To Be Determined

Four Great Albums – One Just Sounds Terrible

Issue 123

Japandroids – Massey F*cking Hall

Japandroids is an indie/post-punk duo from Vancouver, Canada; the band consists of Brian King on guitars and lead vocals and David Prowse on drums. The band formed in 2006, but found the early going quite tough; both members felt they weren’t achieving any level of commercial or artistic success touring, and three years later were just about ready to call it quits. Even though they’d just completed their debut album, Post-Nothing, for Canadian indie label Unfamiliar Records. But then the album got the attention of American online music publication Pitchfork, who praised the duo and got the record a tremendous amount of exposure in the US and worldwide. Even though they’d essentially broken up, Japandroids were soon signed to Polyvinyl Records in Chicago, and Post-Nothing, which was released in Canada on vinyl only, was soon released on CD. And ended up on multiple best-of lists throughout the indie music world, even cracking the Billboard “Heatseekers” chart at No. 22. The ensuing tour revitalized the band, and they played to adoring audiences worldwide; their last two albums sold extremely well and were also met with tons of critical praise. Pitchfork recently referred to Japandroids as purveyors of “brilliantly braindead rock.” ‘Nuff said!

Japandroid studio albums tend to be very bare-boned affairs, consisting of King’s guitar and vocals and Prowse’s drums and backing vocals; about the only studio trickery that usually occurs is some multitracking of those vocals to give them a bit more oomph on the finished records. King plays strictly Fender Telecasters; he has a ’73 that’s his main axe, but tours with a ’75 Telecaster for backup purposes. He travels with a custom Hiwatt amplifier head, equipped exclusively with Sovtek tubes, and he predominantly uses Marshall stacks (a trio of them) in the studio. Since Japandroids tend to fly into most of their touring gigs, they travel light, and King has found that using a small selection of pedals and whatever amp stacks happen to be on hand at most clubs or can be gotten locally, usually provides more than satisfactory results onstage.

Massey F*cking Hall documents Japandroids’ October 2017 live appearance at the legendary Toronto venue, which has played host to just about every major artist out there, including landmark live albums from fellow Canadians Neil Young and power trio Rush. Japandroids love playing energetic live shows in front of highly engaged crowds, which of course, haven’t been happening during the pandemic. So Massey F*cking Hall is a shout-out to all their fans who’ve been missing the energy of their live shows. The show opens with the anthemic “Near to the Wild Heart of Life,” which – unless you’re a Japandroids junkie – is maybe the greatest rock and roll song no one’s ever heard. It absolutely bristles with energy; the chorus offers the memorable refrain “And it got me all fired up, to go far away, and make some ears ring from the sound of my singing, baby,” and follows with “so I left my home, and all I had…I used to be good, but now I’m bad.” The tune “Arc of Bar” is one of the many highlights of the record; it features an arpeggiated guitar solo sample that’s repeated and really sounds like some sort of keyboard is being played. King’s use of effects pedals throughout the tune adds layers of interest to the solo Telecaster, and gives an overall impression of many more players being present onstage other than just guitarist and drummer. It’s shockingly impressive, and helps to replicate in their live shows the sound that’s accomplished on tape in the studio. King and Prowse both thrive on the added rawness that the concert environment often bestows on their tunes.

No information was available for a CD release; the two-LP set is available in both black and clear vinyl, surprisingly for the same ($32.99 USD) price, and can be ordered from their website and a host of other places. All my listening was done via Qobuz’s 24/96 digital stream; this isn’t an audiophile quality recording, and it definitely won’t qualify as one of the great live recordings of all time, either. That said, the album’s sound is impressively full-bodied, especially when you consider that it’s only King’s massive amp stacks and Prowse’s on-point, staccato drumming filling the cavernous Massey Hall. There’s no bass player, and I couldn’t discern that King was using any pedals to simulate a bass either; regardless, the sound is shockingly dynamic. Others have complained that it’s not a completely accurate representation of a Japandroids live show; the band seemed a bit overwhelmed by the size of the Massey Hall crowd (about 3,000 seats) compared to the typical few hundred rabid fans in a club on any given night. However, their playing was off-the-chain, and the record really got my attention, and had me digging into their back catalog of albums, all of which are outstanding. Japandroids are the real deal — and Massey F*cking Hall is very highly recommended!

Anti-Epitaph Records, 2 LPs (download/streaming [24/96] from Bandcamp, Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)

The Replacements – Pleased To Meet Me (Deluxe Edition)

The Replacements, despite having developed a massive following and fan base over the years, were probably the greatest bunch of screw-ups and misfits to ever occupy the alternative music scene. That was essentially their modus operandi throughout their career, and part of what endeared them so much to their fans, but they never seemed to achieve the level of commercial success that most critics – who regularly lavished them with praise – projected they were on the brink of. That was supposed to all change with their major label debut (on Sire) and fourth studio release, Tim, in September, 1985. Despite being produced by Tommy Ramone and once again being heaped with critical praise, the record didn’t sell particularly well, peaking at only No. 183 on the Billboard charts. The band didn’t help things with their frequent erratic public behavior; they had what would probably be their highest profile televised appearance ever with two songs on the January 16, 1986 Saturday Night Live broadcast. Once again, their unpredictable stage presence (which was probably a lot of their appeal to their core fans) was their undoing; they swore constantly – a huge no-no on live television in the day, and they consequently were banned from appearing on SNL for life. Not long after, guitarist Bob Stinson – whose unstable behavior and drinking had risen to excessive new levels – was either fired, or quit; no one really seems to know what happened. What was supposed to have been the ’Placemats moment of triumph landed them right back in the toilet, and they failed to gain any substantial following from all the additional exposure.

Despite being in somewhat of a state of disarray, Paul Westerberg was intent on delivering the major label album he knew the band was capable of when they convened in Memphis’ Ardent Studios in November, 1986. The band had already laid down demo tracks for most of the songs – which included the contributions of now-departed guitarist Bob Stinson – and any of his work on the album was quickly excised from any of the demo songs that found their way onto the finished record. Alex Chilton, of Big Star fame, was originally slated to produce the new album, but didn’t prove up to the task. Jim Dickinson, who produced the Big Star albums, was brought on board, and the band – which was now essentially a trio – plowed through the studio sessions to produce their fifth album, Pleased To Meet Me, which was released in April, 1987. Paul Westerberg played most of the guitar leads, and producer Jim Dickinson added the Memphis Horns to several tracks and played keyboards. Guitarist Bob “Slim” Dunlap joined the band for the ensuing tour just after the conclusion of the recording sessions.

Please To Meet Me was again met with an overwhelmingly positive critical reception, and the album sold respectably, moving about 300,000 units and ending up at No. 131 on the Billboard charts, although die-hard fans complained of a band sellout with their “new sound.” Which had a less raw edge than the band’s previous trio of records on the Minneapolis Twin Tone label. The record definitely missed the outstanding contributions of guitarist Bob Stinson. Even though he wasn’t the only member of the Replacements to suffer from drug and alcohol abuse, it’s pretty universally acknowledged that at the point of Stinson’s departure, his skills with his instrument were greatly diminished. And the Replacements lost much of their edge.

The Deluxe Edition package features three CDs and an LP; everything here has been remixed by Justin Perkins, who was involved in the remixing of the excellent Dead Man’s Pop multi-disc set last year. The LP contains the studio tracks as they originally appeared in 1987; the three CDs contain the studio tracks, as well as the demos that include Bob Stinson’s guitar work, along with other demos with the band as a trio. And there are additional studio outtakes, as well as single remixes of some of the tracks, and a rough alternate track mix of the album – which was scrapped in favor of the eventual release. More than half of the material here is previously unreleased, so it’s definitely a treasure trove for Replacements fans. Everything is available mix-and-match, but if you buy the whole package, you also get a nice booklet with photos and a new essay about the making of the album, along with a commemorative placemat (true fans will get the whole “placemat” thing!).

The 24/96 Qobuz sound was superb, and didn’t suffer from the excess of compression that seems to plague so many reissues these days. I thought the Bob Stinson demos were revelatory, and sounded particularly great — it really makes one wonder, you know, what if? The finished album is definitely a big departure from the Replacements sound of yore, but Pleased To Meet Me is still essential listening, and the new Deluxe Edition comes very highly recommended.

Rhino/Warner Records, 3 CDs/1 LP (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)

Various Artists – Blue Note Re:imagined

Blue Note has a long history of allowing young lions to liberally sample from their extensive catalog, or even – in the case of 1993’s British jazz-rappers US3’s double-platinum Hand On The Torch – completely reinterpret classic tunes, all in the hopes of exposing new, younger audiences to the glories of their storied catalog of classic jazz. That tradition continued with hip-hop DJ Madlib’s 2003 Shades of Blue, where he remixed classics from the Blue Note catalog – in another attempt to bring the music to a wider audience. And Blue Note was always keen to, rather than simply say, “you have our blessing,” insist on making those excellent efforts Blue Note label releases. So here, in an otherwise dismal 2020, we have Blue Note Re:imagined, which again focuses on reinterpretations of Blue Note classics by a selection of younger British artists. I knew there was a burgeoning London-based jazz scene, but really, with regard to their appreciation for classic jazz – who knew!

The departure here from the previous forays into Blue Note re-conceptions is that most of the presentations here are pretty much straight-ahead jazz re-workings of the classic tunes, rather than transmigrations of them into a format more palatable for a younger audience. While the appeal will definitely still be there for younger fans, Blue Note Re:imagined is targeted at a more mature audience. There’s a fair amount of focus on reinterpretations of works from the likes of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, and Bobby Hutcherson.

The album kicks off with Jorja Smith’s outstanding vocal interpretation of “Rose Rouge” from St. Germain’s 2000 The Tourist album — while not exactly classic Blue Note faire, the quadruple-platinum album sampled heavily from the label’s back catalog, and influenced a generation. There’s a really nice saxophone break that forms the song’s centerpiece, and Jorja Smith brackets it with a nicely soulful vocal turn. Ezra Collective, who’ve won a slew of British jazz awards, offers a more playful approach to Wayne Shorter’s classic “Footprints,” which is in pretty stark contrast to Shorter’s own more pensive versions both solo and as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet. Ezra Collective turns the tune into a more joyful blowing session; it never loses its identity, but definitely takes on a completely new meaning. London’s Alfa Mist, who got his start creating hip-hop grooves from Miles Davis samples, offers a compelling take on Eddie Henderson’s “Galaxy.” There’s a definite groove going on with plenty of subterranean bass that builds to a simmering electric piano vamp that layered with muted trumpets that do a high-flying act; the effect is nothing short of mesmerizing. And Mr. Jukes’ heavily sampled synth-and-keyboard offering of Herbie Hancock’s classic “Maiden Voyage,” while definitely built for a new generation, still captures the essence of the classic.

Blue Note Re:imagined is a really compelling listen, and it sounded great via Qobuz’s 24-bit CD-quality digital stream. And at an 85-minute run time, it’s a very generously proportioned listen as well! This album is magically both new and familiar, and manages to be inventive and also completely entertaining. Right now, I’m listening to Shabaka Hutchings’ remake of Bobby Hutcherson’s “Prints Tie,” and the clarinet that subs for Hutcherson’s vibraphone is absolutely spellbinding. Highly recommended.

Blue Note Records, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)

Khatia Buniatishvili – Labyrinth

Georgian (former Eastern-bloc nation) classical pianist Khatia Buniatishvili is for me something like the classical music version of Diana Krall; she’s an incredibly talented musician, who could easily allow her performances to build her reputation for her. That said, she’s often photographed and marketed in a way that’s much more akin to a fashion model than a serious artist – very much in the same way as Ms. Krall has been over the years. And I do think it’s had a deleterious effect on Krall’s career, and threatens to do the same with Ms. Buniatishvili’s burgeoning career, as well. The funny thing is, when you look at the many publicity stills of Khatia Buniatishvili, they’re about as over-the-top glamorous as possible, but she also has a pretty heavy social media presence. And many of the photographs there are, well, pretty pedestrian-looking. As a friend of mine often says, “the poor thing can’t help the way she looks,” but you’d think her handlers would have a firmer grip on posts to her Instagram account!

Photo courtesy of Khatia Buniatishvili

Labyrinth strikes me totally as a product of the current pandemic. Another solo piano outing – her catalog output thus far has featured an almost steady stream of alternating orchestral recordings, followed by a solo piano work of either large scale (Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition) or another collection like this of miniatures. Which have either been composed for the piano or transcribed, and I can’t fault that approach – it only makes sense in a world of declining interest in classical music in general to try and reach as many people as possible with versions of music they’d probably enjoy hearing. So there’s nothing here that’s particularly groundbreaking, but it’s a generous helping (80 minutes) of the familiar, and perhaps of works that are also familiar, but presented in a very new way.

My biggest complaint here – and purely for the record, I want to state that I own all of her previous albums – is the sound quality of the recording, which I have come to expect as being nothing less than top quality from Sony Classical. The pre-release videos for Labyrinth show this kind of hazy, gauzy depiction of KB inside a maze, and hazy, gauzy sound is definitely what you get here. Her previous albums have offered remarkable audible depictions of her at her piano, with live-in-your-room realism; that’s not exactly the case here. And there’s this kind of hazy electronic buzz that seems present on every track – my guess is some sort of problem in the electronics chain during the recording. And to make things worse, there’s a constant level of hiss that’s just unacceptable for a modern recording of note such as this one. I expected more from Qobuz’s 24/96 digital stream, but I doubt the fault is theirs; it’s probably more due to the lack of adequate studio staffing during the pandemic. YMMV.

Sony Classical, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

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