Working Through It: Mates of State – Mountaintops

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I had picked up on the Mates of State on their prior album, Re-Arrange Us. It caught my attention but I didn’t love it. But it was good enough that I started looking into their back catalogue and keeping an eye on their future.

In case you don’t know them, Mates of State is a Connecticut spousal unit that delivers joyous DIY pop without any irony or gimmicks. This kind of earnestness generally captures sneers from cynics and rockists. It might have been deserved on Re-Arrange Us and their follow up covers compilation, but not on Mountaintops.

On Mountaintops, Mates of State keep the great melodies but ditch the preciousness.  From the starburst of a song Palomino to the restrained Unless I’m Lead, Mountaintops has enough distinctly enjoyable songs to earn its way into regular listening. Or at least, I listen to it regularly.

Working Through It: Ultravox – Vienna

 

 

I had to start somewhere, so why not here? I rescued this album out of the 2 for $3 bin at a local record shop earlier this year.  Ultravox was a new wave outfit out of London that saw some success in the early 80’s. I really only knew them for the hyper-emotional track Dancing With Tears in My Eyes that appeared on a few compilations over the years and hadn’t given them much more thought until I came across this record.

Vienna is the definition of an early 80’s synth-pop/rock album. It’s a collection of songs that reflect a range of styles and influences which makes it almost sound like a compilation album. New Europeans is a mix of pompy guitars and keyboards while Mr. X is a cold, futuristic ballad that would have fit in nicely on any late 70’s Kraftwerk album. Vienna is the standout track on the album. It is a bit of an epic — full of long pauses, dramatic orchestration, and bursts of emotion in every vocal note.

I actually play this album far more than I thought I would. A lesson for me as I really had low expectations when I spotted it in that 2 for $3 bin.

 

Working Through It: The Pogues’ If I Should Fall From Grace With God

On their first two efforts, Red Roses For You, and Rum, Sodomy, and The Lash, The Pogues established themselves as one of the most interesting, if novel, bands in post-punk London. The band, led by Shane MacGowan, traded fuzzbox guitars for mandolins and pipes to create a sound as powerful as any, more “mainstream”, punk band ever did. On If I Should Fall From Grace With God, The Pogues moved from being rough and tumble, to being brilliant. Perhaps they knew this when they included an image of writer and fellow Irish ex-pat James Joyce, on the cover of the album.
The album opens with the title track, “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”. It explodes out of the gates like stallions in a horse race. Legs fly everywhere and the motion is a blur, but the lyrics bob above the fray to see it through. It is an empowering song about defiance in the face of death. “Turkish Song of The Damned” carries on this notion. There is no rest for the wicked as the next track, “Bottle of Smoke”, picks up on the momentum launched by the title track. It this case, the song is about a horse race. It is a profanity laden tale of money riding on hopes and dreams. But the next track on the album stunned us all.
“Fairytale of New York” has become a modern standard. It is the story of two recent Irish immigrants falling in love on the streets of New York. The song begins with our protagonist being led into the drunk tank on Christmas Eve. He reflects on the events leading up to that night. He had won a bet on a horse race (“Got on a lucky one/Came in eighteen to one”) and got wild with promises to his girl (as sung by the brilliant Kristy McColl). “This year’s for me and you/So happy Christmas/I love you baby/ I can see a better time/When all our dreams come true.” But with all highs, come the lows. The booze takes its natural course and the words of the drunken lovers become bitter.

Her: “You’re a bum/You’re a punk”
Him: “You’re an old slut on junk/Living there almost dead on a drip in that bed”
Her: “You scum bag/You maggot/You cheap lousy faggot/Happy Christmas your arse/I pray God it’s our last”
Like any great romantic story, there is some redemption at the end. The sparring calms and the couple opens up to one another about regrets and aspirations.
Him: “I could have been someone.”
Her: “So could anyone./You took my dreams from me when I first found you”
Him: “I kept them with me babe/I put them with my own/Can’t make it all alone/I’ve built my dreams around you.”

The rest of the album is very strong. No self-respecting drunken blowout would be complete without the rollicking Spanish-themed “Fiesta” blasting late in the night. The Pogues also managed to include songs about the politics of Anglo-Irish relations (Birmingham Six, Streets of Sorrow) as well as the quiet contemplation of a Springtime stroll (Lullaby of London).
If I Should Fall From Grace With God was the artistic peak for The Pogues. Shane MacGowan’s drinking and erratic behavior grew worse and degraded the quality of his songwriting and vocals in the following years. Hells Ditch and Peace & Love were good but did not live up to the standard of If I Should Fall. At the wrap of Hell’s Ditch, MacGowan left the band (or was kicked out depending on which version you believe). The Pogues continued and released two mediocre albums, Waiting for Herb, and Pogue Mahone. They have since disbanded. Shane MacGowan has released several solo albums but they pale in comparison to his work in the mid-80’s with The Pogues. Like most good things, quality is rarely duplicated. If I Should Fall From Grace With God is such a flash of artistic perfection that we shouldn’t expect another.

Deep Listening: Working My Way Through My Collection

It’s a dirty little secret amongst collectors. Many of us don’t listen to the records that we buy. Oh, we listen to them. But we don’t L-I-S-T-E-N to them.

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When we get a new album we throw it on the table, play it through, read the liner notes, snap a few pictures, share them, add it to our Discogs collection, take it off the platter, put it back into the sleeve, drop it all into a vinyl outer sleeve, and slide it into storage — never to be played again!

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But I’m all about second chances and taking on causes. In an effort to actually better enjoy my collection instead of simply growing it, I’m going to devour each and every title in my collection and share my thoughts on this blog.  My goal is to do a new record (at least) every week. Let’s see if this mission works out any better than all of my others.

 

Collector’s Corner: Some Thoughts on Bootlegged Vinyl

Before getting back into vinyl collecting in the last 5 years, I was an avid collector of digital music. In the world of digital music, there are few barriers to getting what you want. Digital music is either very inexpensive or free and even the most obscure tracks can be found and downloaded/streamed in seconds. That, of course, is not the case for vinyl.

In collecting vinyl, there can be many barriers to getting the piece you want including cost,  distribution, rarity, year of release, etc. In most cases, music produced in the 90’s until the 2010’s were never produced on vinyl at all making the task impossible — or is it? Increasingly there is a supply of vinyl bootlegs making it on to the market to meet the market demand driven, in part, by the expectations set by the MP3 boom. We want what we want and we want it now. And we want it on vinyl! A quick look around eBay, Discogs, and other online merchants shows a wide assortment of bootleg albums of normally impossible to find vinyl albums at greatly reduced prices.

As bootlegging does not appear to be legal, it’s very difficult to come by details on the products and/or those who produce them. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about bootlegs:

How can I tell from a listing if an album is a bootleg?

There are a number of clues to look for including:

  • The LP is called “Limited Release” or “Unofficial”.
  • The album is rated as “Mint” or “Near Mint” despite the title being many years old
  • The price of a particular copy is much lower than the other listings
  • You see a lot of this rare album available at this low price
  • You can’t find any official release info

I was going to say to check if it is also available through Amazon as a test. But with its Marketplace approach, a bootleg can easily find its way to your house (happened to me).

Once I get the record, how can I tell if it’s a bootleg by its appearance?

This will be pretty obvious to you:

The Sleeve: Typically the cardboard in the sleeve is much flimsier than an official record. The graphics tend to be a little duller in colour and not nearly as crisp. Often double albums that would have been gatefold in official form are presented as a single sleeve with two generic, white inner sleeves shoved in together. No liner notes are typically included.

Label on Official Release
Label on Official Release
Label on Unofficial Release
Label on Unofficial Release

The Record: The record will typically be quite thick and the hole in the centre will be very tight when you place it on your turntable the first dozen times. The colour of the vinyl can vary but can sometimes have a marble effect or just standard black. The labels are often generic or a poor reproduction of the original.

How do they sound?

The answer to that depends entirely on the quality of individual bootleg. Mine sound passable but pretty indistinguishable in fidelity from the MP3 versions apart from the crackles.

A Case Study: The Stone Roses Debut LP

Considered one of the best debut albums of all time, the Stone Roses LP is much in demand amongst vinyl collectors. On Discogs, despite reissues and bootlegs being available, the median price on an original copy is $69. Before the recent reissue (2014 on 180 gram vinyl), the prices were much higher. Even a 2010 reissue didn’t meet the market demand. But a mass bootleg effort was made in recent years that really changed the market. See this Discogs listing below:

A listing of bootleg copies of the Stone Roses' debut LP on Discogs
A listing of bootleg copies of the Stone Roses’ debut LP on Discogs

I was curious about these releases and spent the $19 to get a copy. Here is a comparison of that bootleg vs the 2014 reissue to help illustrate some of the earlier points.

The outer sleeve of the official and unofficial versions. Can you tell the difference?
The outer sleeve of the official and unofficial versions. Can you tell the difference?

Outer Sleeve: There is an obvious difference in colour in the two images. The one on the left is the unofficial (bootleg) copy. The colours are the wrong tint and lack the contrast and depth of the official copy. In addition, the cardboard on the bootleg version is extremely flimsy.

Stone Roses Inner Sleeve Comparison

Inner Sleeve: There really isn’t anything to talk about here. The bootleg has a generic white inner sleeve while the official release has full colour piece of artwork with graphics on one side and photos on the other. Very durable cardboard is used for the official release.

Stone Roses LP comparison - Vinyl Comparison

The Vinyl: Here we see the marbled vinyl so common in bootleg releases versus the jet black vinyl of the official copy. The labels on the bootleg were obviously scanned from the original, but are faded and blurry in comparison. The sound quality isn’t bad on the bootleg, but very good on the official version.

The Price Difference: You can go on Amazon.ca and get the reissue for $21 or you can go on eBay and buy the bootleg for…$19 or $20. To be clear, the reissue only came out earlier this year, so anybody that really wanted a vinyl copy prior to that didn’t have an inexpensive option other than a bootleg. But given the number of reissues coming out on a monthly basis, patience is suggested as opposed to making the impulse purchase of a bootleg. I wish I had waited.

There is always an exception

The only cases where I would buy a bootleg are if (1) the recording is of something that has never been released in any other format (eg. live sessions, etc.) or (2) if I really wanted a replica of cult release that will never be reissued due to its obscurity. There is a long history of obsessives releasing/collecting live recordings, alternate versions, special artwork etc. on vinyl. But these clearly aren’t being offered as alternatives to the real thing — they are supplemental to official releases and are aimed at super-collectors.

Additional Reading:

Unlicensed to Ill: By Leor Galil, Chicago Reader

Vinyl Revival Brings Back The Bootleg: By Clive Young, Prosound News

Unauthorized At Any Speed: By Richard Brophy, Resident Advisor

Classic Album: Galaxie 500 “Today”

Timeless. Graceful. Powerful. These words have all been used to describe Galaxie 500‘s debut album Today. Made in a “shed” in Massachussets in 1988, Today followed up on the promise of Galaxie 500‘s first release, a 45 version of “Tugboat”. The group formed in Boston, MA, in 1986 and comprised vocalist/guitarist Dean Wareham, bassist Naomi Yang and drummer Damon Krukowsk, three friends from Harvard University. They got their name from their friend’s car, a Ford Galaxie 500.

Like a glacier moving through the ocean, Galaxie 500 eased into indie music legendom. Also like a glacier, the sound of the band was made up of layers of history. Early influences like the Velvet Underground, Joy Division and early New Order are evident in their sound. Like these bands,Galaxie 500‘s restraint was its strength. While other bands have to put everything on the table to engage/interest the listener, Galaxie 500‘s music left a great deal to the listener’s imagination. It’s like the difference between movies and books. The quiet whimsy and sometimes frostiness of Dean Wareham’s (later of Luna) vocals play nicely off the huge reverb of the music suggesting a massive world is being tapped. The Krukowski/Yang rhythm section doesn’t pound but creates an interesting and exciting tempo when needed. It’s endearing.

The standout tracks on Today include “Oblivious”, “Temperature Rising”, and their first release “Tugboat”. They also cover another New England music icon, Jonathan Richman, on the track “Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste”.

This is a classic album not only because it is good, but because of its impact. It is a forgotten link that any music lover should check out.