Record Store Day 2018

Hello! So, did you venture out to your favourite independent record store on Saturday morning to hunt for some highly-coveted limited releases? How did your experience go? I spent my lunchtime today reading field reports from other intrepid record collectors across North America and Europe. Their stories ran the gamut from ‘zen’ to ‘zany’, from ‘chill’ to ‘chaotic’. Thought I would come here to share my thoughts.

My experience was just fine, actually – even for a Grade ‘A’ Introvert like myself. I got in line at the largest indie record store in town; it’s my usual Friday afternoon haunt and the place most likely to have the objects of my affection. I arrived around 30 minutes before opening, and ended up roughly 100th in line. I met some cool people in line too, from all walks of life. 95% male, of course, and more bad beards, pony tails, and flannel than should be legally permitted to congregate. But that’s the vinyl renaissance in a nutshell…

My local store has their RSD routine down to a science – they limit the rate at which patrons can enter, there’s lots of staff on hand, there’s door prizes, great music is playing, and the records are clearly racked and marked. We’re told that no RSD stock gets set aside or reserved – it’s strictly first-come, first-served – and I’m inclined to believe them.

I’m pleased to report that I managed to find most of what I was after, plus I took advantage of some good sales on other in-stock records. At the first store I visited, I picked up the new Wilco live record from 1996, an LP of early Uncle Tupelo rarities (it was a Tweedy kind of day), and a copy of The National’s performance of their seminal Boxer album, recorded last year in Brussels. I mined some crates and found a special issue of a Jason Isbell live album from 2007. I didn’t know many of the songs, having been a recent convert to this brilliant songwriter, but what the hell, right? The record-buying contagion within me was strong. And, as a special thank-you to the early-birds, the shop threw in a free copy of a Johnny Cash early singles LP. So far so good!

Over the next couple of hours, I dropped by three other record shops around town, finding something collectible at each. It’s always kind of entertaining to see which stores get which stock on RSD. There was much grumbling amongst the kale & quinoa crowd at the first store when every copy of Arcade Fire’s debut EP were sold in a flash. Well, I moseyed into a slightly-corporate store across town twenty minutes later and bought one of their five copies on display – no hipsters, no lineups! Blue vinyl, too – an unexpected surprise. I even unearthed a copy of the new Eels album – on twin 10″ yellow platters – for a decent price.

Further spelunking added a red & blue vinyl copy of The Who’s The Kids Are Alright, a 2LP re-release of U2’s oft-maligned Pop album (I happen to think it’s the last interesting album they’ve made), and the new Lord Huron record to my collection. But the pièce du resistance came at my fourth and final store. Their RSD titles were pretty picked over by 1 pm, but I must have been the biggest (only?) modern-prog nerd to walk in that day, because I waltzed out with the new Steven Wilson 12″ EP, How Big The Space. And with that elusive gem in my grubby hands, I was on my merry way home for a listening party 🙂

The only record I couldn’t find was the new version of Pink Floyd’s debut album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. It’s been remastered from the master tapes and re-released in all of its original monaural glory, with special packaging and bonus tracks. I’m very partial to that album, having discovered it (on cassette tape!) back in my high school days. It opened a lot of doors in my brain about what a rock album could sound like. It’s a little disheartening that I’ve missed my chance to hear it in mono, the way “proper recordings” were still being mixed back in 1967. If you happen to see a copy for sale online at a less-than-extortionate price, please let me know.

Let’s do this all again in November for the Black Friday sale!

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Craven Hermit’s Top Albums of 2017

Once again, we find ourselves on the precipice of a new year. But before we hang our new calendars and valiantly charge into days of future passed, let’s take a quick look back at the ten albums that brought your Craven Hermit the most enjoyment in 2017. And, as always, feel free to leave your personal Top Ten list in the comments!

It was a fun year for record collecting. Vinyl sales continue to gain momentum, and most of the problems associated with short supply & increasing demand seem to be abating. Plenty of stores are now selling vinyl records, even here in my backwater slice of suburbia. Vinyl release dates seem to be catching up to CD release dates, suggesting to me that some of the manufacturing presses have expanded capacity and/or streamlined their operations. And, if you poke around in enough brick & mortar indie record shops and brave the crowds on Record Store Day, you can find many of your favourite new releases on coloured vinyl. Which may seem like a gimmick to the serious audiophiles that insist that everything other than heavyweight black vinyl is rubbish, but I’ll counter with the belief that music is supposed to be entertaining! I readily admit that seeking out special editions in zany colours is half the fun of collecting. The other half, of course, is actually listening to your new prizes at ludicrous volume!

Let’s see what made the grade for your trusty correspondent this year. Here they are, arranged alphabetically (by artist) on my billiards table in a way that’s vaguely reminiscent of the Star Wars scroll. Go on, Disney – sue me.

2017_favourites

Colors by Beck
After teasing us for years with random bits and bytes, everyone’s favourite musical guero finally dropped a complete album on us. Would the chameleonic Beck be in a playful mood, or besotted with broken-hearted misery, or would he perhaps re-inhabit The Purple One’s paisley funk? It turns out that Colors will likely be remembered as Beck’s “summer album”, chock full of pop songs and sun-kissed rhythms. It’s entirely possible that all this exuberance is simply a vacuous veneer over a troubled soul, but hilarious lyrics like “Girl in a bikini with the Lamborghini shih tzu” make it sound like Beck is enjoying the absurdity of life again. Best tracks: “I’m So Free”, “Dreams”, “Wow”

Little Fictions by Elbow
Guy Garvey and co. return with a new batch of songs, minus one original drummer but with a clutch of new ideas. The music is, as always, magisterial and immaculately produced. Garvey’s dissatisfaction with the status quo occasionally creeps in from the margins but Little Fictions, at its core, is a grown-up album dealing with grown-up concerns. The album artwork even evokes the same sort of pastel hues and twilight shadows as the music within. Best tracks: “Magnificent (She Says)”, “Gentle Storm”, “Little Fictions

Beast Epic by Iron & Wine
Sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination. Sam Beam has spent most of the past decade learning how to overlay his quiet folk songs with a kitchen sink of new influences. But just when you might have thought that there were no more ingredients to throw into the sonic stew, he’s ditched the pot altogether, gone back to basics and made what’s essentially a straight-up folk record. The difference between Beast Epic and early works like Our Endless Numbered Days is that the new songs have a melodic depth and structural sophistication that Beam has clearly added to his songwriter’s toolbox along the way. Best tracks: “Thomas County Law”, “Call It Dreaming”, “About a Bruise”

The Hanged Man by Ted Leo
Left for dead without a record contract, Ted Leo embraced Kickstarter to secure the funding for his latest solo venture. Our man Teddy has made a career out of penning what I like to call “exuberantly pissed-off anthems”, and some of those are certainly on display on The Hanged Man. However, Leo’s also used this new lease on life to explore some different sounds and textures. For my money, “Gray Havens” is the best thing he’s written since “The Toro and the Toreador”, unfolding in melodic Mellotronic waves like a long-lost Zombies single. Best tracks: “Used to Believe”, “Gray Havens”, “Lonsdale Avenue”

American Dream by LCD Soundsystem
But they’re dead! We had a funeral at Madison Square Garden for them and everything! Well, yes, that’s true. But before running down the curtains to join the choir invisible, David Bowie reportedly exhorted James Murphy at one of the Blackstar recording sessions to do things that “make him uncomfortable”. And from that, LCD Soundsystem was reborn. American Dream picks up where Murphy and friends left off, with broken disco beats and an often hilarious and weary middle-aged assessment of the musical landscape around them. It’s a brilliant home-on-a-Saturday-night-with-a-bottle-of-wine record. Best tracks: “Other Voices”, “How Do You Sleep?”, “Tonite”

Sleep Well Beast by The National
To be honest, these guys could release sixty minutes of nothing but Jazz Odyssey and police sirens and I would line up on its release day to buy my copy. Then buy it again a few months later when the inevitable “expanded edition” comes out. Fortunately, even when The National tell people they’re making a deliberately fucked-up record, it turns out handsomely. Their stock in trade remains 21st century disillusionment and anxiety, but Sleep Well Beast is spiked with some of the nervous angst that dominated earlier albums like Boxer. “Turtleneck” is probably the closest this band will ever come to recording a proper rocker, and will surely be cathartic on the live stage, but it’s the indelible splendour of songs like “Carin at the Liquor Store” that will follow you into darkened alleys for years to come. Best tracks: “Walk It Back”, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, “Carin at the Liquor Store”

Hot Thoughts by Spoon
After taking a busman’s holiday with Divine Fits, Britt Daniel returned to his main gig with some exciting new ideas. 2014’s They Want My Soul nudged the classic Spoon template of angular guitars and sinewy drums in different directions, but new album Hot Thoughts pushes the boat out even further from shore. Daniel’s reverb-laden vocals are still accompanied by precision-honed guitar riffs and the incomparable Jim Eno’s snap-tastic drum fills, but now they’re often counter-pointed by electronic snatches of synths. Most intriguingly, in “I Ain’t the One” the chords from a Fender Rhodes hang in the air like ghosts of lost lovers. Spoon’s show at the Winspear Centre in August was also the highlight of my concert year, a masterclass in the possibilities of sleek, beat-driven, modern rock. Best tracks: “Hot Thoughts”, “Can I Sit Next to You”, “I Ain’t the One”

A Deeper Understanding by The War on Drugs
Loads of people are putting this album on their Best of 2017 lists, and with good reason. It’s taken three long years to follow up their excellent Lost in the Dream album, but A Deeper Understanding was well worth the wait. Adam Granduciel and co. still sound like Bryan Adams fronting Dire Straits or the Heartbreakers, but I sincerely mean that in the nicest possible way. These ten widescreen epics unfold at their leisure, comfortable to take the scenic route to their ultimate destinations. Sometimes the wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented, merely perfected. Load this one into the car stereo and drive an hour out of town in any direction. Best tracks: “Up All Night”, “Nothing to Find”, “Thinking of a Place”

Panther in the Dollhouse by Whitehorse
Songwriters Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland have once again joined forces to pen a new batch of Americana-flavoured adult alternative songs. Their past albums were notable for tunefulness with tasteful restraint, sounding to me like a more polite and introspective Canadian cousin to the Black Keys. So I was pleasantly surprised upon my first spin of Panther in the Dollhouse that the duo has deftly incorporated electronic melodies and modern drum loops into their sound. The new-found sonic seasonings add a dash of excitement to Whitehorse’s always impeccable songcraft. My only gripe is that this is the only album on my Ten Best list that didn’t come with an mp3 download code. Their record company are cheap bastards (just so you know). Best tracks: “Epitaph in Tongues”, “Trophy Wife”, “Pink Kimono”

To The Bone by Steven Wilson
Often I discover artists early in their careers, but once in awhile I stumble across someone in a mid-career purple patch and I have a golden opportunity to work backwards through their body of work. Steven Wilson appeared on my radar by virtue of his brilliant post-production work in recent years for prog stalwarts King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Rush. I was delighted to discover that Wilson has released a number of albums under his own name, plus a boatload of Porcupine Tree records and a veritable smorgasbord of collaborations. To The Bone is everything that I wish a David Gilmour solo album would be, featuring tasteful guitar solos, intriguing rhythms, and beguiling musical ideas. Constantly engaging, it makes me want to seek out his previous works to see what sort of road led Wilson to this immaculate place. Best tracks: “To The Bone”, “Nowhere Now”, “The Same Asylum

Happy New Year, everyone, and roll on 2018!

The Man Cave

Well, hello again! It’s been awhile since I’ve sat down to post something. 2017 just seemed to get away from me. Plenty of travel for work, plus a couple of weeks spent back in ‘The 204’ to visit family, and a few all-too-brief mini-vacations. All that travel and stress has left me a little road-weary and happy to spend Christmas week safely ensconced at home sweet home. Santa has left what appears to be some new music under my tree – we’ll find out for sure tomorrow morning. I made some cool upgrades to my ‘LCD soundsystem’ this year, so chances are good that any new LPs will be spinning at ludicrous volume somewhere between brunch waffles and turkey dinner tomorrow.

So, about that sound system. A long time ago, krispykirk76 was nice enough to ask about my audio rig. I promised to write a blog about it so… why not tonight? Here’s a quick synopsis, as I sit between the speakers, rocking out to the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s immortal Charlie Brown Christmas. On festive green vinyl, of course!

music_rig_1

The backbones of my man cave rig are the PSB speakers. The mains are Imagine T2 floor-standers, with an Imagine Centre speaker parked under the Sony 3D-compatible, edge-lit LCD HDTV. There are two more Imagine Minis at the back of my listening area, on top of my vinyl storage shelf, and a Monitor Audio Bronze subwoofer is tucked behind a loveseat to complete my 5.1 layout.

This year’s big acquisition was a new A/V receiver. I felt it was finally time to replace my trusty Yamaha amp. It served me well for years, but the Yamaha coloured the sound too much (i.e. way too bright) in any of its goofy “sound enhancing” modes and just didn’t have the power required to make my PSBs sing. After doing my research, and test driving some new equipment at local hi-fi shops, I settled on a brand new receiver from NAD, the T777 v3. This model is so new, I actually got one of the first 40 units shipped in Canada. I’ve wanted to buy an NAD amp for so long – they are legendary for putting musical performance first, instead of loading up on superfluous bells & whistles.

As you might have guessed from the model number, my T777 is a seven-channel receiver, pumping out 80 continuous ass-kicking watts per channel at full volume, into all seven channels simultaneously, all with minimal distortion. What really makes this rig work with my PSBs is the ability to reassign two of the rear surround channels to the front. I was able to do this because I’m running a 5.1 system, not a 7.1 system. Effectively, I now have the T2s bi-amped with 160 watts each – 80 to the woofers and 80 to the midrange coils and tweeters. The improvement made by upgrading to NAD has been remarkable. Everything now sounds far more realistic and less distorted and just plain LOUDER. I can only imagine how the neighbours feel about hearing AC/DC at 90 decibels 🙂

Look carefully and you’ll see a few media sources tied into the T777 v3. I’ve got Telus fiberoptic service to the house, so TV comes in via a Telus HD set-top box. I’m still toying with the idea of upgrading it to their 4k model – maybe next year, when more 4k content is available. I’ve also added a new Sony blu-ray player, the UBP-X800. Not only is it a sweet 3D-compatible blu-ray player, but it can play pretty much any audio format you can throw at it. Listening to music in high-resolution 5.1 channel sound has been a lot of fun. The new 5.1 mix of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People is stunning. It even plays the DVD-A and SACD discs I collected years ago. The Sony UBP-X800 has a USB slot on the front where I’ve parked a 64 GB stick, placing my growing collection of high-res audio files at my fingertips. The USB stick is a stop-gap measure until I figure out a good way of streaming music wirelessly in my home; the NAD receiver has a built-in BluOS app that I plan to exploit some day. For now, my Apple TV is a decent enough way of streaming mp3s to the receiver, though you pay for the convenience with a small hit to sound quality.

And last but not least, my turntable. It’s made by Pro-Ject, and it’s the 1Xpression Carbon Classic model from about five or six years ago. It has a carbon-fibre tonearm and came from the factory in Czech Republic with olive veneer and a nifty Ortofon 2M ‘Red’ cartridge pre-installed.

music_rig_2

Naturally, I’ve made some tweaks over the years in the never-ending search for sonic perfection. First, I added a Pro-Ject Phono Box S pre-amplifier, so that I didn’t have to rely on the mediocre phono pre-amp in my Yamaha receiver. This has worked out well, since the NAD doesn’t even have a phono pre-amp! Next I added a Pro-Ject Speed Box S for more accurate speed control. What started out as a fun anachronism with the stock turntable became a royal pain in the ass, after pulling up the aluminum platter and carefully moving the drive belt from sheave to sheave about twenty times too many. Now I can switch speeds from 33 and a third to 45 with the simple push of a button. Luxury!

Underneath the deck I’ve added some sorbothane feet for better isolation from the pine table I custom built in my garage. Meanwhile, to reduce the amount of static my rig picks up in winter – no thanks to the 20% relative humidity here in the tundra – I replaced the stock cork mat with a deer leather one I bought online. It helped – a little. As did replacing the stock audio-out cables with nice Audioquest shielded cables and a dedicated grounding wire. But what’s made the biggest difference was replacing the Ortofon 2M ‘Red’ stylus with a 2M ‘Blue’. Ortofon makes it so easy to swap out the stylus, and this sub-$200 upgrade paid me back immediately with much clearer sound and noticeably less hiss & pops.

What’s left to tweak? Someday I’d like to re-upgrade the stylus and cartridge to a Ortofon 2M ‘Bronze’ model, which apparently sounds divine, but I’m very content with the ‘Blue’ for now. My Souther Clever Clamp does yeoman’s work of holding down records, but I’d love to see if something with more mass would be better able to flatten some of those warped 180g pressings that Amazon occasionally ships my way. A true record-cleaning vacuum system would be nice, instead of using my Audioquest carbon-fibre brush to knock dust and debris off my records. I’m told that Herbie’s turntable mats are the best for isolating static electricity, so that’s worth checking out. And I’m keeping an eye on 65″ OLED televisions – once the very similar LG and Sony OLED screens drop another $500 or so, I will give them serious consideration.

But those ideas certainly aren’t pressing. This Christmas, I’m more than content to sit between my speakers and listen to the glorious sounds made by my current rig. And as I mentioned off the top, I can’t wait to tear the wrapping paper off my gifts and find out if Santa brought me any new vinyl, blu-rays, or high-res audio files 🙂

Stupid Poetic Justice…

I’m thrilled to report that a vinyl compendium of brilliant new songs by the venerable New Pornographers has just arrived in my mailbox. It’s called Whiteout Conditions, and it’s eleven new tracks of pure power-pop glory. 

Unfortunately, it arrived just as central Alberta has been caught in the throes of an actual whiteout. On Easter weekend!


Doh!

Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to heading downstairs to the trusty man-cave with a beer or three and giving this new, blue musical platter an inaugural spin. 

I see from the liner notes that Neko Case was part of the recordings, and I’ve heard that she’s going to be on the tour, too. Cool! But not the inimitable Dan Bejar, who is sitting this NP record out. Presumably he has a new Destroyer album and tour in the works this year. Bejar’s oddball songs are often the perfect counterpoint to A.C. Newman’s clever, electric pop confections. Most charmingly, I think Bejar comes up with his song titles by randomly flipping through a dictionary and picking the first three words that catch his eye. Look for “Verily Trombone Unicorn” to feature prominently on a future New Pornographers release 🙂

For now, as the snow continues to pile up outside, it’s always great to unwrap new music by Canada’s greatest exporters of intelligent power-pop. To the man-cave I go!

Championship Vinyl

This past Friday, Christmas came early for record lovers. While other folks were trampling each other for Chinese flat-screen televisions at Best Buy, the scene was a little more genial at indie record shops across North America.

This year’s Black Friday special releases covered virtually the entire spectrum of modern music, from indie rock to hip-hop to 60’s psychedelia to jazz greats to (god help us) Dave Matthews Band. Even the impeccably weird John Malkovich got in on the action, lending his vocal stylings to an album of other artists’ music.

My local store opened their doors at 10 am. I was tied up at work – and frankly I’m crowd-averse anyway – so I wasn’t there for the initial surge of thirty hard-core vinyl freaks. But I did manage to sneak out of work a little early, so off I went to shop for new ‘friends’ on vinyl.

I really wanted a copy of the new Beck single “Dreams”, but the shopkeeper said they didn’t receive any copies from their American suppliers. I had a look at the new Zombies live recording from their BBC appearances, but it contained hardly any tracks from their landmark Odessey and Oracle album so I let it be. And while I was intrigued by seeing Green Day’s American Idiot on vinyl, $55 was a little too steep for me.

As you can see, I didn’t exactly come away empty-handed. I did snag myself a newly re-issued copy of the High Fidelity soundtrack on double orange vinyl – surely Barry Jive of Championship Vinyl would approve.  And I managed to grab a copy of my most anticipated Black Friday 2015 release – the new Spoon 10″ with their rambunctious cover of “TV Set” by the Cramps. On hot pink vinyl, no less!

The store also had their regular stock on sale for 20% off. I gratefully picked up the new Wilco, Mew, and Mercury Rev albums. Grabbed the full six LP version of Ryan Adams’ Carnegie Hall gigs somewhat on impulse, after enjoying the single LP version way more than I expected to. Scored two Eels re-releases on vinyl to ensure I won’t soon run out of bummer-rock music. And after some digging thru the vaunted “audiophile” crate, I unearthed 180g reissues of two ace Manic Street Preachers records. All in all, it was a good haul.

But at what point does a hobby become an obsession? Is it when you buy 12 records in one week? It’s probably a good idea for me to put a moratorium on new purchases until after Christmas, lest I become the sad vinyl-collecting version of the Crazy Cat Lady 🙂

Hope you also made it out there this weekend to support your local record store. If not, see you there in April for RSD 2016!