Friday, 15 April 2011

Record Store Day


This Saturday is Record Store Day. As the wording would suggest, this is an event which originated in America, but independent record shops are an endangered species the world over, so it has become very much an international affair. Shops which take part can avail themselves of various specially produced limited edition records or CDs, and some also play host to bands or performers. It’s a celebration of the kind of music which they do so much to promulgate and a chance to highlight the need for dedicated, small scale retailers who have a love for what they do and a real depth of knowledge and insight (and taste) which reflects that. These are the kind of places which it's a real pleasure to take your time browsing in, listening to whatever's being played and maybe getting into a conversation about it - discovering something new. You can find a list of participating shops (or stores, if you will) in this country (which, from my perspective, is Britain) or whichever one is local to you over here. Down in this corner of the South West, we’ve got Martian Records in Exeter, Onionheart in Exmouth and Drift Records in Totnes taking part. Drift Records is a great little record shop, and its best of the year recommendations led me to some fantastic music, in particular Luke Abbot’s Holkham Drones, a gorgeous album of layered and looping electronica. They specialise in the more interesting and adventurous end of the indie spectrum, and have just got in copies of the new Low album C’mon, Bibio’s Mind Bokeh and the High Llama’s Talahomi Way. When I was in Totnes the other weekend, they had a copy of Trembling Bells’ The Constant Pageant displayed in the window’s array of recommended records, with a succinct and eloquent summary of its qualities neatly written beside it. It’s the kind of knowledgeable and enthusiastic touch which really marks out the independent record shop. Inside, they’ve got a good selection of vinyl, and also had some interesting soundtracks, such as Bruce Langhorne’s sparse and haunting score for Peter Fonda’s post-Easy Rider western The Hired Hand, and the recent Finders Keepers release of the music (by the ultra-obscure Gallic group Acanthus) from Jean Rollin’s Le Frisson des Vampires (or Shiver of the Vampires, as it was rather prosaically translated). The Drift blog is steadily unveiling some of the treasures which will be available on the day, as you can see here. Particularly exciting is a gatefold Sandy Denny 7”, whose two tracks have been specially chosen by fans (presumably taken from the recent mammoth 19 CD box set). The first side is the second demo version of I’m A Dreamer (one of the later songs which I feel actually works with the oft-criticised Trevor Lucas string-saturated production) and the other side the first demo of possibly her defining song, the evergreen classic Who Knows Where the Time Goes. Drift also promises a live radio show, which should be well worth tuning in to if you’re in the area.

Here in Exeter we have Martian Records, as mentioned, who are particularly strong on the heavier end of the spectrum, and whose 3 for a tenner shelves offer many intriguing finds for the bargain hunter. Rooster Records is the place where the real vinyl treasure horde can be discovered, however, with both new and second-hand LPs aplenty. There’s no doubt about it, records are simply more pleasurable to browse through, offering the easier physical prospect of flicking through (without the unpleasant clacking together of plastic boxes you get with CDs) and the pleasure (or occasional disagreeable shock) of the appreciably sized cover artwork. Among the new LPs here I came across Trembling Bells’ Abandoned Love and Shirley Collins’ Adieu to Old England, from which the former draws the title of its first song. There’s Japanese cosmic travellers the Far East Family Band with their 1976 LP Parallel World, number 4 in Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler top 50. There’s a compilation taken from Compendium Records, apparently Norway’s first progressive record store and label from 1974-77. So if you’re curious find out what Nordic prog sounded like… There’s the LP of Sparks’ radio musical The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, which was premiered over here on Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone, and has to be heard to be believed. If you have 50 quid to spare and are keen on the intense, heartfelt and occasionally very loud instrumental (with occasional enervated vocal) rock of Mogwai (as I am) then there’s the box set of the recent live record Special Moves, which contains 3 LPs, the dvd of burning, set lists and a poster. There’s a copy of Comus’ dark folk debut First Utterance, first released to an unresponsive world in 1971, but since spoken of in reverential whispers in certain corners (particularly those associated with Current 93). The hushed and delicately beautiful collaboration between Helena Espvall of Espers and Masaki Batoh of Japanese psych band Ghost is also here. There’s jazz, too, with vinyl copies of some of Coltrane and Ornette’s Atlantic LPs. Personal favourites to tempt me (but no, I must resist) include Pram’s The Moving Frontier, Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan and Illinois albums (seemingly the only states from his grand project likely to be realised) and Gravenhurst’s The Western Lands. There’s also the cover by a favourite band of mine of a record which I absolutely loath, Flaming Lips’ version of Dark Side of the Moon with explosively named collaborators Stardeath and White Dwarfs, alongside guests Henry Rollins and Peaches, who presumably does that wordless, emotive gospelly bit.

Sun Ra - experimental cape music
There are plenty of great CDs here too, in case you’re one of the majority who no longer have, or perhaps never did have, a record player. There’s a good few free jazz re-issues from the 60s and 70s, if you fancy braving some more esoteric or fiercely abstract sounds: Anthony Braxton’s (father of ex-Battles member Tyondai) This Time, Albert Ayler’s Bells (originally rather stingily released as a one sided LP on ESP records), Sun Ra’s The Other Side of the Sun and Don Cherry’s Mu, his 1969 duet with drummer Ed Blackwell in which he began to display some of the world music influences which would come to characterise his later projects (such as the Codona trio with Collin Walcott and Nana Vasconcelos). The soundtrack section has a couple of Trunk Records releases, both relating to nature programmes, oddly enough: the compilation of Swedish composer Sven Libaek’s music, Inner Space (the title referring to a programme featuring oceanographers Val and Ron Taylor, whose expertise concerning great white sharks led to them being consulted by Steven Spielberg when he was making Jaws) and Edward Williams’ wonderful music for Life On Earth, played on orchestral instruments and then subtly recoloured by filtering it through the synthesizer technology of the time. For fans of obscure prog, there’s plenty of that to be found, with the largely forgotten likes of Titus Groan (they’d evidently run out of Tolkien based names by this stage) loving remastered and restored to life. If you want to get really far out, you could always investigate Magma’s Attahk or Udu Wudu (there’s some umlauts in there somewhere, which may or may not be important), LPs in which their leader, Christian Vander, created an entire self-contained mythology, located on another world, and then chose to invent his own language in which to tell it. The music is suitably otherworldly, albeit in a frequently rather cacophonous manner.

Doll's house cover I - Family
Exeter also has the Oxfam music shop (with film and art too!), which is filled with whatever second-hand LPs and CDs people are generous enough to donate. I say we because I am to be found on occasion beavering away with feverish intensity in the back room. When last I checked (which was this afternoon) we had some of the following delights on offer: There’s 60s psychedelia originating from the East rather than West Coast in the form of Earth Opera’s self-titled debut LP on Elektra, featuring the mandolin of frequent Jerry Garcia collaborator David Grisman. It’s probably the sort of thing which Frank Zappa would have hated, and he’s present too with an LP sampling his live You Can’t Do That On Stage Any More records, a series which showed off his best and worst sides. Please feel free to admire our juxtaposition of dolls house covers, the one from Family’s Music in a Doll’s House, and the other from the minimalist clatter jam LP made by Velvet Underground exile John Cale and Poppy Nogood band all-night flighter Terry Riley. Bizarrely, this came about through an entirely unintentional moment of rather spooky synchronicity, Riley and Cale being plucked from the shelve as a suitable cabinet replacement for the Elvis LP someone had just snapped up. This cabinet of disparate curios also contains a compilation of sunshine pop from the Association, ideal for the sunny summer promised, and its shadowy obverse, the black and purple covered Masters of Reality by Black Sabbath, with the Vertigo label swirl designed to send you into a queasy trance as it spins on the turntable.

Doll's house cover II - Church of Anthrax
We have Julian Cope’s selection of some of Scott Walker’s finest moments which he gathered together for the compilation Fire Escape in the Sky, hyperbolically (but accurately) sub-headed The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker. Julian is present himself in the form of the Floored Genius compilation of his work with the Teardrop Explodes. We have Magnum’s The Eleventh Hour (are you there, Mark? Is this one of their better ones?), which is, as ever, graced by a Rodney Matthews cover. There’s a rather battered copy of the Concert for Bangladesh box set, with a whole side dedicated to a raga played by Ravi Shankar (who reacts with rather terse sardonicism when his tuning receives reverential applause). There’s the delicate reverb-drenched guitarscapes of Vini Reilly in The Return of the Durutti Column. Don’t worry, it’s a reissue, not one of the original copies housed in sandpaper sleeves. Big Audio Dynamite’s Tighten Up I note mainly for the (rather crude) cover art depicting the Westway with Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower rising above it in the background. Marianne Faithfull’s comeback LP Broken English is full of cracked splendour, and includes Heathcote Williams’ remarkably scabrous lover’s complaint Why D’ya Do It to Me? (not one we’ll be likely to play in the shop). Derek Jarman shot some of his 8mm films to accompany three songs from this LP, and he also directed some music videos for Marc Almond, including the wonderfully camp Tenderness is a Weakness. The LP it comes from, Vermine in Ermine, is here, with a slightly torn cover, as if it has at some point been thrown into some glamorous gutter.

Lee Konitz - abstract expressionist jazz
There’s classical music here too. We have a 1973 record of Music From Dartington, just over the hill and through the valley from here, recorded in honour of Leonard Elmhirst, one of the founders of the whole Dartington artistic and agricultural project. There are box sets of Ernest Ansermet’s 50s and 60s recordings of Debussy and Ravel, and of Adrian Boult’s complete recordings of the nine Vaughan Williams symphonies with the London Philharmonic, released on EMI. If you want something to weigh down a recalcitrant floorboard or perhaps to use as some kind of trouser press, there’s a box set of Wagner’s Ring cycle released on Decca records which has the dimensions of a reasonably sized dog kennel, and whose housing seems actually to be fashioned out of metal. It’s testing the shelving to its absolute limits. You might want to bring a trolley. There’s a record of Holst’s music on Lyrita, conducted by his daughter Imogen, and including the Lyric Movement and the Brookside Suite, and a record of Vaughan Williams’ Folk Song arrangements played by the Deller Consort, which is on the Vanguard Stereolab label (so now I know where the name of one of my favourite groups comes from). And if you like your classical music with a bit of moog synthesiser attached, there's The Velvet Gentleman, released on the Deram label, the Camerata Contemporary Chamber Group's arrangements of Eric Satie pieces, with occasional electronic enhancement. Soundtracks and spoken word records have their own little corner. Prominently displayed is The Strawberry Statement, a sixties campus unrest drama with music provided by variants of the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young grouping, whittled down as necessary to Crosby, Stills and Nash or simply Young. Any LP which includes Suite:Judy Blue Eyes, The Loner and Down By the River has got to be alright in my book. You can hear the recording of Under Milk Wood made by Richard Burton and cast, which I find sounds more convincing than Dylan Thomas’ own attempt. Amongst the jazz are several volumes of Charlie Parker’s Savoy recordings, a 1981 Lee Konitz drummerless trio recording, Dovetail, with a pleasant abstract painting on the cover, Back to Back, an intimate small group meeting from 1959 in which Duke Ellington and his lyrical alto sax player Johnny Hodges relax and play the blues, and Tubbs Tours, 1964 live performances from the British tenor sax legend Tubby Hayes with his Orchestra.

Doll's house cover III - Saint Etienne
There are plenty of CDs as well. Another of my favourite groups, Saint Etienne, are represented by Tales From Turnpike House, a dawn to night-time cycle of songs, starting with Sun in My Morning Morning and ending with Goodnight, and based around characters living in the eponymous block of flats. David Essex makes a surprise guest vocal appearance, duetting with Sarah Cracknell on Relocate, in which they argue out the relative merits of living in the countryside as opposed to the city. The songs are soaked through with Beach Boys backing harmonies, their sunshine clouded with melancholy which fully coalesces on Teenage Winter, a lament for fading youth and lost post war optimism, the aching nostalgia for which is transferred onto the tawdry relics which the album’s characters are reluctant to leave behind. Perhaps appropriately, this involves one of them griping about how you can’t find decent records in charity shops any more (the lady sorting through the stock in the one local to Turnpike House disconsolately puts aside ‘two copies of Every Loser Wins’ – haven’t seen many of them here recently), since everyone’s selling them on e-bay. Obviously that’s not the case here, though! There’s a bonus EP, Up the Wooden Hills, which consists of children’s songs (counting and naming animals being preoccupations here), reflecting the stage of life in which the band find themselves. Is that David Essex again on Bedfordshire, taking his son up the wooden hill and agreeing that the trees there are indeed green because it’s ‘the colour of Thunderbird Two’? The cover of the CD could join the Family and John Cale/Terry Riley LPs to form a doll’s house trilogy, by the way.

J-rock - Hucc Houyoku
There’s the Songs From the Rainwater EP by Velour 100, who are sometimes compared to The Cocteau Twins or Low, which is some comparison. 90s Los Angeles band Sukia, whose Contacto Especial con el Tercer Sexo is here, deserve a mention simply for naming themselves after an Italian vampire comic. There are several albums by 10,000 Maniacs (who take their name from a Herschell Gordon Lewis gorefest) – In My Tribe, Our Time in Eden and MTV Unplugged. We have CDs by both Mumm-Ra (named after one of the characters from the cartoon Thundercats this time), and Icelandic electronic dream pop band Mum (the Remixed album, and Please Smile My Noise Bleed mixture). Orbital’s Snivelisation is more fine electronica with a dissenting turn of mind, including the lengthy, philosophically enquiring Are We Here and Detached. Alison Goldfrapp’s vocals are judiciously deployed to their full operatic effect throughout. If you want to find out what J-rock (the Japanese equivalent of emo as far as I can tell) sounds like, there’s a CD by Hucc Houyoku which will enlighten you. It’s got a nice felt pen outline drawing of a bird soaring above towering office blocks on the cover, anyway. Finally, there’s Kristin Hersh’s Hips and Makers, her first solo album away from Throwing Muses, in which she turns down the volume but not the intensity for a collection of allusive, elliptical and evocative songs. Of course, by the time you get here, all manner of new and exciting jewels may have flooded in and filled the shelves brimful to bursting. There’s only one way to find out. But wherever you are, head down to your local record shop and celebrate the spirit of independence – before it’s too late.

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