Thursday, 29 November 2012

Stereo vs mono

With the recent reissue of the Beatles stereo catalog on vinyl and the mono versions being prepared as we speak, i thought it'd an ideal time to discuss the difference between stereo and mono vinyl.

It is still quite common for vinyl collectors to see both mono and stereo copies of the same albums among the racks as they shop. In a lot of cases, the mono versions of some albums sell for a substantial amount more than the stereo versions of the same LP. The question many modern listeners ask is what's the difference and which is better?

As far as what's better, well that's a matter of opinion.

The fact that two different recordings exist of certain vintage albums is more of an indication of the state of technology at the time. For a while the only tape available to record on was one track tape. By the time the Beatles recorded Revolver the recording was done on 4 track tape. Different sounds could be added to different tracks; and each track could be sent to either the left or right speaker depending on what the engineer wanted. By the time tape was discontinued in recording studios in the early parts of the 21st century, you could get up to 128-track tapes. These days, with computers and digital audio workstations, you get an unlimited amount of tracks. The only limit is in what the computer and its processor can handle.

The one track tape provided one sound source. On a two speaker sound system the same sound is output by both speakers equally. Multi-track tape could create stereo, which allows different sounds to be spread across both speakers. However, it required studio engineers to make two masters of every album - one mono and one stereo, and thus twice the work. This is one of the reasons that stereo records were more expensive than their mono counterparts.

From the advent of the LP in 1948, mono was the standard as that was all that was available. Stereo was available in the late 1950's but it caused massive confusion among music fans. Stereo records could not be played on mono players as half the sound in the record grooves wasn't picked up. You had to have a stereo technician rewire your tonearm in order to play the stereo record properly on a mono system. So it was during this time that records were issued in two versions - one stereo and one mono.

Plus, some early stereo mixes sound ridiculous. Some stereo mixes (such as on Cat's Squirrel" from the first Cream LP in 1966) had long passages where all the sound is playing in the right channel for over 30 seconds before any sound comes out of the left speaker! Granted, these were the days before headphones, so you'll often find instruments in one channel, voices in the other in stereo records of this vintage. This makes for interesting listening, but it can be frustrating. Other times it's drums to the left, bass to the right, which also makes for a disparate listen.

At the same time, the vinyl 7-inch single and 7-inch 45RPM EP were kept in mono all the time. Singles were regarded as cheap and disposable, and as such there was no need to release two different versions. Of course, stereo mixes of singles were made, but were not released unless on a stereo LP.

In 1969, stereo LPs were regarded as the standard, and the mono LP was done away with altogether. The last version of a Beatles album to be issued in Mono was the "Yellow Submarine" Original Soundtrack LP. Singles were still released in mono until the mid-1970s, largely because Radio was still broadcasting in mono on both the AM and FM bands.

When stereo became the norm, it also became commonplace for record labels to re-issue their old mono tracks on records adjusted with a "fake" stereo, which involved either adding stereo reverb or splitting up the frequency ranges in each channel: pumping up the bass in the left channel while cutting the bass and boosting the treble in the right. It sounds positively awful and you'd be advised to steer clear of anything that says "Electronically enhanced to simulate stereo"

A lot of purists claim that the mono mixes often sound fatter and meatier than their stereo counterparts. I tend to agree, however I find that some mono recordings are recorded very "hot", to the point of tape saturation. They're mixed in such a way to cram in as much sound as possible into a narrow bandwidth and as such can sound as they they have less clarity in the mix. Instruments can get lost in a mix in this environment. For this reason I can't stand the 1960s era works of Phil Spector.

At least with stereo, the music has room to breathe across a broad sound spectrum. After all, I have two ears, I like to use them both at once. Even if some of the early stereo mixes are ridiculous, I find good stereo mixes a lot of fun. I like being able to isolate certain instruments in each channel, and in some cases, the stereo mixes will show up mixing and mastering errors.

(Homework: manipulate the balance knob of your Hi-Fi system to find the mastering error in the stereo mix of "Eleanor Rigby" on the Beatles "Revolver" LP).


Thursday, 22 November 2012

Garage Rock Nuggets

Lenny Kaye's iconic collection "Nuggets: Original Artyfacts of the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968" turns 40 this year and a new tribute album is being issued next week where up-and-coming Australian Bands cover 18 songs from the album's original release. It has the equally verbose title called "Nuggets: Antipodean Interpolations of the First Psychedelic Era".

Since the release of this album, there have literally been thousands of like-minded compilations from all over the world, digging up the most obscure 60s singles from all corners of the globe. In some cases these old records have been rescued from landfills and transferred to digital because the original masters have long since disappeared or have been erased.

The question is why are there so many garage rock records to recycle? It's an interesting question, but a very simple one to answer.

The Beatles took everybody by surprise. No one imagined they'd be as huge as they were. The record industry was caught on the back foot but they could see opportunity coming. Rock music became a cash cow and nobody wanted to miss out. Anybody who looked and sounded like the Beatles or Stones were given the chance to make records because no one knew what would be the next big thing, and everyone wanted to be have the newest music sensation on their hands. Tiny labels sprung up overnight to release music by (supposedly) hot new bands. This made for a hell of a lot of records produced in a small period of time.

Of course, the path to fame wasn't all paved with gold. Many bands ended up making a few singles, and even then they may have only sold a few hundred copies. You were extremely lucky if you were given the chance to make an album. In a lot of cases, LPs by smaller groups sunk without a trace, ensuring instant collect-ability. The short supply of original vinyl meant that these records do actually go for hundreds, even thousands of dollars between collectors and dealers.

Clearly, not all these records were going to sell in large quantities die to the fact there were just so many of them to choose from. These records may have been under-appreciated at the time but they have been retrospectively praised and lauded as lost classics in some cases. A lot of bands fell by the wayside the development of pop music in the 1960s was the most rapid it has ever been before or since, with The Beatles as standard-bearers. Young hopefuls tended to be less talented and less able to keep up with the rate of change. Some bands had more enthusiasm than talent and as such sounded to raw for radio to even go near, let alone for people to hear and buy their records.

The original "Nuggets" compilation was mined for songs to cover by the next generation of punk bands in the 1970s and served as the inspiration for newer bands in the 1980s such as REM. Reissue specialists Rhino Records have expanded the original 27 track "Nuggets" album into a 4CD boxed set of obscure American tracks which is essential listening , as is the companion volume "Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From The British Empire and Beyond, 1964-1969" which has a lot of good Australian and British obscurities on it.

Other series that are highly recommended are:

The "Pebbles" 30 volume series
The "Rubble" series
Back From The Grave (on Crypt Records)
Garage Punk Unknowns (on Crypt Records)
So You Wanna Be A Rock and Roll Star - an essential 3CD set of Australian nuggets from the vaults of Festival Records, compiled by Glenn A. Baker.
Ugly Things - a collection of Australian nuggets from other labels compiled by Glenn A. Baker on Raven Records.

plus various label retrospectives released by
EMI America,
Decca UK and many others

Monday, 19 November 2012

Lou Reed and Metallica

"Are you seriously going to write about this album now? After all this time?" I hear you ask.

Yes, I say. Due to the almost universal howl of condemnation that greeted the album upon release, it would have been hard to be as objective as I would have liked to be.

Metallica and Lou Reed have both had a long history of testing the patience of their respective fanbases. But I don't think fans of either artist were expecting this - a record blending the two extremes together in an avant garde context, over 2 cds and over 90 minutes of music in only 10 songs (the last one, "Junior Dad" towers in at over 19 minutes - longer than either act has released on their own).

What you end up with is a very tough record to listen to. And while it's no "Metal Machine Music" (Lou Reed's polarising 1975 double LP of wall-to wall sonic noise), I doubt there's been a record since that has pissed people off so violently. Almost overnight, it became an Internet Meme and the online outrage and vitriol lasted for weeks.

Part of - well, most of the problem really - is context. The audience has a lot of research to do before this record even begins to make sense.

Lou was inspired by the "Lulu" trilogy by German playwright Frank Wederkind . The plays revolve around a young female dancer who falls into poverty, violence and prostitution and ultimately lives for encounters with rich men and deviant sexuality. Lou has made a career of singing about freaks, junkies, hookers, trannies and other ostracised fringe dwellers. These plays fit in well with his previous repertoire. But really, who, aside from PhD Literature students has ever read the works of an early 20th century German avant garde playwright? And how many Metallica fans do you think are going to read Wederkind's source material to make sense of this collaboration?

Sure, Metallica have been inspired by classic literature before on songs like "One". But you didn't need to have read the novel to get the message. With "Lulu", one probably should, but from what I hear it's almost as gruesome and painful as Lou's off key groaning.

Back onto the point about context. How many people are fans of both Metallica and Lou Reed? I highly doubt there are many people whose musical tastes overlap the two artists.

Musically, Metallica swoop, lurch, stagger and stumble woozily, like an inebriated Yeti who has just been hit on one eye with a champagne bottle, behind Lou Reed's obviously deranged and deeply emotive poetry. He reminds me of a street-corner rambler, standing on a milk crate warning of the impending demise of mankind. He rants along with a super heavy barrage of noise behind him. The two don't seem to ever line up in a purely musical sense - it almost feels as though the awkward juxtaposition of the two styles was as deliberate as it sounds accidental.

If nothing else, this project is ambitious. I, for one, do not begrudge either Metallica or Lou Reed their ambitions. In fact I applaud them, because without some ambition, art will not advance and it won't develop either. But there's a difference between ambition and execution. All the ambition in the world isn't going to make this album any more listenable.

Lou Reed has even gone on to say that this record is for "literate" people. Fair enough, I suppose. However, placing the premise and the concept of your artwork above and beyond the grasp of your core fan base is not a smart move either, as it smacks of arrogance. The minute you position yourselves above your audience or make them feel like lesser people is the moment you will be cut down to size. This may go a long way to explaining why there was much backlash. Music fans don't like being made to feel stupid.

Doing something different is part of every artists nature. The problem is when you have an audience that is not prepared to - or unable to, for some reason - follow you and to understand what you are trying to achieve. Also, with such ugly subject matter serving as inspiration, it would be very difficult to come out with something that wasn't off-putting or disagreeable with many people. It's hard to see this project as a winning situation for anyone except the artists themselves and their artistic inclinations.

My view? Good on them for having a go and trying something different, for "spreading their wings" as James Hetfield put it in an interview with Dmitri Erlich in Interview Magazine. But all in all, "Lulu" kind of ends up feeling like this Lynda Benglin abstract piece: You stand back, look at it and go "ok, now that we've done it, and it exists, what the hell is it and what are we supposed to do with it?"

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Soundgarden's "King Animal"

These are the days of hipsters, indie rock writers and hip new records that are impenetrable to most lacking cred.

Pop music in the mainstream is reduced to a formula. New singers are scouted in front of millions of screaming kids on humiliating TV shows. New bands won't get a look in at record labels unless they sound like the latest band who has just sold 20 gazillion records. Pop stars create controversy for the sake of it, lapping up the additional ticket sales as a result. Most new music can appear to sound all the same...

...and just when you start to feel jaded, a new Soundgarden LP comes along.

Soundgarden split in 1997. A lot has changed in the world since then. Indeed the members mostly haven't been idle - drummer Matt Cameron joined Pearl Jam. Chris Cornell did some solo work and then formed Audioslave with the last three members of Rage Against the Machine. These ventures seemed only to enhance and re-amplify the greatness of their previous albums like "Superunknown" and "Badmotorfinger".

Don't get me wrong - Audioslave were cool, but the plodding heaviness of the Rage rhythm section lacked the intricate, dynamic, elastic groove that Soundgarden could conjure on their good days.

This new album is everything Soundgarden is known for - odd time signatures, intricate arrangements, stellar musicianship, an almost telepathic synergy fueling the interplay between the band members, and all of it done with a minimum of flash and ego.

There might not be a song on here that's as instantly memorable as "Spoonman", and Chris Cornell's voice is extremely raspy these days, but musically the band are on the money. They're tight and the song structures are concise, filled with all the Soundgarden hallmarks without sounding pastiche.

Juxtaposed against any of the other "hip" indie and rock acts of now, it's a real breath of fresh air. It's just what I needed to hear right now.

Below is the new record on Spotify, interspersed with commentary on each song by the Band members.



image source Gold 104.3FM Melbourne.

This morning the news that INXS had broken up was everywhere - it was inescapable. Apparently it was announced during their performance on the last night of their tour supporting Matchbox 20 in Perth last night.

It remains to be seen if this is a complete retirement announcement or an announcement of the David Bowie, sleep deprived "last show we'll ever do" type at the end of the 1973 Ziggy Stardust tour. 

Either way, is it surprising?, not really.

For any kid growing up and coming of age in the 1980s, INXS was a mainstay of your music library. They rocked hard, like all Aussie bands were required to do in those days, but had enough swing and groove to make the girls dance, thus boosting their profile enormously. It also helped that frontman Michael Hutchence carried himself with the swagger of an Adonis, but that's another story...

They conquered the world in the 1990s and became a truly global band, before their Michael descended into tabloid fodder, tawdry sex scandals with other peoples wives and, finally in 1997, his own untimely death in a bizarre accident gone wrong.

By the time they released "X" in 1990, I was over them. I'd moved on. They had a few great singles during that time, such as "Heaven Sent" and the unusual but highly inspired Ray Charles collaboration "Please (You Got That...)". When Michael died, commercial radio and TV in this country went nuts, having 24 hour coverage of the scene and a constant stream of teary tributes from female fans.

Since then, in my view, the band existed on its past glories and became a parody of itself. They tried a host of new singers. The first of which was ex-Noiseworks frontman Jon Stevens, probably the best fit for the band out of any of subsequent singers to fill Michael's shoes. They tried to plug the void Michael left with Terrance Trent D'Arby (which thankfully didn't last long), karaoke caricature JD Fortune and the new Irish chappy Ciaran Gribbin. Unfortunately, none have really matched up to the larger than life Michael Hutchence.

One of the special aspects of the band was lost in 1997 and the band never recovered. It wasn't that Michael was a great singer - he was no Caruso, but neither should he have been. Like Peter Garrett from Midnight Oil, he had a limited vocal range, but it was expressive. It was the perfect fit within the band's sound. He used it to the best of his advantage: for the group, the music and the song he was singing at the time. It suited what they were doing, and he had the charisma to carry it to the world.

Still, albums like "Underneath The Colours", "The Swing" and "Kick" deservedly belong in any collection of classic Australian music. Songs like "Don't Change" still sound as fresh as they day they were recorded.

Below is a link to a Grooveshark playlist of some of my selections from the long back catalog of loving memory.


INXS - In Loving Memory of... by David Kowalski on Grooveshark

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Magic Bones

Thanks to the guys at the Aussie Playlist, here's a bit of brand new tuneage from Melbourne.

The Magic Bones' latest release is a double A-side that has two blistering tunes, with a combined time of under 4 minutes. "Once You Forget" is a stomping rocker with some very forthright lady vocals. While "On The Spot" is a driving and tuneful number that hits all the right spots for me. It reminds me of Ocean Colour Scene at their most "rock", which is no bad thing!

This is a release that is screaming out for a 7-inch release. Currently it's available for $2 on their Bandcamp page. The band are also getting spins on Triple J Unearthed radio too.

Check them out. The Magic Bones are ones to watch. Recommended.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

100 LPs Shortlist #22: Extreme - "3 Sides To Every Story"

1992 - I was 16, in year 11 at high school. Hormones were running riot and playing havoc with my emotions. Extreme was part of the perfect soundtrack for my life at the time.

I discovered the band through a mate of mine about 18 months before this album was released, with their second LP "Pornograffiti", and along with this album, the follow-up 3rd LP, I played the hell out of these two albums, and continued to well into the mid-1990s when I really went off this style of rock and went more alternative.

I've discussed "Pornograffitti" in depth here. "III Sides to Every Story" was a concept album in an era where the term "concept album" was a dirty word. It carried the connotations of pretentiousness and of a sort of artistic snobbery. Of course, it's hard to dispel a notion like that when the concept of the record is so intellectually heavy and problematic from the outset. As such it's probably the one of their original releases that has dated quite horribly in the ensuing years.
The album deals with the concept of war, all the while employing the idea that there is "three sides to every story". In this case there is "Yours", "Mine" and "The Truth".

"Yours" comes from the side of those with the money, and of course the governments and the dyed-in-the-wool servicemen who love what they do. It tries to state their point of view - that peace is futile, war protesters are really fence-sitters, war advances and protects America's overseas interests and provides profits for those who provide the weapons to the forces. Therefore it must be good, right?

The "Mine" side begins at track 7, after more than 30 minutes of thumping rock to state the case of the "Yours" side. The music, understandably, is mellower and more melodic, and it deals with the issues that surround families and those left behind by people who serve in combat.

Finally, "The Truth" is dished up in an extravagant 21 and a half minute, three-part suite, ostensibly adding an element to the argument from the viewpoint of our heavenly father.

Heavy stuff, hey? Phew! And we haven't even started to talk about the music yet.

"Yours" starts off out of the blocks with "Warheads", some solid rocking happening here. Then they introduce their groove riffing on "Rest In Peace" which is a great track. They tried this one out as a single - not a good choice, as it is more of a set piece within the concept.

Track 3 "Politicalamity" has a hard enough title to say let alone to try and explain it - the concept starts to unravel here by trying to be too clever

Track 4 "Colour Me Blind" is a track about tolerance and equality that really belongs somewhere after track 8 in the "Mine" section.

Next is "Cupid's Dead", another set piece that is weighty in its concept but with a tight, taut groove to it. It falls flat in the last section when they introduce a rap section.

"Peacemaker Die" spells out what a lot of arch-conservatives must think sometimes but are too afraid to say in a public forum. It becomes totally overblown and also a bit tasteless when they juxtapose Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech over a chorus of "Peacemaker Die, Peacemaker Die".

Track 7 starts off the "Mine" section. "Seven Sundays" is a gorgeous song but it is ruined with horrible synthetic strings and a horrible sounding digital piano. It tells of soldiers hanging out with their loved ones on their days off. The awful keyboards just ramp up the cheese factor.

Track 8 is a track called "Tragic Comic" which I have always found to be trite at best. The less said, the better.

Track 9 is "Our Father" which is a great punchy rocker, bittersweet in its subject matter by echoing the words of a child watching his/her father go off to war. It is genuinely quite touching.

Track 10, "Stop The World" gets philosophical and ponderous, and if it wasn't for some beautiful guitar playing it'd be unbearable.

Track 11 "God Isn't Dead?" is melodramatic in the extreme (no pun intended). Real piano and real strings this time (did the budget for these run out when recording "Seven Sundays"???) It is quite magniloquent but also quite beautiful. Strange combination!

Track 12 on the Cassette and vinyl is missing on the Cd as it makes the album too long for one disc, but it is a track called "Don't Leave Me Alone" which at almost 6 minutes only adds to the bloatedness of the album proper. It's already bloated enough as it is! Adding it in to the album now through the magic of MP3 and it kills the flow of the record.

And now, onto "The Truth", a lushly orchestrated 3 part suite starting with a languid piece called "Rise and Shine" with some rather awkward lyrics ("A song for love, even abhor"???) but then again, there's time for everything under the sun, right?

Part two is where things get serious. Never before has a song about soul searching and meta-cognition been so strident and yet catchy! "Am I Ever Gonna Change" is indeed a great track but at least it turns the spotlight on oneself, thus giving the opportunity for a bit of humility to be demonstrated.

Part Three is called "Who Cares?" and this is where we get really lofty. You're always on shaky artistic ground whenever you try to put words into God's mouth. I don't think they really hit the mark here. Although, other bands have done this subject matter in less overblown styles and have had more impact. At over 8 minutes it gets tedious being lectured to after a while. The question of "Who Cares?" is never resolved in the song by the way, but it kind of hints towards an obvious answer...

Extreme always had a capacity to be grand in the way they made records, and their second album backed up their ambition with great songs and a tightly focussed narrative. "3 sides..." has good intentions but is a bit of a muddled overblown mess. There's some great music here but sometimes it's hard work finding the gems among the swathes of bombast that surrounds them. The concept gets lost when its on CD because it is clear that it should be on 3 sides of vinyl, with a defined break in between. But then, even on vinyl they didn't even get it right.

No matter what your opinion is, or mine for that matter. The truth is that the record buckles under the weight of its own pretensions. I highly doubt I thought about it quite like that as a teenager, but that's the view I have given 20 years of distance from it.

Anyway, take a listen and make up your own mind. There's still a lot of good songs here. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Try this at home, will ya?

Recently I pondered songwriters who have such a great turn of phrase that they just make you sit up and take notice. They write lyrics that are forthright and that make you think. I heard a song recently that did just that, and I think it may have just crashed into my top 10 songs of all time, somewhere near the top. It went like this:

"We sing love songs in C,
And we do politics in G,
We do songs about our friends in E Minor,
So tear down the stars now,
And take up your guitars,
So come on folks and try this at home".

The song is by a British singer named Frank Turner. He has styled himself as the new Billy Bragg, which is no bad thing in my view. Moreover, he's the Billy Bragg for Generation-Y, and also for late GenX-ers like me who still have enough fire in the belly to still get pissed off at some of the world's stupidity. Frank himself would rather have himself regarded as a "skinny half-arsed English country singer", but I think that's selling himself short.

This song tells it like it is - forget the image, forget the labels, forget the style, just play the damn music and stop self-agrandising. Get off your butt, be your own rock star, be your own songwriter. Write the music you wanna hear.

"...'cos there's no such thing as rock stars
There's just people who play music,
Some of them are just like us,
And some of them are dicks..."

The song itself is fiery and passionate. It's a statement of intent. This is the roots of punk rock. If this doesn't get you fired up then nothing will.

"...The only thing that Punk Rock should every really mean,
Is now sitting 'round and waiting for the lights to go green..."

Brilliant stuff. Enjoy.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

October Playlist on Spotify

*image credit Barry Gruff

Ok groovers. Here's the latest in musical excellence from The Sound and the Fury, with a summary of musical travels during the month of October.

Within this list you'll find:

  • obscurities from Tangerine Dream and Tumbleweed; 
  • Renaissance period Lute pieces written by John Dowland as music for the British Royal Family;
  • Classics from Slayer, Toto, Nat King Cole, The Grateful Dead and Robert Johnson; 
  • Great new tunes from Voice of Reason (formerly ...and The Magical 8-Ball Band), Calling All Astronauts and Killer's side project Big Talk; 
  • Classic laughs from Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers; 
  • Insane electric jazz from Billy Cobham and John McLaughlin; 

and a hell of a lot more. It's 15 hours of the wildest musical ride of your life. Put it on shuffle, turn it up and, most of all, Enjoy it!