Now Hear This! Issue #8, Mar/Apr 2018
Every Tuesday after work, I’d make the pilgrimage down Fullerton Avenue to Clark Street, make that right turn, and try to find a parking spot near Belden Avenue, so I could check out the new releases at Tower Records. The store was probably more than 100,000 square feet… separate rooms for Classical and Jazz… a whole section dedicated to imports… listening stations for every genre… CD’s, cassettes, vinyl… posters and other paraphernalia… it was a music lover’s paradise. But… there was even more.
After leaving Tower, I’d head north down Clark Street, park somewhere about midway between Fullerton and Diversey Avenues (around Wrightwood Ave would be perfect), and have, within a three block radius, four more music stores: there was Hi-Fi Records… Dr. Wax, a crate-digger’s delight that had several other locations around Chicago… Second Hand Tunes, a vinyl lover’s paradise, also with several locations… and Gramaphone, for the DJ and dance music aficionado. And there was still more… Peaches had a store at the corner of Clark & Diversey…. and then four blocks up Broadway Avenue was one of three branches of London’s iconic Reckless Records in town.
One could lose a whole afternoon or evening just in this area.
I haven’t even mentioned that before you even made it to Clark Street, if you turned left at the six way intersection of Fullerton/Halsted/Lincoln Avenues, on Lincoln was the legendary store for Punk & Alternative music, Wax Trax! During its’ heyday from the late 70’s to perhaps the early 90’s, I visited this store almost daily, discovering all sorts of new music, especially Industrial electronic acts like Cabaret Voltaire and Skinny Puppy, to the 4AD stable of acts like Cocteau Twins and Wolfgang Press, while getting a chance to talk with the likes of Ministry’s Al Jourgensen, Sascha from KMFDM, and Groovy Mann (known to us as Frankie) from My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, all of whom you would sometimes catch hanging out in the store.
This has been… and still is… a habit – music discovery and buying – that started for me as early as 9 years old, when I would have my parents buy me 45’s of songs I’d heard on the radio at the neighborhood record shop. And as I grew older, and able to venture out on my own, that habit started to cement, thanks to mall stores like Spin-It Records in Evergreen Plaza, where I was able to buy the latest Eurodisco records – especially those on Casablanca Records…. for $1.99, I would get promo copies of albums from all the hottest producers, like Jacques Morali (of Village People fame), and a young Giorgio Moroder, among others… there were downtown stores I would visit after orchestra practice…. there was Rolling Stone Records on Washington off of Wells St… it was here that I began my Punk collection, picking up many of the newest albums (including my beloved Stranglers first three albums) at a discount… at the other end of the Chicago Loop was another icon among record stores, Rose Records… off the corner of Adams & Wabash streets, that store was located in an old building, and covered seven floors, with a different genre on every floor. And as my tastes continued to grow, I soon discovered Reggae music, and would frequent Conquering Lion Records on East 79th St., picking up tunes I would use for my college radio show. In the 90’s I discovered Jazz, and fell in love with the music of Ella, Billie, and Miles; at the same time, Acid Jazz became popular, followed by Trip-hop and Jungle/Drum ‘n Bass, as well as various Latin and African fusions. I would never have had exposure to much of this music if I hadn’t been hangin’ out in music stores.
My reminiscing comes amid news that Best Buy will stop selling CD’s this summer, and Target will sell them only on a consignment basis. This isn’t to suggest that they ever carried the most vital and interesting music available, only the most popular; it does further limit the available choices from which we can actually buy any physical medium for music. I can’t think of a single major retailer that still sells CD’s; in fact, we’ve lost many of the independent retailers, as well. Most of those from my Chicago days are now history; some others that come to mind that I visited are Atomic Records in Milwaukee, and Let It Be Records in Minneapolis- both of them now have online footprints only, the doors to their brick and mortar locations having been shuttered years ago.
The independent retailers, like those in my featured image, are the places that will keep this buying experience going. Here in Columbia, SC there are three choices: Scratch ‘n Spin, Manifest, and my favorite, Papa Jazz. This place reminds me a lot of the late Dr. Wax in Chicago, a place where you can get new and used vinyl, CD’s, videos, and even catch an occasional impromptu live performance. Talk to Woody or Alex there, and if they don’t have what you’re looking for in stock, they’ll order it for you and have it at the store the very next day It is this personal touch that you’ll miss the most about the buying experience when it’s no longer available. You’ll also miss walking into a store, hearing the music playing, and going “what’s THAT you’re playing?” Countless times, I’ve ended up having the clerk sell me the record or disc they were playing – personal touch. You’ll miss scoring a deal or securing that rare find that others are looking for- it’s a shopping experience that CANNOT be duplicated by downloading tracks from a computer or streaming from a smartphone. Millennials may see this differently, and I appreciate sites like iTunes and Spotify, but nothing will replace this experience. Here’s hoping the music buying experience doesn’t get killed off, and we’re all forced to order from Amazon for physical media. SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL INDEPENDENT RETAILER!
If you have an independent record and CD emporium in your town, please post a business card, or a name and address for it in the comments.
R E V I E W S
Meshell Ndegeocello “Ventriloquism”
The thing with an album of cover songs is that sometimes, an artist tries to redo a song that’s considered borderline sacred- anything by Luther Vandross, for instance, is generally considered to be off limits, as no-one can do Luther better than Luther himself; another pet peeve of mine (which I mentioned in my recent review of Syleena Johnson’s album), is the changing of a song’s original key to fit the singer’s voice- it just makes the song sound a bit off to me. Fortunately, neither of these are the case for the 12th album from Ndegeocello, as she doesn’t merely cover the songs, she has reimagined them.
She’s spent the majority of her quarter-century in the industry making music that can be best described as challenging, mostly residing on the outer periphery of the mainstream. I had the pleasure of catching her tour in support of her second album, 1996’s “Peace Beyond Passion”, seeing her perform at the Double Door in Chicago- at the time, I remember thinking how her stage presence seemed larger than her diminutive five-foot frame- the bass seemed as big as her…
The overall vibe here is a mellow, almost Americana feel to most of the tracks – its’ folkiness wouldn’t sound out of place next to the likes of Lizz Wright, India Arie, or even Terry Callier. She opens this set with Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s “ I Wonder If I Take You Home”, segues that into Al B. Sure’s “Nite & Day” and Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows In April”, later does a take on TLC’s “Waterfalls”, and gives Ralph Tresvant’s “Sensitivity” an almost ragtime jazz feel. She also covers Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer”, Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies”, and Sade’s “Smooth Operator”. Perhaps the tracks most folks will gravitate to are her cover of the Funkadelic classic “Atomic Dog”, which she gives a mellow and only mildly funky treatment, retaining the spirit of the original but giving it the same folky feel that informs much of the rest of the album; and the Force MD’s “Tender Love”, which is one of a couple of cover tracks for which I can say I enjoy more than the original – the other being her cover of The System’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove”, which is my favorite track in this collection. This is a fine album of reinterpretations of well-known R&B tracks from the 80’s/90’s that you can put on for those plaintive, contemplative moments… check out the video for “Waterfalls”…
Moby “Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt”
The title of this, Moby’s 15th album, basically gives a window into its’ tone – after his previous two albums were brash and punky, this one returns him to more familiar territory, one of beautiful, cinematic synths, melancholic melodies and lyrics, and trippy to mid-tempo beats. There is, despite the slower tempos here, a sense of nervous energy throughout, as if waiting in anticipation of worse-case scenarios, and thinking back to an earlier time when things were different… better; I was almost expecting a version… or at least an interpolation of “The Way We Were” to show up in a song. It is, ultimately, a world weary view of things falling apart, a look at the societal woes and political upheaval present in today’s world as an impending apocalypse.
If all of that sounds depressing, there is a way in which the beauty of the music and the solace you gain from commiserating with other like-minded souls bring you a certain kind of peace… at least it does for me. “Like a Motherless Child” is a track based off the title of an old Negro spiritual; “Welcome to Hard Times” is mellow and dubby, much in the vein of fellow innovators Thievery Corporation; “A Dark Cloud is Coming” is a trippy blues that harkens back to what I consider Moby’s most fertile period, his “Play” and “18” albums – only instead of using samples, he uses actual singers; where “The Tired and the Hurt” says “There was light and clear skies / There was hope and endless dreams / There was love and no dying / There were forests as far as I could see” in describing how everything was once beautiful, and nothing hurt, “This Wild Darkness” simply pleads “Ooh in this darkness / please light my way / light my way”. Moby employs several softly-voiced female vocalists, and contributes his own world-weary vocals, sometimes singing, other times in a sort of rap style- not really rhyming or rhythmic, just kind of shaky – perfect for the tone of the music.
It takes a crafty producer to make something with such melancholy sound beautiful at the same time, but Moby has once again accomplished it. Here is the video for “This Wild Darkness”…
Snoop Dogg presents “The Bible of Love“
When I first heard the news that Snoop had released a gospel album, my first reaction was one that I’m sure many others had- a smirk and a side eye; this is the man that, for two and a half decades has been thought of as everything but synonymous with God. A few short years back, he changed his name to Snoop Lion and released a reggae album; given his reputation, you could almost buy that concept- he likes weed, Rastas like weed- it seemed like a perfect combination. It was an ill-advised album.
For this release, Snoop assembled a who’s who of the Gospel and R&B world past and present, from such royalty as Rance Allen and The Clark Sisters, to other current working artists like Tye Tribbett, Fred Hammond, John P. Kee, Marvin Sapp and Kim Burrell; he’s got newer artists like Mali Music and newcomer B. Slade (watch out for this guy), and even a quartet called the Zion Messengers. On the R&B side, there’s Faith Evans and K-Ci from Jodeci, Charlie Wilson and newcomer October London (another name to watch out for), as well as others. Snoop acts as the overseer of the project more so than as an actual artist- he does pop in from time to time throughout the double disc’s 32 tracks, just to spit a verse or two, letting you know he’s still there. It’s almost like this is his personal WOW Gospel compilation.
The overall vibe of the album strikes a pretty good balance between the seriously holy stuff and more God-centered tracks, so there’s something for everybody. I think a major motivation for this project for Snoop was to connect with inner city types who are cynical of giving their life to God; lyrics promote the usual rhetoric, but with more urban and contemporary R&B flava – this is what gives an artist like Mali Music his juice. I like this project, but if I have one reservation, it would be about the direction Snoop takes next: is this a one-off thing for him, and he returns to doing what’s he’s always done – in other words, doing an R. Kelly and alternating releases that are quasi-religious with ratchet stuff– or this is a permanent direction for him. His verses in this project suggest he’s converted over; only time will tell- everyone will be watching, because if does go back to what he’s always done, this project will be looked upon as purely disingenuous. Check out the trapped-out remix of The Clark Sisters “Blessed and Highly Favored”…
The head minister has returned, and he’s mad as hell! Thought to be retired, Al Jourgensen has gotten the band back together again, because he has something more to say.
Al has always been anti-establishment, going back to the early days when I was acquainted with him by way of chance encounters at Wax Trax! Records back in the mid to late 80’s- then, I was bestowing heaps of praise onto him for his 1986 album “Twitch”, which was a landmark in Industrial Electronic music; his style eventually morphed into an Industrial metal, incorporating bruising guitars with the punishing percussion. I haven’t spoken to him now for probably 30 years or better, but nothing’s changed about his outlook – if anything, he’s dug in and more entrenched than ever. It would be (and has been) convenient for some to conclude that this album is a kind of certain money grab, as his ‘easy’ target would appear to be the 45th President, and those in opposition to him would quickly get behind something like this; after all, Ministry was supposed to be disbanded for good. Alas, a deeper look into the project reveals that he’s taken the concept a step deeper, to an examination, investigation, and ultimately, condemnation of the condition of a society that would allow for the election of such an individual as #45.
As concept albums go, not sure if this was intended as one, but it essentially worked out that way, as it’s a 48-minute scathing indictment on several areas of American society. Beginning with the opening track “ I Know Words”, it goes right in with slowed (slurred) sound samples of 45’s proclamations and promises, with an almost pretty classical music backdrop… “We will make America great again / we’re going to build a wall…”; follows it up with “Twilight Zone”, a track describing his feelings when he awoke the day after the election and learned of the winner… “feeling a little bit nauseous / It felt like descending into a bottomless pit on a high speed rail / Careening head first into the unknown…”; and then “Victims of a Clown” speaks of the position in which the country finds itself… “Angry man / Septic tank / Orange / Toxic lies / Rejection of reality / Cuts through like a knife…”
And on it goes throughout the nine tracks on the album, Al snarling and growling his distorted vocals over hard-hitting, largely mid-tempo Industrial metal backdrops. He’s caught some flak for the track “Antifa”, as he appears to show support for the collective that’s been named a terrorist group….. I call BS on that whole thing… they’re called a terrorist group, the Black Panthers were shut down by the government, but the Klan and all of the other White Supremacist cells continue on… and Dylann Roof is still alive… truly insulting to all rational thinking Americans… but I digress… The title track closes the album, and it actually gives the slightest little twinkle of a glimmer of hope for all of this chaos… “Well, I guess I don’t know what to expect / Well, I guess that’s all we got…” You’re sooo right, Al. Check out the video for “Twilight Zone”…