Craven Hermit Blows His Wad on Records

Relax, the title of this blog post is a metaphor, and an homage to some of the deliberately unsettling chyrons they use on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  Believe me, you DON’T want to know what other titles were under consideration 🙂

Today is Record Store Day 2012.  I moseyed down to my favourite local indie record shop this morning to see what they had on offer.  I originally planned to get there right when they opened (10 am) but some under-publicized road construction sent me on an impromptu detour.

I walked in the doors of Blackbyrd Myoozik at 10:15 am to find the place jam-packed with hipsters, enough to surely test the maximum occupancy limits in our local fire code.  Usually on my Friday afternoon sojourns to the store I’m the only customer.  But on this day, by the time I got there the store was overrun by people with WAY more facial and/or cranial hair than me.  And the ubiquitous music-nerd glasses too.  I would estimate that there were 30 to 40 people in the store by 30 minutes after opening this morning.   Everyone behaved in an orderly fashion, and it did the Craven Hermit’s soul good to see so many people with armfuls of albums waiting in the check-out line, even if the line-up effectively filled the entire store.  The shopkeepers’ choice of spinning the new Spiritualized record as a backdrop to the mayhem likely helped maintain some semblance of decorum.  It could have gotten really ugly if they’d played the new Lou Reed / Metallica album instead.

Not only were there many Record Store Days special promotions available, but they put all the new vinyl on sale 20% off, and all used vinyl was 50% off.  This proved to be a popular move.  Maybe RSD cuts into Blackbyrd’s profit margin a little bit, but they more than made up for it in volume today.  Good for them.

Your faithful correspondent went on a bit of a spending spree today (hence the wad-blowing title of this post).  I’ve accumulated some overtime at work lately, getting the next phase of my latest project set up for my team.  So today was a reward for keeping my nose to the grindstone.  I decided to focus my weekend on what makes me happy, so that meant adding new records to my collection.  I managed to get there early enough to come away with these RSD exclusives:

  • Pete Townshend – Quadrophenia Demos 2 (10″ vinyl)
  • Uncle Tupelo – March 16-20, 1992 (on 180-gram 12″ vinyl)
  • Blitzen Trapper – Hey Joe (7″ on yellow vinyl)

As I mentioned earlier, in-stock vinyl was also on sale today so I picked up a number of titles that I’ve seen on the shelves but just never pulled the trigger on until now.

I was really hoping to find a copy of the Decemberists’ new live record, but they didn’t have it in stock.  I consoled myself with a copy of last year’s most excellent The King Is Dead on 180g.  Peter Buck is about as close to a hero as I have, and his influence is all over this record like stink on a monkey.

I also helped myself to a copy of the Fleet Foxes debut album.  Nice thing about this one is it comes with a copy of the excellent Sun Giant EP.  Two birds, one stone.  Very nice.  Can’t wait to hear “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” the way it was meant to be heard, rotating rotisserie-style at 33-1/3 rpm.

I saw a copy of The Clash’s debut album on 180g and had to have it.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the slashing strains of “Career Opportunities” in my tape-recorder brain while having a bad day at work.  That’ll be my go-to record the next time I get wound up (so… Tuesday, at the latest).

I’ve also been looking for a copy of Spoon’s Gimme Fiction album for awhile now.  There is something magical about the carefully crafted sparseness of songs like “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” and “My Mathematical Mind” that really gets to me.  Can’t wait to drop the needle on this one.

M. Ward’s new album A Wasteland Companion was in stock, so I helped myself to a copy.  The early reviews sound very promising; I’ll let you know what I think after I’ve had time to give it a proper listen.

One of my favourite bands is UK rock act Muse.  What I love about this band is how fearless they are.  Prog rock is decidedly uncool these days, yet Muse find a way to make interstellar paranoia and balls-to-the-wall compound time signatures sound relevant and topical.  My favourite live gig in 2010 was Muse’s tour in support of The Resistance, so I finally picked it up on LP today.  I’m still not 100% sold on the symphonic ambitions of Side 4, but the brilliance of rock songs like “Resistance” and “Undisclosed Desires” simply can’t be denied.

Yours truly was privileged to be in attendance this week when the Joel Plaskett Emergency blazed through town.  Their new album still isn’t available on vinyl, but I broke down and picked up Plaskett’s best ‘solo’ record Ashtray Rock today.  There is just something unmistakable about Plaskett’s musical talents that really comes through on this record; it captures the essence of being 18 years old and stupid (yet cool) all over again.

At this point, with ten pieces of new vinyl in hand, I remembered that discretion was the better part of valour and headed for the cashier.  The store was so grateful for my (over)consumption that they offered me a very nice complimentary tote bag to transport my new purchases home.

I got home just before lunch, and felt suitably inspired by what had just transpired on Record Store Day to set out across the neighbourhood for a long walk.  I picked up a new pair of cross-trainers in Georgia while on a slurry pump training course last month.  Since the weather has been nice lately and the trails are mainly dry, I decided to break in the new shoes today.  It was like walking on a mattress – my new Air Pegasus trainers have beautiful bounce and traction.

When I returned home 3 hours and 6 minutes later, I was expecting to see that I had traveled 15 to 16 kilometres.  Instead, my trusty app tells me I clicked off exactly 18 km over those three hours, which is a very good pace by my standards (10’20” per km).  It must have been the new shoes.

Today’s walk has inspired me to go downstairs, rip the packaging off of some new top-notch music, and set up shop in front of my turntable.  Tonight has been a long time coming, and while I may have the absence of a couple of people hanging heavy on my mind, I can still take refuge in the age-old thrill of spinning some excellent new recordings for the first time.

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The Spin Cycle

I love this cartoon:

I feel like Charlie Brown’s kindred spirit at the best of times (premature chrome-dome, no fashion sense, unrequited love for the little red-haired girl).  This cartoon just cements it – tomorrow I go shopping for zig-zag shirts.

Mr. Schulz has posed a question for the ages.  Does listening to depressing music make you sad, or do depressed people simply choose to listen to melancholy music?

Here’s my two cents worth on the matter.  From my perspective (and I swear this isn’t meant to be a cop-out), it’s a bit of both.

I have always had a symbiotic relationship with my record collection.  In many ways, it is my best friend.  I’ve been told that I tend to put a noticeable distance between myself and other people, even my closest friends.  I doubt that anyone knows my favourite colour (cobalt blue), or what I want to do when I retire (putter around a cabin in the mountains, watching wild creatures wander through the yard), or even what I find most attractive about a woman (her voice and what she has to say).  The metaphorical wall I’ve erected around myself has been remarkably effective at limiting the number of emotional relationships I’ve shared with people.

But despite the impenetrable Fortress of Solitude, music is always right there at the centre of my soul.

My music is there when I’m out for a three-hour walk through aspen parkland.  My music is there when I’ve had a particularly good day at work or a good night at hockey.  My music is there as I sit around the campfire, summit a new pass on a hike, or wait in a departure lounge for a plane.

And, yes, music is there when I’m feeling blue.  It waits for me with open arms and a reassuring embrace.  It doesn’t judge.  It doesn’t mock.  It simply understands that not every day is going to be euphoria.  It knows that someone who has to work so hard to suppress his roller-coaster of emotions just to stay on an even keel is going to melt down from time to time.

Today is an odd day.  The calendar says it is springtime, but it’s been snowing since 4 a.m.  The pavement is wet, while big wet flakes continue to accumulate on my back lawn, now 4″ thick.  Maybe it’s the strange weather that is lending everything a sense of disorder.  Something just seems off-kilter, out of balance, incomplete.  I want to be somewhere else, anywhere else.  There’s an emptiness, a void; a yearning and a burning that can’t be extinguished.  Like the wise man once said:

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields…
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Right after I post this meandering collection of words, I’m going to take the fourteen steps down to my basement, cue up the stereo, and re-establish my usual dent on the sofa.  At times like these, my record collection is my salvation.

I can’t speak for everyone.  But I know that when I’m feeling dislocated and disjointed, music helps to ground me.  I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that depressed people listen to sad music, or the act of listening to sad music will depress someone.  Reality is more complicated than simple cause and effect.  I do think that there is something incredibly powerful about music, something that taps into our humanity.  Something that makes us feel a little less lonely on a snowy Saturday night in April.  Something that defies a proper explanation, but is still very real and profound.  I think people in a certain mood are always going to gravitate toward a certain kind of music, just to remind themselves that someone else out there feels the same way.  The music doesn’t depress them – it offers them a refuge.  An arm around their torso and a head on their shoulder.

A quick check of iTunes will reveal the tracks you listen to the most.  Apparently, the top of the Craven Hermit charts goes something like this:

  • “England” by The National
  • “Undisclosed Desires” by Muse
  • “Lucky” by Radiohead
  • “Adventures in Solitude” by the New Pornographers
  • “How to Fight Loneliness” by Wilco
  • “Mess” by Ben Folds Five
  • “Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie
  • “What I Have To Offer” by Eels
  • “The Scientist” by Coldplay
  • “Naked As We Came” by Iron & Wine
  • “Both Sides Are Even” by The Boxer Rebellion
  • “Drive” by R.E.M.

So, not exactly AC/DC’s greatest hits then!  But there’s very few things in this world that I would take in trade for my relationship with these tunes.

I wonder if Charlie Brown ever managed to find a copy of Transatlanticism on vinyl.  I bet he’d love it.

Upcoming Music Releases – April 2012

3-April-2012:

Great Lake Swimmers return with a new album entitled New Wild Everywhere.  This record, like all of GLS’s albums, should hit the spot as you’re sitting around a campfire roasting some wieners this summer.  Like a less-choral Fleet Foxes or a less-weird Bon Iver, GLS write songs that are wistful and windswept but still tuneful and interesting.  Here’s hoping that New Wild Everywhere builds on the residual momentum of 2009’s excellent Lost Channels.

10-April-2012:

Malian musicians Amadou & Mariam return with a new album called Folila.  Their infectiously melodic music has crossed over into wider circles thanks to Western pop benefactors like Damon Albarn. Folila reportedly began as two separate albums – one with more traditional African guests and one with a selection of their new Western friends.  But instead of splitting the finished songs into two separate albums, Amadou & Mariam bravely elected to pick the best results from all of the recordings and combined them into a single release.  Guests like TV on the Radio, Santigold, and Jake Shears (of Scissor Sisters) made the cut, and the results should be interesting to hear.  Integrating ‘world music’ with Western pop can be a treacherous path, but when executed properly (think Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel) the results can be greater than the sum of the parts.

Portland’s M. Ward follows up 2009’s well-received Hold Time with a new album called A Wasteland Companion.  Like Amadou & Mariam, this album was recorded with a laundry list of musicians (including frequent collaborator Zooey Deschanel), but that’s likely where the comparisons end.  M. Ward’s music tends to be rooted in a certain kind of Americana, one where shapes and textures are just as important as melodies and rhythms.

17-April-2012:

The new Spiritualized album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, which was released in the UK back in March gets a North American release.  Although if you’re internet-savvy and a fan of J. Spaceman’s alternative, reflective, interstellar dream-pop, you’ve probably found a way to acquire this record by now.

24-April-2012:

Jack White finally cuts the cords to his various other projects (White Stripes, Raconteurs, Dead Weather) and puts out an album under his own nom de plume.  Hopefully White takes some chances with Blunderbuss and pushes himself in new musical directions.  It would be cool if some twisted echoes of his Nashville neighbours made it into the mix.  But if the songs skew more toward the fully-formed melodic rock of The Raconteurs instead of the hyperactive riffs and underdeveloped musical ideas of a White Stripes record, so much the better.

The Dandy Warhols continue to try to undo the damage done to their careers by 2008’s uneven Earth to the Dandy Warhols and 2005’s frankly terrible Odditorium or Warlords of Mars.  Early word is that This Machine is a somewhat schizophrenic affair, flirting with the Dandy’s usual touchstones (psychedelic rock, grungey alt-rock) and new textures (electronic music).  Could be brilliant, or could be crap.  As a wise man once said, “It’s a fine line between stupid and clever”.

Record Store Day!

On Saturday, April 21st, the fifth annual Record Store Day will finally be upon us!  Get out and support your local merchant, whose business is more than likely hanging on by its fingernails these days.  Without local record shops catering to music fans that like something a little different, your brick & mortar music consumerism would be reduced to choosing between Rihanna and Maroon 5 down at the ever-shrinking Best Buy CD rack.

Many prominent musical acts are helping to promote RSD 2012 with a bevy of new releases.  On Saturday the 21st, look for limited quantities of these gems in your local shop:

Arcade Fire – Sprawl II (12″)
Brendan Benson – What Kind of World (7″)
The Black Keys – El Camino (2 x 45 rpm 12″)
Blitzen Trapper – Hey Joe (7″)
The Civil Wars – Billie Jean (7″)
The Clash – London Calling 2012 (7″)
Coldplay – Up With The Birds / UFO (7″)
Fun. – The Ghost That You Are To Me (10″ gold gear-shaped picture disc)
The Hives – Go Right Ahead (7″)
Paul Simon – Graceland re-release (12″)
Pete Townshend – Quadrophenia Demos part 2 (10″)
Uncle Tupelo – the seven-inch singles box set (4 x 7″)
Uncle Tupelo – No Depression, Still Feel Gone, and March 16-20 1992 re-releases (12″)

As usual, Wilco are getting into the act with a very limited release of a deluxe LP box set for The Whole Love.  Big deal – I already have it! But the limited-edition turntable slip-mat looks pretty cool.

Road Trip!

Your faithful correspondent has been a little lacking in new posts lately.  Had a busy week at work, then had to get ready for a road trip.  I try to get out of town for a concert at least once a year.  It’s fun to hang out in different places, try new restaurants, and walk some new neighbourhoods.

This weekend I’m in the lovely city of Vancouver, BC.  I’ve caught Wilco on every western Canadian tour for the past decade or so, but this year for The Whole Love they’re not coming to my town (at least not yet).  So, mid-winter seemed like a nice time to head out to the west coast for a change of scenery.  The weather has been great here – yesterday was sunny and about 10 degrees C.  I’m told this is unusual for this time of year – typical weather is drizzly and closer to freezing.  But hey, it’s been a weird winter so we’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

Another fun aspect of traveling is looking for new record shops.  In the ‘old days’ I would have gone spelunking for bootleg or hard-to-find CDs.  These days, it’s all about vinyl.  After a quick subway ride and a brief walk, I found a few great shops in Vancouver on Main Street.  The best of the bunch was Red Cat Records.  Lots of selection, knowledgable staff, excellent prices.  Other stores had more used vinyl (some had loads of used vinyl) but I’m mainly a collector of new LPs.

I was really hoping to find the two Jellyfish album re-releases on vinyl, but they were nowhere to be found, even on the Pacific coast.  However, I did find a nice copy of The Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow:

Also found a copy of The Postal Service’s Give Up album, complete with a bonus 12″ with the singles and the b-sides that were released by SubPop back in the day:

My most fortuitous find was this R.E.M. live album, recorded in Dublin. Triple LP plus a bonus DVD – nice!  The band is sadly defunct now, but I’m looking forward to collecting their works on black platters over the coming years.  I know I’ve seen some of their I.R.S. era albums out on newly-released 180g vinyl; I’m expecting Warners to do the same with their latter-day stuff:

With six LPs in hand, I figured I’d better leave the store before I had too many treasures to fit in my carry-on luggage 🙂  Special thanks to Red Cat Records for being such a cool shop.  I will certainly be back the next time I’m in Vancity for a gig.  Maybe they’ll still have that Radiohead live double LP from 2001 that I spotted in the racks.

Looking forward to Wilco and White Denim at the Orpheum Theatre tonight, too!  Stay tuned for more on that.

2011 Album Sales

Nielsen SoundScan is an organization that tracks point-of-purchase sales of recorded music, primarily in the USA, Canada, and Mexico.  The big news is that total album sales for 2011 (330.6 million sold) actually outpaced sales for 2010 (326.2 million).  This reverses a trend of declining year-over-year sales for the past decade.  The 1.3% uptick is modest to say the least, but at least the music industry can take some small consolation in seeing sales go in the right direction for a change.

“Total album sales” is defined as the sum of CDs, cassettes, LPs, and digital albums (when downloaded legitimately as a complete album).  What pushed the numbers over the 2010 sales level was probably a cluster of strong-selling records.  For the first time in years, 2011 saw several records that managed to gain traction and just kept selling and selling, week after week.  The best selling albums in North America last year were:

1 – 21  (Adele)  5,824,000
2 – Christmas  (Michael Buble)  2,452,000
3 – Born This Way  (Lady Gaga)  2,101,000
4 – Tha Carter IV  (Lil’ Wayne)  1,917,000
5 – My Kinda Party  (Jason Aldean)  1,576,000
6 – Sigh No More  (Mumford & Sons)  1,420,000
7 – Take Care  (Drake)  1,247,000
8 – Under The Mistletoe  (Justin Bieber)  1,245,000
9 – Watch The Throne  (Jay Z & Kanye West)  1,232,000
10 – Own The Night  (Lady Antebellum)  1,204,000

That sales figure for Adele’s record is kind of crazy.  NOTHING goes quintuple platinum anymore.  Good for her for catching lightning in a bottle.  It’s also nice to see three Canadian acts in the top ten, even if I don’t particularly care for any of those albums. To each his own; I’m just glad whenever someone cares enough to actually buy music these days.

In that total album sales figure, a total of 223.5 million CDs changed hands and 103.1 million digital albums were sold.  Vinyl is still very much a niche product, but look what happened to new vinyl sales:

2010:  2.8 million
2011:  3.9 million

That’s a year-over-year surge of more than 36%!  It’s also the most vinyl sold in one calendar year since SoundScan started tracking sales in 1991.  Evidently it wasn’t just me snapping up LPs.  Here’s what’s topped the 2011 charts for album sales on vinyl:

1 – Abbey Road (The Beatles)  41,000
2 – Helplessness Blues (Fleet Foxes)  29,700
3 – Bon Iver (Bon Iver)  27,200
4 – Sigh No More (Mumford & Sons)  26,800
5 – The King Of Limbs (Radiohead)  20,800
6 – 21 (Adele)  16,500
7 – For Emma Forever Ago (Bon Iver)  16,200
8 – The Whole Love (Wilco)  14,900
9 – Brothers (The Black Keys)  14,200
10 – El Camino (The Black Keys)  13,800

That should give a pretty good indication of what sort of buyer is shopping for big, round grooves.  It’s generally not the under-20 crowd – that’s where the individual digital download sales figures spike.  And it’s typically not in country or R&B or some of the other popular genres – vinyl is popular among alt-rock and indie-rock enthusiasts.  Presumably they’re the sort of people that are collectors as well as consumers; listeners that are more willing to invest some time in sitting in front of a turntable for a dedicated listening session.  White college-educated music nerds, basically.

(Full disclosure – your humble correspondent has five of those ten records on LP, and I’m debating whether to pick up some Black Keys next time I’m down at the shop)

It seems that, contrary to some of the doom & gloom prognostications in various media outlets, the music industry is holding its own.  As always, the health of the industry is dependent on finding artists that make records that people are actually willing to love enough to buy.  Pretty simple concept, really, but one that the major labels often seem to have trouble grasping.

We shall see how 2012 plays out.