Thursday, February 16, 2012

Steely Dan - The Royal Scam

1976. The Bicentennial.  The 4th of July Parade.  Kool’s.  Ten Speed bikes and smoke bombs.  YMCA water polo champions.  Jr. High Track.  I had a girlfriend with a nice stereo, I had a Panasonic Dynamite 8 and I had a big stack of 8 Track tapes.  One of my all time favorites was Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam.  I didn't know many people that seemed to like Steely Dan as much as I did, but that didn't stop me from taking that 8 Track almost everywhere for that whole summer.  It still seems weird to me that a 14 year old kid would like that album so much, but I wore that tape out (it turned into one of my patented stash boxes – looked like a tape, opened up to reveal a pretty big storage area that you could keep anywhere!).  After I wore it out, I had to buy it on vinyl.

That record is long gone.  I wore it out, too.  I think the copy I have now I bought in the mid 80’s – it has a gold stamp on it proclaiming its Platinum status.  So it’s obviously not an original pressing, but it’s still good.  I think when push comes to shove, the Citizen Steely Dan boxed set is the better sounding version, but this record smoked the original Steely Dan cd’s.  It’s an MCA, not ABC, but I think it’s a great sounding record.  It’s clean and flat and it sounds great, like a Steely Dan album should.

I can understand why I like it now.  It’s perfectly played, and it’s a great way to kick back and relax.  The lyrics are generally smart and cover mostly adult subjects and the guitars are plentiful and exquisite.  Why I liked it so much when I was a kid, I don’t know.  Maybe it was the Technicolor motor home line in Kid Charlemagne, or maybe it was Larry Carlton’s amazing guitar solo in the same song.  I don’t know but it seems to have stuck.  I think this is one of those rare albums where I just love every song.

I remember long ago WBWC (Baldwin Wallace College’s radio station) used to use the beginning of Green Earrings as their music for the news.  It’s funny, I suppose that song really does start out like the theme from Action News, but every time the news would come on, I’d get excited thinking they were playing an old Steely Dan song!  Then some kid would use his best professional broadcaster’s voice and proclaim over Green Earrings that WBWC was “bringing you the news from The World, and Your Town.”  It was kind of a rotten trick, and I think it pretty much fooled me every time.

I used to think The Caves of Altamira was really profound, probably even more so after I went in the school library and found out that those are the famous caves in Spain where the early cave drawings were found.  I love the closing lines:

Nothing here but history,
Can you see what has been done?
Memory rush over me,
Now I step into the sun

I’d like to see those caves.

I never could roller skate, either.  I’d like to have been better at it because I love Roller Derby and I seem to like listening to people talking or singing about roller skating.  All I could really do is go counter clockwise, and I just seem to go faster and faster until I think I’ll wipe out, and then I just run into a pole or the wall so I won’t crash (I can’t really stop, either).  But I must have had some kind of thing for girls on roller skates because I always loved Everything You Did, too.  There’s not really much to most of the songs on here, and I think that leaves a lot of room for the listener’s imagination to use the music and lyrical sketches to come up with your own meanings.  I think a lot of the songs on The Royal Scam are like that, and I like it because no one can tell me I don’t understand what the songs are about.

Which kind of brings me to the last song; the title track.  There’s not much room for your own interpretation here, but it’s still a great groove and a cool story about immigrating to America and finding out the streets aren’t exactly paved with gold.  I really like Donald Fagen’s cynicism so I’ve always liked this one.  Larry Carlton gets another chance to stretch out and play his guitar, too.  I used to play this on my headphones when I came home late, and it was a great way to conk out for the night.  I guess I can listen to this one just about anytime, anywhere.  It's definitely one of my favorites.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Flat Duo Jets - Go Go Harlem Baby

It's nice to see this is back out on vinyl.  There's a couple of reasons for this.  1 - It's a really kick ass album.  2 - I didn't have it.  so now that whole situation has been rectified, thanks to Melanie at Music Saves, who let me pick this out for my birthday present.  Which gives me another opportunity to tell you, that if you don't have a record store that you go to regularly, that gets all your special orders and where even when you want something they probably wouldn't carry you order it from them, then you're completely screwing up.  Sure, I go to other record stores, but I spend 75% of my record money here at Music Saves.  Because when you do that, you get taken care of.  You get taken care of even if you're a new or sometimes customer too, but if you have a regular record store that knows you, you will find out about bands you didn't know you liked and you'll once in awhile even get something like a birthday present.  If you're in Cleveland and you like the Rock that leans Indie, like me, Music Saves is your best bet.  But there's other places like My Mind's Eye in Lakewood and Square Records in Akron that will treat you as much more than an order number or auction winner.  So get your ass to your local record store and hang out a little and start buying your records there.  Even if they cost an extra buck or two, there's no shipping costs and best of all, there's no waiting.

Now what about Flat Duo Jets?  They're Dex Romwebber on guitar and vocals and Crow on drums.  Jim Dickinson produced and played some piano, but it's mostly just two guys.  Cuz that's really all it takes to make a hellacious rock n' roll racket.  It's not hard to describe Flat Duo jets' sound.  It's very stripped down, sort of rockabilly howling.  Jim Dickinson's production is pretty sparse and this album sounds like it was recorded in a small room.  It's stereo, but it's very narrow and almost mono.  But there's so little instrumentation that I suppose you couldn't expect more.

What always got me about these guys is that there's just no way they could have ever expected to get rich and famous doing this.  I'm totally cool with that, because it's obvious that these guys are making music for the sake of making great music.  I don't want to get into discussions of sincerity and integrity.  I think these guys have plenty of that, but I think the reason this record exists is because they like these songs.  Flat Duo Jets Anthem kicks things off in a frantic style, the type of which would make the White Stripes famous.  You can hear the influences of Flat Duo Jets on every White Stripes album, and if you like those albums, you really should check these guys out.  It's just fun from start to finish.

The covers are something else.  I'd never expect to hear Apple Blossom Time or Frog Went A Courtin' on a rock n' roll record, but here they are.  And they're great!  Romwebber has a great voice for rock n' roll, and he pulls these covers off in unexpected ways that really work.  My favorite cover on the record is easily You Belong to Me.  I think I always like this song, from everyone that's ever done it.  From Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps to Deer Tick.  But I love the sparseness of this version and Romwebber's voice best of all, I think.

When that song finishes, we get kicked into high gear for Frog Went A Courtin' and that pretty much seals the deal for me.  It's just on my list of great albums from here on out.  This is rock n' roll at it's most elemental, and it's irresistible if you ask me.  I love that these guys have so many covers mixed in with their great originals, and I usually don't need too many covers.  But it's not like you get to hear these songs all the time, and it's even less frequent that you hear them this raw.  It's really great stuff and I hope you can get a copy before it goes out of print again.

The record itself is on Jack White's Third Man Records label.  First of all, I think it's great that jack is pressing records.  It's obviously a labor of love, and I like Jack because he takes on labors of love and seems to be able to make money and be successful with them.  Third Man records are usually heavy vinyl, and have great covers, on nice stock.  They don't sell their records cheap, but they also don't give you junk. The inner sleeve has an anti static plastic lining the paper on this and the record itself is thick and heavy.  However, I've found every Third Man record I've owned tends to be noisy, especially between tracks.  Don't get me wrong - they sound excellent when the music is playing (Flat Duo Jets will never be mistaken for an audiophile recording, but for what it is, it sounds really good).  I don't know why it seems like that's the way they are, but I haven't found one yet that's just quiet vinyl.  There's no clicking and popping, it's just kind of noisy.  But again, the record is heavy, the cover is gorgeous and I wouldn't trade my copy for anything.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Robin Lane and The Chartbusters

Robin Lane’s first claim to fame was singing backup vocals on Neil Young’s Round and Round from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.  Now, I certainly didn’t know that when I got this album.  All I knew was that I liked It Will Only Hurt a Little While from her first album.  I heard it one night, late (really late) and I just loved it to death.  I stayed up even really later to hear the college kid that was the DJ say who she was so I could go buy her album.  That dude kept me up a long time, because he played a googob of songs before he got around to talking about what he played.  It was worth it, though.  I’ve got all of Robin Lane and the Chartbusters albums (except some three song ep that came out before this).

I know this guy that was a little older than me, and he hung around some of the girls I knew, and we always talked music when I saw him.  I think we spent a lot of time trying to one up the other guy with a band or record that the other hadn’t heard, but we both liked a lot of the same kinds of guitars and catchy riffs and hooks.  I remember running into him at a party and we were pretty faced, but as usual we started talking music.  It was late – definitely at least 2:00 AM – and he mentions Robin Lane and the Chartbusters.

“Know ‘em?”
“Sure,” says I.  “I’ve got their album.  I think it’s pretty kick ass.”
“Bullshit.  You may have heard one of their songs but there’s no way you actually have that record,” says he (they never really got any airplay outside of Boston).
“No. I really do.  It’s great!  Lot’s of catchy songs and jangly guitars.  She’s got a nice voice, sorta like Linda Ronstadt but no country leanings.”
“Then let’s hear it.”
“It’s 2:00 AM.  It’s at my house.  My parents are asleep and they ain’t gonna go for our drunk asses listening to tunes in the middle of the night.”
“You don’t have it.”
“OK.  Let’s go.  We can’t crank it too much – but we can check it out.”

So we head over to my house.  Did I have it?  Hell yeah, I had it.  I still do.  Was he surprised?  Totally.  Did he want to stay and listen to my records all night?  Definitely.  Not because I have such great records (or even that I had so many when I was 18), but like I said, we really like a lot of the same stuff.  So we sat there and smoked and listened to that first Chartbusters album all the way through, and he said he was gonna go buy it.

I don’t know if he ever did, and I suppose I don’t care.  I don’t even know if he remembers that night.  I’m not sure why I remember it so clearly.  But it happened, and I thought it was pretty cool, because he was over 21 and had been able to see a lot of the bands I liked in the over 18 clubs just a few years prior to me, so I thought that made him cool.

I still think this is a great record.  If you read reviews of it you’ll see the “you just have to see them live, the record strips away all their energy” reviews all over the place.  I disagree, though I never did see them live.  It’s a nice, dry recording.  It doesn’t have a lot of cheesy effects that really date it to 1980 and it still sounds good today.  I think those reviews are goofy because Robin had studio experience, and her producer (Joe Wissert) had experience on all sorts of different things and her band was as good as the East Coast could deliver.  So I think this record sounds just like they wanted it to, and I think it sounds pretty good.

Except for some odd lyrics here and there where Robin seems to just brush off an abusive relationship, this is a tight record and it’s a lot of fun.  I think Don’t Cry has probably become my favorite over the decades (damn, this thing is over 30 years old!).  It’s pretty cute and jangly and poppy, but I really like it a lot.  When Things Go Wrong is a little simplistic lyrically but it’s a real gem of the sort I think Linda Ronstadt was going for on Mad Love.  Robin pulls this stuff off with an ease that I don’t think Linda ever quite matched.  It Will Only Hurt a Little While has a loose guitar sound that’s really effective and while side one is better than side two, side two is still good enough to flip over to every time.

Mine’s got a stain on the cover that looks like coffee, but it’s got to be Coke.  I still don’t drink much coffee, but I like pop.  I think I remember who spilled their Coke at my house on this cover, too.  He’s got green teeth and I was pretty pissed off about it!  The record is in great shape, though.  It really sounds pretty good, but then maybe the clicks on mine just seem like they belong after thirty years.  I remember this was hard to get around here.  I may actually have ordered it.  I know some of you Download Babies can’t imagine waiting more that the few minutes it takes for you to discover and click on the link any piece of music ever recorded that strikes your fancy, but I actually picked and chose most of my records by making compromises between which record I’d take home, and which one I'd leave in the store.  Sometimes, the record I left in the store has still never wound up in my collection, but I’m glad I got this one.