Mudhoney – “On Top! KEXP Presents Mudhoney Live On Top Of The Space Needle” (2014)

Both Mudhoney and Sub Pop turned 25 years old in 2013.

They celebrated by having Mudhoney play a live show on Seattle’s iconic Space Needle. Not IN the Space Needle, mind you. ON TOP OF the Space Needle. Like, as in on the roof of a revolving restaurant on top of a tower built for the 1962 World’s Fair. Fortunately this show wasn’t open to the public, because if there’s one thing that defines Mudhoney’s Seattle shows it’s stage diving. Which could be dangerous on top of a revolving restaurant tower.

The limited edition vinyl Record Store Release (2,700 produced) of On Top! KEXP Presents Mudhoney Live On Top Of The Space Needle was at the top of my want list for RSD. And I knew there was no way I was going to get my hands on a copy without getting up stupid early or getting stupid lucky. I was neither. This was simply a record you weren’t going to get here in Seattle without serious commitment. So I’d already resigned myself to the reality that is eBay, and I had no trouble getting a copy using the “buy it now” feature that same day for about a $20 premium over retail. I know people hate this aspect of RSD, and to some extent I do too. But if someone is willing to show up that early to get a copy, so be it. I’ll either pay the premium in the secondary market or I won’t. Usually I don’t. This time I did. And I’m glad.

On Top! is an impressive live recording considering it was done (1) outdoors, (2) about 600 feet above the city, and (3) rotating. But since KEXP was Johnny on the spot and made arrangements to record it, I knew it would be good. Nay, great. At 10 songs and just under 30 minutes Mudhoney played a concise, tight set… one that probably only saw them spin 180 degrees on top of the Space Needle’s restaurant.

The set was a combination of old and new. Half the songs were off of the band’s 2013 release Vanishing Point, while they filled the rest by digging into their catalog, including 1991s “Into the Drink” and the seminal, grunge-defining classic “Touch Me I’m Sick,” a song guaranteed to make a Seattle crowd go nuts and start to jump off the nearest obstacle. Mudhoney weaves the old and the new together into a tight, intense set, one that does a pretty solid job in capturing their live energy, even more so than the recently released Live At Third Man Records (which inexplicably is missing “Touch Me I’m Sick”…).

I slowly find myself becoming more and more of a fan of Mudhoney over the years. Maybe they remind me of a simpler time in my life. Or maybe I just like the sound of Mark Arm’s voice. I don’t know. Regardless, On Top! has a good chance of making it onto my year-end Top 5 list. It’s not on iTunes or CD… at least not yet. So for now, I feel sorry for those of you who got rid of your turntables back in the day…

Screaming Trees – “Last Words: The Final Recordings” (2014)

I’m 97% sure I had the Screaming Trees’ 1989 Sub Pop double 7″ of “Change Has Come” when I was in high school, but that’s as close as I ever really came to becoming a Trees fan, and that was more of an obligatory purchase back in my Sub Pop 7″ days. That’s not to dismiss them – they were certainly well-knownhere in Seattle; I just never got into them because I was into the heavier, more punk, more prototypically grunge bands.

I wasn’t planning on picking up the Record Store Day re-release of the band’s last album, 2011s Last Words: The Final Recordings, but when I saw it I figured I’d just get it. As near as I can tell this wasn’t originally released on vinyl, and this version is on red wax and allegedly limited to 500 copies (though it isn’t numbered).

I don’t know much about the band’s background, other than that they’re from Eastern Washington town of Ellensburg (in Washington about 80% of the state falls into the “Eastern” category). Vocalist Mark Lanegan seems to show up a lot in various bands and projects, and he also brings in a lot of talented “guests” to appear on his solo records. Other than his work with the Trees, I’m most familiar with him for the stuff he did with Mad Season, both when Above originally came out and his singing on the new tracks that were part of the RSD re-release in 2013.

The songs on Last Words: The Final Recordings date from 1998-99, so this isn’t new material. Musically the album is very low key, like doing an entire record out of nothing but the one inevitable “slow” song that seems to appear on almost every rock album ever made. Not ballads per say… just slowish. This works as it allows Lanegan to showcase his voice, supported by some outstanding harmonizing (especially on “Reflections”). These are songs by a more mature band, one that doesn’t seem to be trying to impress anyone other than themselves by playing what they want to play, they way they want to play it. It’s music by guys who have seen and been through a lot in their lives and no longer feel the need to play the game. It doesn’t rock nearly as much as I expected it to, with the possible exception of “Ash Gray Sunday,” but I definitely enjoy it.

Book Review – “Dust & Grooves: Adventures In Record Collecting” by Eilon Paz (2014)

The internet is an amazing beast. The platform it provides for people to communicate and share ideas is staggering, and I’d guess that our ability to connect with others has expanded more in the last 10 years or so than in the rest of human history put together. I can write a blog post, and people anywhere in the world can see it, comment on it, or contact me. But there is also the flip side – it’s a vast wasteland of crap and scams and celebrity news, a place where people can hide behind screen names and act like assholes. But that’s not the internet’s fault; that’s all on the people who use it that way. The internet is just a tool. Nothing more.

Music fans, like any other group of fans, hobbyists, or people with similar interests, have certainly embraced the internet as a platform for communicating with each other. When I got back into vinyl I started searching out blogs and online resources that fit my specific interests, and that’s how I stumbled across Eilon Paz’s website Dust & Grooves. Eilon is an Israeli ex-pat photographer living in New York who is also an avid record collector, and the website was a way for him to combine his two passions by interviewing record collectors and photographing them in their homes with their collections.

I was hooked immediately. From his profile of 76-year-old Joe Bussard and his seemingly impossibly huge collection of 78s (and who describes rock ‘n’ roll as “the cancer of music”) to traveling to Africa with Frank Gossner to chase down local funk music, to my all-time favorite, the journey to Mustafa’s basement in Istanbul to drink coffee and check out his lovingly amassed collection of local records, I read and re-read them all, checking back in weekly hoping there would be a new one posted. So when I read that Eilon was putting together a book based on the website I knew I had to buy a copy. I only wish I would have participated in the Kickstarter campaign to show my support in a more significant way (sorry Eilon!).

So what better day to release Dust & Grooves: Adventures In Record Collecting than the record collector’s Christmas, aka Record Store Day. There were a few stores in Seattle carrying it, so we headed over to Silver Platters in Seattle’s SODO area to hopefully get one of the three copies they ordered – and fortunately they still had one left by time we got there.

Dust and Grooves: Adventures In Record Collecting is a monster tome, a big (nearly 10″ by 12″), heavy 400+ page hardback that could certainly be described as a “coffee table book,” though that’s selling it short because it’s much more substantial than that. The first 273 pages are devoted more or less exclusively to Paz’s fantastic photos, many of which are done in the collage style that Eilon does so well, with quotes from collectors about their passion for vinyl interspersed. There are even two pull-out “centerfolds” that give the photographer even more canvas to show his shots in all their glory.

The remaining portion of the book is devoted to collector profiles, a dozen in all, done in a similar fashion to those appearing on Paz’s website. Some of these in fact were culled from the site, including those of the aforementioned Bussard and Gossner, but there are plenty of new ones here too (I think it’s about half and half). This isn’t a catalog or a book full of arcane knowledge that is going to help you figure out of your copy of that “original” Beatles record is actually valuable or not. It’s a journey through our shared obsession. It will make you feel good inside and make you want to immediately go out to the used record store and start digging. It will remind you that music matters. And why.

This might be a hard book to track down in stores, but fear not vinyl-heads because you can buy it directly from Eilon’s website HERE, in both a regular edition and a signed/numbered limited edition. And it’s worth every penny.

Public Enemy – “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” (1988 / 2014)

Are Public Enemy the most well known “political” hip hop group? I don’t know, but probably. Lots of artists have political components to their lyrics – even some of the gansta stuff can be heard as political in the way it describes crime, poverty, and drugs in the inner city. But Public Enemy had a member who held the title of Minister of Information (Professor Griff). And their own quasi army. So there.

I think the only PE album I’ve ever owned was a greatest hits CD, and it still makes it into rotation on the iPod at work sometimes – the beats are fantastic and get my energy going. I wasn’t planning on picking up the new Record Store Day special edition of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, but someone had decided not to buy their copy and left it on top of the CD section at Silver Platters, where I saw it while waiting in the long line to buy my other stuff. It was totally an impulse buy, but a good one. This version is notable for the 180 gram vinyl and, most obviously, the “lenticular” cover, which gives it the same effect that I remember from those “3D” baseball cards Kellogg’s used to put in Frosted Flakes in the 1970s and 80s that seemed so crazy cool when I was a kid. Of course, you can’t really see the fancy 3D effect in the picture above, but trust me, it’s there. So not only did I get impulsed, I got gimmicked.

I don’t think anyone needs me to tell them what a great album this is. Rolling Stone ranked it #48 in it’s top albums of all time list, the top spot for any hip hop album. And over a million and a half people decided they needed to own copy. It’s big. It’s important. And it has held up beautifully.

I haven’t heard most of these songs before. Sure, “Bring the Noise” is great and witty and awesome, and so is “Night of the Living Baseheads”. Those are classics, greatest hits type material. But damn – “Terminator X on the Edge of Panic” with it’s trippy “Flash Gordon” intro is killer, and “She Watch Channel Zero”… man, I don’t even know what to say about that song. PE incorporates some metal guitar into their sound on that track, giving it a frantic quality that is jarring in how different it is from the rest of the record. I think it’s my new favorite PE song.

It took me a while to get around to It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. but I’m glad I finally got there.

Ice-T – “Ice-T Greatest Hits” (2014)

As I’ve written before, I didn’t grow up a particularly big fan of hip hop despite being a teenager during arguably it’s greatest phase, the mid to late 1980s. Some of my friends were though, especially my buddies Brent and Norberto, so it was always sort of around, and if we were cruising on a Friday or Saturday night a hip hop cassette would grace the car’s stereo from time to time, mostly Sir Mix-a-Lot and Run DMC. Brent and Norberto both had much more extensive musical libraries for that stuff, and while I had a little N.W.A. and Public Enemy too, I never really got into either until much later in life.

So Ice-T came as a surprise to me.

I’m not sure why I bought a used copy of O.G. Original Gangster about 10-15 years ago, other than maybe because it had “New Jack Hustler” on it. But I got way into it, playing it all the time in the car. Oddly, though, I never branched out much past that. I had Rhyme Pays and Power, but never liked them nearly as much as O.G. But for whatever reason, my appreciation for 1980s hip hop seems to only increase as I get older, so when I saw that Ice-T Greatest Hits was coming out on vinyl for Record Store Day I made sure to include it on my “want list”.

Ice-T Greatest Hits has a few of my Ice-T favorites, notably “Make It Funky” and “O.G. Original Gangster.” There were some others I knew as well but hadn’t full appreciated until listening to them again on this collection, especially the fantastic, Curtis Mayfield influenced “I’m Your Pusher,” in which gangsta rappin’ Ice-T isn’t pushing drugs on you, but music. The record has a solid roster of ten songs guaranteed to get you rocking, but also covering a pretty broad range of Ice’s sound, including the legitimately heavy metal “Body Count.” Not a lot of MCs had the balls to aggressively mix their style with rock, especially not heavy metal, but Ice isn’t most MCs. The obviously notable exception was Anthrax and Public Enemy playing together (and PE sampling Slayer…). But PE didn’t form their own heavy metal backing band like Ice. My man.

If I have one criticism of this release it’s that the bass is not very rich and deep. I mentioned this to Brent and he told me that in his opinion Ice was always more about the words than the deep, internal organ-jellifying bass that became so prevalent in hip hop. But putting this version of “O.G.” up against the CD version makes the vinyl sound a bit trebly and hollow. It doesn’t sound bad, and the vocals are up in the mix front and center. It just doesn’t seem as rich as the CD version.

I’m not sure there’s much here for the person who already has some Ice-T albums, but for those with a more casual interest it’s a great mix of styles that showcase one of raps best writers and absolutely worth the purchase.