Dec 242015
 

Last Saturday marked the first time I purchased vinyl records in over 15 years. As per my previous post, I visited Star Records in Oshawa, one of the last true record stores still standing in Southern Ontario. I had a good haul consisting of new and old albums. Yes, vinyl records are still being issued today and have seen a 40% surge in sales since 2013.  A lot of new recordings can be found in both analog and digital formats.  What is old is new again.

A new LP will run about $25 CAD, somewhat more expensive than a CD, but a much better value in my opinion. These records are pressed on 180 gram vinyl, which is heavy, durable and acoustically superior to those thin shitty records that were sold in the 1980’s and early 90’s. As CD’s become more popular, record companies made LPs thinner and pressed them on inferior vinyl to save money on a dying medium.  180 gram vinyl is very high quality, however, the real kicker on this deal is new records contain a voucher for a digital download of the same album. This is a great idea and once home, I downloaded the 320 KBPS MP3 files of the new records.   I prefer the sound of the record, yet I really appreciate the convenience of getting the MP3 files for use in my car, motorcycle and NAS drive for streaming music, etc.  I would prefer lossless FLAC files, however, 320 KBPS is practically CD quality anyway.

It was really good to rediscover the joy of record shopping again. There is a sense of anticipation when arriving home because you really want to give them a spin. That is an experience I do not get with digital downloads.  It is far more gratifying to find obscure or well known records by hand instead of typing a phrase into a search engine.  What digital has going for it is convenience and predictability, a proper MP3 or FLAC file made from a digital source will invariably be clean and noiseless.  The same cannot always be said when buying used records though. I gave all the used records a deep cleaning before playing them and only one of them was in poor condition. The rest sounded great.

Los Straitjackets – Jet Set

Los Straitjackets Jet SetJet-Set-2-picture

This is a brand new record that was recorded in 2012. Los Straitjackets is an instrumental combo consisting of 3 guitar players, bass and drums. I have seen them perform many times when I lived in the USA and they rank as one of my favourite live bands.  They have a great tongue in cheek sense of humour, the Mexican wrestling masks are very cool and head honcho, Danny Amis, always introduces the band and songs in anglo accented Spanish. They are top shelf musicians with a deep respect for the roots of American rock and roll.  Straightforward good times rock and roll without any darkness or maliciousness.

The record sounds fantastic, warm, full and true with a big sound stage. The retro themed album cover is also great for a smile and chuckle.

The Pogues – If I Should Fall From Grace with God

pogues_-_if_i_should_fall_from_grace_with_god

The seminal album from a legendary Irish band fronted by Shane McGowan, a notorious brawling drunkard with famously bad teeth. Over the years, I enjoyed listening to this band, but often on radio or crappy 128 KBPS MP3’s downloaded from the internet.   This album is a modern re-issue of what is arguably their best known recording. It was time to finally listen to this music as it was meant to be heard.  The instruments are all acoustic, so it is perfect for playing on a good analog source.  Hearing it this way took me into a different world, I was totally enveloped by every instrument heard, each in perfect detail against a lush and rhythmic background. I must have downed three shots of whiskey while listening to it, somehow the music gets to you that way.  Time to buy some more whiskey and raise a toast to Shane McGowan.

Los Muchucambos – Mucho Gusto

london-sp44117-los-machucambos-mucho-gusto

Here’s a creepy blast from the past.  I vividly remember this album cover from my Dad’s record collection.

As a kid, the cover always creeped me out, there is something very eerie about these dolls. I almost expected them to come to life and terrorize the house. In hindsight, they would have been a Spanish version of Chuckie the murderous doll in “Child’s Play”. Except these three figures would taunt you with castanets and then kill you with razor sharp Tortillas Espaniola.

I found this album in the “Audiophile” section of Star Records, priced at a paltry $5 I could not resist. The LP is in good condition and was recorded on the famous “Phase 4” label based in London, England.  Phase 4 Stereo albums were known for very high quality pressings and offered up the best audio quality of the 1960’s and early ‘70s.  They were sought out by old school audiophiles, like my father, and today have seen something of a renaissance with resurgence of vinyl.  Why it cost only $5 is probably because nobody else knows about this obscure music, or those who bought it mysteriously vanished in a bloody mess.

Once I got past the album cover and gave it spin, my jaw hit the floor.  Not only did it evoke a flood of childhood memories, it was also in nearly mint condition and sounded amazing.  Phase 4 records are top notch quality.

Robert Gordon – Rock Billy Boogie

Robert Gordon 1280x1280

A true rockabilly legend and a classic album.  I saw Robert Gordon perform at This Ain’t Hollywood in Hamilton two years ago and the years have not treated him well.  He shows the marks of a hard life and a pickled liver, but his baritone voice was still in good form for a man in his sixties.  It has dropped an octave or two and he can no longer croon those high notes.  No matter, he’s still a fine performer.

Back in the day, his voice was moving, versatile and powerful.  This 1978 album was on the cutting edge of the early ’80s rockabilly revival.  Today it is still masterful work of voice, guitar, slap bass and drums.  Why Robert Gordon never became a big legend is beyond me.  That said, he is a cult favourite of rockabilly fans.

Moe Koffman – Plays Bach

Moe Koffman Plays Bach

Now we head into the land of relative obscurity.  If you are a Canadian jazz fan, there is a chance you  have heard Moe Koffman.  Among hard core jazz fans, he is a legend.  If you not Canadian or a hard core jazz aficionado, I doubt his name rings any bells.  Moe was a very talented sax and flute player who would often cross musical boundaries whilst retaining a solid jazz anchor.  In the 1960’s some of his recordings seemed to herald jazz fusion, such as Moe Koffman Goes Electric, and later on he recorded two albums playing Bach’s compositions with his jazz band.

This is a recording that probably never made it to CD and even if it did, it was worth $5 to listen to this slice of historic Canadiana on a well preserved record.

Gordon Lightfoot – Summertime Dream

 

Gordon Lightfoot Summertime Dream

Unlike Moe Koffman, Gordon Lightfoot is a world famous Canadian whose songs are still heard on radio.  His best known composition is the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” which is why I bought this album.  Shame on me as a Canadian as this is my first Gordon Lightfoot purchase.  I have always enjoyed listening to his songs on radio and this album finally brings it home.

I am really pleased this legendary album is in excellent condition.   The production values and engineering are top notch and Lightfoot penned some hauntingly beautiful songs.

The Guess Who – So Long, Bannatyne

Guess Who So Long Bannatyne

A quintessential Canadian band famous around the world.  However, this is one of their lesser known albums.  Unlike earlier Guess Who recordings, Randy Bachman is absent from this incarnation of the band.  Only one song really made it big from this record, namely “Rain Dance” and the other songs are lesser known and appreciated.  I have to confess that it was the striking retro cover and cool Chevrolet that lured me to this relatively rare album.

Unfortunately, the album is in poor condition. Even after a deep cleaning in a record washing machine, it is full of pops and clicks.  Only during the loudest passages is it tolerable.  I wish there was a way to remove the audio fuzz from it.

Gino Vanelli – Brother to Brother

Gino Vanelli 1280x1280

As I was rummaging through the Canadian section of Star Records, I stumbled on Gino Vanelli’s “Brother to Brother” album (1978).  Hitherto, I never bought any Gino Vanelli, because in my mind I had unjustly condemned him to the realm of bad pop music. However, I thought it might be worth purchasing because the cheese factor could make this worth a listen and it was only $10.  Also, it is the album with the hit, “I Just Wanna Stop” that was brilliantly satirized by Eugene Levy on SCTV. Check out the linked video about 3 minutes in.

Well, this album surprised me, it’s actually quite good.  It has some great session players from the era, including percussionist Manolo Badrena, who played with Weather Report and jazz horn master Ernie Watts who played with the likes of Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie, Marvin Gaye, Doc Severinsen and Frank Zappa. The music is really tight, with a jazzy feel that reminds one of Steely Dan’s albums from the same era, such as “Peg” and “Gaucho”. Maybe Gino Vanelli has more depth than I thought or my wop genes are getting stronger as I get older.

“I Just Wanna Stop” is the most commercial song on the record and it’s best for satire and cheese. The other tunes are much better and show some real musical talent and depth.  Give it a listen and keep an eye on your hair.

I find it sad that music has become so devalued these days.  Many downloaded songs are often obtained illegally, we are all guilty of that (myself included).  The real travesty is that they seldom get a meaningful listen, songs are treated as acoustical wallpaper or just skipped over after several seconds of play.  The music has been ripped out of its home, namely the album and orphaned into arbitrary playlists.  Not so with records, they have intrinsic value and are complete bodies of work, besides buying them is heaps of fun 🙂

Dec 212015
 

Every now and then one can find a true Luddite.

Yesterday was the first time I have been to a record store in over 15 years, namely Star Records in Oshawa. I was itching to rediscover the essence of shopping for music in an old school way. Little did I know that being old school was more than a mantra for Star Records, it is virtually elevated to the status of religion.

Star Records. Oshawa, Ontario

Star Records. Oshawa, Ontario

From the moment you walk in, you know that Star Records belongs to a different world and a different time. It is located on Simcoe St South in Oshawa, in a old section of a town which has seen better days. Once inside, the first thing you notice is that musty record store smell and then a bewildering array of record racks, dozens and dozens of album covers affixed to the walls, posters and rare edition records, with three figure price tags, proudly displayed out of easy reach. The store is really cramped, so one is constantly saying “excuse me” to shuffle between the aisles as there is room for only one person.

Like many record stores, the vinyl is triaged with the least worthy relegated to unsorted boxes strewn on the floor, where prices range from about $1 to $5. The next tier is used records alphabetized and segmented by category. The price of these recordings range from $5 to $20. Then you have your new records and valuable used records, the majority hover around $25 and go up from there. There are no electronic tools to help you find your titles, you need to know the lay of the land and have a sense of what your are seeking. The staff are remarkably helpful and seem to have an eidetic memory of their filing system.

Surprisingly, most customers are not middle aged geeks like myself, instead, they are in their late 20’s and early 30’s. A few would fall into the hipster category and the others are regular folk and a few old timers who were looking for traditional Christmas music.

From what little of Star’s history I could glean from google, the store was founded by a local legend, Mike Shulga aka Mike Star who passed away earlier this year. The store is now run by his brother Steve who strives to maintain the analog spirit that Mike initiated and curated.

http://www.thestar.com/…/mike-star-was-a-godfather-of-canad…

I brought a camera, so I asked told the owner, Steve, for permission to post an article about the store on my blog and take some photos. He paused and said, “Would you be offended if I say no? My brother, Mike, refused all forms of digital footprint, that’s why we do not have a website, will never advertise online and want to stay off the internet as much as possible. We want to keep everything traditional and authentic here.” I was a bit taken aback, however, I must respect those wishes and part of me admires that kind of integrity and stubbornness. I really wish I could share some photos of Star Records as it is such an amazing little store. You can google for images and there are a few hits. I am sure most were taken without permission and the few that appear sanctioned are images with founder, Mike Star.

Hand Written Receipt. No Automation Here.

Hand Written Receipt. No Automation Here.

When it came time to pay, I had a sinking feeling that Star Records is so retro, they do not accept debit or credit. I was right, the twenty something clerk said there was a bank machine around the corner. When I came back with cash to pay for my haul, I was fully expecting that the bill would be hand written and manually summed. Again, I was right and also delighted that they gave me a 10% discount. This means there is no electronic inventory system, no computerized cash registers. The store has functioned for decades in a manner befitting the 1950’s, they will not change and that’s a good thing. I’ll be back.

Dec 202015
 

Last week I posted on Facebook, that I am trying to find a balancing act somewhere between Frank Zappa’s dictum that “a mind is like a parachute, it doesn’t work unless it’s open” and the notion that a new and radical idea, however exciting, may prove to be complete bullshit.

So how does this work in practice? I think I may have found a practical case and it involves music. It’s time to open up my mind anew and visit a local record store in Oshawa, one that sells new and used vinyl as well as CD’s.

In the past, such places were instrumental to expanding one’s musical horizons. It is pretty much guaranteed that people who own such places or work there are true music geeks. Sometimes when you would walk into the store, there was disc playing on a turntable or CD player that would blow your mind. It was some artist or band you never heard of before and then in an instant, you wanted to know who it is and buy it on the spot. In such a way, you would begin a personal relationship with the staff, and in some cases, other customers.

bens-collectors-records-places-to-shop-medium

Over time, the owner or staff would get to know you and when you’d walk into the store, they would point you in the right direction to new music you would enjoy. Every now that then, they would throw you a curve ball and blow your mind once more. The number of times this happened to me in old privately owned record shops is uncountable. What to do I have to show for it? Several hundred albums and CD’s still enjoyed to this day.

I find it paradoxical that with all the convenience of downloading music, whether legally or illegally, my music world has stagnated. Generally I download tunes from artists or genres I already know. What is missing is that spark of inspiration or the passion of another music geek sharing something new or different. Those “if you liked…..” suggestions on Amazon just don’t cut it. There is no passion, no insight, no humanity to it. Just data mining trends mindlessly posted back to a buyer. Moreover, what online downloads cannot replace are those rare gems out of print that can be found in record shops.

This weekend I was deep cleaning dozens of old albums, so I can play them anew and in some cases for the first time. Many of them date back to the seventies, sixties and fifties. As I was removing the records from their sleeves, it was cool to rediscover those sleeves with advertising for other recordings of the same genre. On each side of a sleeve there was over a dozen suggestions from a record label’s catalog. The recommendations were handpicked in accordance to the genre of the record contained therein. What makes it different is that a human suggested those lists instead of an algorithm. Many a times these sleeves would inspire me to seek out new records. Today, they do the same, once the wave of nostalgia receded, I made some mental notes of records to find in the used bins. Quite effective marketing back in the day and even now.

Record-Store-Day

I am really excited about rediscovering recorded music in its most human form and begin shopping again in a REAL record store. I know over the next few months my mind will be blown away with new artists and recordings.

This weekend, I went shopping at Star Records in Oshawa and I will have more to say on that in another post.

Dec 202015
 

This week I have been doing something every night that I have not done in years. It is something I did nearly every day as a teenager, somewhat less frequently in my twenties. In my thirties I started doing it again, at least a few times each week, then somewhere in my forties it came to a grinding halt. Now here I am in my fifties and I am rediscovering just how good it is.

I am listening to records, honest to goodness old vinyl records. I had forgotten just how good they can be when played through the right gear. Back in my thirties I had invested a good sum of money in a high quality turntable, cartridge and phono preamp. In the last few years that gear was all but neglected, as was a few hundred albums wedged into two bookshelves. Odd how good analog tech can survive the test of time, whereas digital sources suffer from digital rot and are always disposable things. Digital sounds great as well and technically speaking it should be better than vinyl, but that is not what matters. It is the music that matters and how you connect with it.

Playing a record is a wonderfully tactile and engaging experience. You must make a commitment to play an album, it involves scouring your collection to find just the right music for the moment, carefully extracting a record from its sleeve, cleaning it and then actually listening to a whole side or album. You are truly involved with the music both in sound and touch. Those old album covers and lyrics printed on the inner sleeve are far more connected to the artist’s vision of their music than some insipid thumbnail image on your iPod or computer. A record means you need to SLOW DOWN, sit in a chair and really listen deeply. Vinyl compels you do this, there is no shuffle or play list, just a singular work of art in and of itself. You can also experience something similar with a digital source, but its convenience and instant access does require the same commitment to listen and stay in one place.

Rega P25 Turntable

Rega P25 Turntable

It seems to me that music streaming off digital sources often becomes just a form of acoustical wallpaper, nothing more than a background pleasantry to accompany some daily activity. Same goes for people listening through earbuds or headphones via mobile sources, where the music is interwoven with mundane tasks such as commuting or typing away in a cubicle. The music does not have your full attention. Somehow “music as data” fits our shortened attention spans and multitasking lifestyles where we are increasingly disconnected from each other and also real art.

I dare say I am not rediscovering vinyl as much as I am rediscovering a true love of music. Playing records anew means that I am totally engaged with music I have loved and at times forgotten over the years. As such, listening to music becomes the only activity to occupy a few hours of my free time. No movies, no Youtube, no streaming, no screens, no smartphone or other digital distractions. There is just a beautiful warm analog sound washing over me and leading to a state of bliss.