my top 10 already:

1. The Rainyard
'A Thousand Days'
I have been worshipping these Aussie jangle gods and Summershine veterans for four months now. Unlike most of the selections on this list, a majority of the songs on this compilation were new to me. Its freshness undoubtedly contributed to 'A Thousand Days' rising to the top of the heap. Unfortunately, you may already be out of luck because only 300 copies of the album were lovingly pressed by the folks at the Spanish label Pretty Olivia. You can download the lovely "So Happy Now" for free by clicking here.

2. Dexys
'Nowhere Is Home'
'One Day I'm Going to Soar' is nothing short of a miracle, but that album is even better performed live. If you have seen the double DVD concert and documentary, then you know the nine-night residency at London's Duke of York's Theatre in the spring of 2013, chronicled on 'Nowhere Is Home,' was something special. The sound of the quadruple 180g vinyl version I have is heaven on headphones. So good to have you back, Kevin.

3. Wilco
'Alpha Mike Foxtrot'
If you don't have a majority of the band's studio albums, this isn't the collection for you. It's like XTC's 'Coat of Many Cupboards' box set... an offering for the fanatics. This collects B-sides, live performances, alternative versions and work from soundtracks and tribute albums between 1994 and 2014. I already had many of the 77 tracks, but there was enough new here to take the plunge. My interest in Wilco had cooled in recent years, but this has me stoked again.

4. Aztec Camera
'High Land, Hard Rain'
Ridiculous. How many copies can one person own? For seemingly the umpteenth time, I bought the vinyl reissue last December. Within weeks, however, Domino released this new CD edition with a couple of nuggets on a second disc, such as the Kid Jensen session, that I didn't officially own. Had to have it. At least this gave me a chance to let my slightly scratchy 12" singles from the era have a well-deserved rest.

5. Big Country
'Steeltown' and 'The Seer'
From the "Harvest Home" single in 1982 through 'The Seer' in 1986, my fandom for Big Country runs deep. So, any time there is a new edition of one of the band's albums, I'm first in line. Both of these are two-disc affairs. My beef with 'Steeltown,' as with the deluxe edition of 'The Crossing from 2012, is the omission of Steve Lillywhite's brilliant extended 12" singles. You do get the B-sides and radio edits, as well as three of the four songs from the 'Wonderland' EP. The real find is the previously unreleased rough mixes and works in progress, but I understand that isn't for the casual fan. Goodies from 'The Seer' include seven B-sides, the complete 'Restless Natives' soundtrack and, yes, the 12" versions of the singles.

6. The Bluebells
'Exile on Twee Street'
I have always enjoyed a few of the band's singles and B-sides but have always wondered what Alan Horne saw in them when they were considered for Postcard Records. These 20 recordings (mostly demos) from between 1980 and 1982 certainly helped solve the mystery. Songs the Bluebells would later come to be known for, such as "Everybody's Somebody's Fool," "Happy Birthday," and "Sugar Bridge," were a whole lot better without the polish.

7. The Mighty Lemon Drops
'Uptight: The Early Recordings 1985/1986'
I'm a sucker for most of the bands that appeared on 'C86,' and here is a mess of work from the band just before and just after the famous session for NME in March 1986. You get the four tracks issued on the 7" and 12" editions of the "Like an Angel" single, four songs recorded for BBC Radio 1, three songs from the 'C86' session, five demos from the summer of '86, as well as the extremely limited (150 copies) eight-song 'Some of My Best Friends Are Songs' cassette released by Uptight Records. You can certainly hear why Daniel Treacy wanted the lads on his Dreamworld label.

8. The Ocean Blue
I will remember 2014 as the year I discovered the Ocean Blue is much more than a one-album wonder. This time a year ago all I had was the brilliant debut and the then brand-new 'Ultramarine,' a record that was No. 11 on my best-of list for 2013. Now I have the Ocean Blue's entire discography, including this 2004 EP that got a second go around four months ago with three additional tracks and a first ever vinyl release.

9. Jazzateers
'Don't Let Your Son Grow Up to Be a Cowboy'
Amazing. Here is the second band on this list to almost be a part of Postcard Records. This collection rounds up unreleased demos, singles that never saw the light of day and songs from 'Lee,' an album from 1983 that didn't get released either. A real highlight is "Wasted," produced by Edwyn Collins. At the end of this disc you're gonna wonder why Jazzateers never quite made it. Wasted, indeed.

10. Sneakers
For power-pop fans such as myself, Record Store Day's Black Friday celebration was a fruitful one. Before Chris Stamey started the dB's and Mitch Easter formed Let's Active, both were in Sneakers. This 10" goes all the way back to the band's first release in 1976, when the recording was a six-song 7". Three songs have been added, including a cover of the Grass Roots' ""Let's Live For Today." Other namedropping includes the dB's Will Rigby on drums and Don Dixon assisting and engineering. Don't expect 'Stands for Decibels,' but this is an historical artifact worth digging up.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Favorite Songs of 2014

When I assembled this list last year, it dawned on me I had become an old man. Most of my music purchases had become reissues or used records to fill holes in my collection that often dated back to my youth. I would have put the old/new music split at something like 80/20. So, my New Year's resolution was to flip the numbers around. The good news is I stuck with it. The bad news, well, not exactly bad, is many heroes from my youth released new music in 2014. So, this still kind of looks like the list of an aging father trying desperately to stay relevant. It's funny. Buying so much new music this year made me think about what a risk it used to be to plunk down 13 bucks for an album you may have read about but most likely never heard. Now we don't even have to get out of our chairs as we sample the whole endeavor over and over again. Progress?

I'm rambling. Back to the list. I used the one slot per artist rule to keep the Popguns and a few others from hogging the whole thing. I bent the rules a bit for Todd Terje and Parquet Courts/Parkay Quarts, but I feel like I can justify both of these exceptions... if you force me. I went with 40 songs this year in honor of the late Casey Kasem. His countdown filled my Sunday mornings during the most awkward of my teen years. What songs did you enjoy or despise this year? I'm sure we could go a few rounds with my No. 40 for starters.

1. The June Brides - "Being There"

2. The Popguns - "Out of Sight"

3. The Luxembourg Signal - "Distant Drive"

4. Close Lobsters - "Now Time"

5. Primitives - "Spin-O-Rama"

6. Roddy Frame - "White Pony"
7. The Hit Parade - "From Paddington to Penzance"

8. Cosines - "Out of the Fire"

9. Spoon - "Inside Out"

10. Future Islands - "Seasons (Waiting on You)"

11. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - "Kelly"

12. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - "Retreat!"

13. She & Him - "Stay Awhile"

14. Real Estate - "Crime"

15. Allo Darlin' - "Romance and Adventure"

16. Slow Club - "Suffering You, Suffering Me"

17. Lunchbox - "Tonight is Out of Sight"
18. Todd Terje and Bryan Ferry - "Johnny and Mary"
19. The Woodentops - "Conversations"

20. Beck - "Blue Moon"

21. Alvvays - "Adult Diversion"

22. The School - "When I Fall in Love"

23. Tam Vantage - "The Boy Who Always Wins"
24. The New Pornographers - "War on the East Coast"

25. Robyn Hitchcock - "The Ghost in You"

26. Ben Watt - "Spring"

27. Literature - "New Jacket"

28. Gruff Rhys - "Liberty (Is Where We'll Be)"

29. Parquet Courts - "Instant Disassembly"

30. Vic Goddard & Subway Sect - "Born to Be a Rebel"

31. Making Marks - "Forgive and Forget"

32. Echo & the Bunnymen - "Lovers on the Run"

33. Christopher Owens - "It Comes Back to You"

34. Parkay Quarts - "Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth"

35. Todd Terje - "Delorean Dynamite"

36. The Rosebuds - "In My Teeth"

37. Jim Noir - "Here Come the Broadway Jets"

38. Simple Minds - "Honest Town"

39. The Steinbecks - "Trying to Be Someone"

40. David Bowie - "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)"

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Sticks and Stones

Scott's recent inclusion of "Getting Mighty Crowded" over at
Spools Paradise got me thinking about some of my favorite covers performed by Elvis Costello... and I would certainly place the Betty Everett tune among them. Here's another. "Sticks and Stones" was penned by Titus Turner and made famous by Ray Charles in 1960. It was Charles' first single after the move from Atlantic to ABC-Paramount, and the song peaked at No. 2 on the R&B chart and No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100. We all know the story of Costello's drunken racial epithet while discussing Charles back in 1979, and that unfortunate incident will follow the artist forever, but the myriad of mea culpas since then have satisfied most of us.

After several years of cooling, my passion for Costello's work heated up again in 1994. The Ryko reissues, the first but certainly not the last of its kind, were in full swing. Nick Lowe was producing the new album. Most importantly, the Attractions were back. Even though I was living in Japan and had seen Costello several times in the past, this would be my first show with the Attractions. My fandom was such that I was even buying the singles again. As B-sides go, I thought the "You Tripped At Every Step" single was the best from the 'Brutal Youth' era. There was "Step Inside Love," written by Paul McCartney and used as the theme song to Cilia Black's late '60s TV show. The second B-side, "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," needs no introduction. The single ends with a hoppin' 95-second take of "Sticks and Stones." Interesting choice, don't you think? Fortunately, by 1994, it seemed Costello's cover of this particular Charles song was more or less a non-story.

Ray Charles - Sticks and Stones
Elvis Costello and the Attractions - Sticks and Stones

Friday, December 5, 2014

Favorite Record Covers of 2014

This might be cheating a bit, but the above is my favorite album art from this year. You might be wondering how I could choose a cover from a piece of music that came out two decades ago. Well, back in the day, Crayon's 'Brick Factory' was released via Harriet Records on CD and cassette... before quickly going out of print. HHBTM Records recently resurrected this lost treasure and gave it to us on vinyl for the first time ever. I don't have to tell you it's not only the music that's better on wax. I love the blurred hustle and bustle attempting to envelop a couple that doesn't seem to notice any of the other students. Is this where love begins? Anyway, that's how I see it. I know nothing about the artist, but there were two names credited to the artwork on the original CD. So, I'll thank George Pfromm II and Todd Christensen and hope that covers it. HHBTM pressed 500 copies, and the label is including 20 bonus tracks for download with purchase. It's a twee/punk masterpiece.

Sometimes you know you're going to love a band just by seeing the art. The cover of Cosines' debut single from 2013, "Hey Sailor Boy!" grabbed me with the font used for their logo, the brown cardboard used to house the 7", and the simple sketch of a ship. The 2014 followup, "Commuter Love," used the same formula, only with a speeding train. I love the aesthetic and enjoy looking at these two images side by side while listening to these fine singles. Credit goes to illustrator Tom Greatorex. The band's first full-length album is out now, and it's wonderful. These first two singles are not on 'Oscillations.' So, you need to find the trio.

I won't spend too much time touting the new album from the Popguns. I'll have plenty of time to do that when I reveal my favorites of the year next week. Today is all about the artwork. Credit for the cover of the "Lovejunky" single and 'Pop Fiction' album goes to, as the band described him, the "astonishingly talented" Jason Brooks. You can find these and other works in his 'Paris Sketchbook.' The art fits the Popguns' latest so well. Just listen to "Alfa Romeo" and think about Chet Baker wandering the same city streets half a century ago. I took this photo of the 'Lovejunky' single from the Matinée Recordings site because, well, there's something beautiful about it as well. I have certainly heard of a story within a story, but can you have art within art?

Ah, the American dream in action. Cookie-cutter houses, a strip of grass, an above-ground pool and never ever leaving Mom and Dad's basement. Chumped certainly know where it's at, and the band perfectly captures those awkward young-adult years in their songs... and on the cover of 'Teenage Retirement.'

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Boyracer's Victory Lap

If you've ever heard Sarah 076, "B Is For Boyracer," then you know this 7" was not the usual sound that made the label famous. Famous? Point is, Boyracer was anything but submissive, and the lads leaned a little more punk than pop. There were a couple of more Sarah singles and a wonderful full-length album on Slumberland during that era. I highly recommend the lot. Here's a little taste from 1993:

I kind of lost track of Boyracer around 1995. Shameful. There were lots of personnel changes, more labels and many many more songs, but the one constant throughout Boyracer's roughly 23 years was Stewart Anderson. During those years Anderson had a couple of labels of his own, and he's recently founded a new one with his wife, Jen Turrell. One of the latest releases on Emotional Response is being touted as Boyracer's swansong, but what a way to go out! Anderson is joined by the Mrs. and Sarah-era guitarist Matt Green (his first Boyracer appearance in two decades) for the four-song 7" "Pete Shelley" (six songs as a download). Yes, that Pete Shelley. How cool is that? Perhaps this should be an all A-side affair, because every song is a keeper. Sample "The Kind Of Man You Really Are" below, and stick around or you'll miss Terrell's organ-infused "Jump," and that would be your loss, believe me.

The "Pete Shelley" EP is exactly what I would have wanted Boyracer to sound like in 2014. Still raucous, a little more grown up, and with the kind of crisp production that wasn't even a thought when I was a fan during the Sarah and Slumberland years. It feels good to be back in the fold, even if I just barely made it in time.