Record Store Day

16 April 2011
Categories: Music appreciation

Today is Record Store Day—a somewhat new, um, international holiday. Surely conceived as a backlash against the impersonality of iTunes and big, corporate-owned, online retailers, Record Store Day celebrates the independent, locally owned, bricks-and-mortar record store. This is a good thing, and I hope these businesses can continue to survive in the digital age.

I’ll admit, however, that I myself have not been much of an actual, fiscal supporter of the local record stores in my neighborhood in recent years. The reason is simple, and as my wife put it, succinct: I’ve gotten old. When I walk in and find the music piped through the store’s stereo to be unwelcoming, if not off-putting; when I peruse the stacks and not only find nothing I want, find that ninety percent of it is completely unfamiliar to me; it’s clear that yes, I’m old.

That’s okay; I’m cool with that. The record stores in my neighborhood are not for me. I’m still happy to know they’re there, pleased to see (as I did yesterday) a young woman on the bus clutching a shopping bag from one of them.

The record store is a land of escape and discovery, in a way that no online store can be. In my student days it was a frequent ritual: Flip through the stacks, pause at an interesting title, read the liner notes and song list, track down that one elusive item to fill a gap in my collection, or find something utterly new to my knowledge, weigh the cost of my desire and the cash in my pocket against the need to buy groceries that week, and at the end of the day take home one or several prizes—or none, if it came to that—and cue up a magical musical realm.

Once, when I was a sophomore in college, it was the first Saturday of spring break and both campus and the city were a ghost town. It was early-spring cool, windy and overcast, with everything still a little grey around the edges.

The sidewalks of the main drag were almost deserted when I walked into the secondhand record store Wazoo Records. I was only partly in a mood to browse; partly I wanted a refuge against the chill for a little while.

Nothing in the stacks really appealed to me, but one thing kept catching my eye. It was an LP, sitting on a high shelf behind the counter, among the other rarities, protected by a clear plastic sleeve. The almost-naked woman on the cover was the eye-catcher, in a prurient way. It took several intermittent sidelong glances before I finally read the title.

Moontan, by Golden Earring.

MoontanThat clicked in my brain: Of course! That crappy cover on the CD issue that I owned was a fig leaf, a record company’s cheap, cop-out replacement for the much more risqué original. I had to have it, and not merely for the naughty cover art. I was willing to bet it also contained an inner sleeve and liner notes missing from the CD, stuff from an era when records were albums, not just collections of songs, in which the music was the centerpiece of a larger, complete package.

The price, however, was daunting. It might have been as much as twenty-five dollars, which now doesn’t seem like all that much but in those unemployed-student days meant the difference between eating out versus eating ramen. If I bought it, it certainly would be the only record I could afford that day, and would preclude another record store visit for the next few weeks as well.

So I dithered about it, and continued to wander the stacks, hoping something equally appealing—and significantly cheaper—would pop up. But nothing did, and ultimately I walked up to the counter and told the owner I wanted to buy the Moontan LP. He smiled, took it down, held it gently by its edges for a moment as if regarding an old friend for the last time, peered at the price tag, looked up at me, and said, “Nah, I can’t sell it to you for that—”

He paused for half a beat, just long enough for me to start to think, “shit, now I’ll never afford it.”

“—how about ten bucks?”

I was dumbfounded. It took me a moment to realize he’d cut the price, not raised it. I stammered, then agreed, and he bagged it up and sent me on my way.

I don’t know why he did it. Pity on a long-haired college kid? A vague sense that it was going to an appreciative home? A camaraderie across the generations, a sharing of a great slice of rock-’n’-roll from one music lover to another? Or just tired of having it on his shelves, taking up space?

I’ve no idea, and no matter. Whether it was his ploy or not, he certainly gained a regular customer for the remainder of my years there.

Wazoo Records closed its doors in 2006 after 31 years in business, surely one of a multitude of victims of the digital age. Here’s hoping other record stores may continue to thrive, and that Record Store Day remains a celebration of a vital industry, and not a requiem for a dying breed.

Brainiac by Ken Jennings

7 April 2011
Categories: From the armchair

Here’s a bit of trivia you might not know: Ken Jennings is a very funny guy.

Like many Jeopardy! viewers, I watched Jennings’ 75-game marathon in 2004 with decidedly undecided feelings. I never really rooted for him, nor against him. To be frank, I usually don’t even care about the contestants at all. As I have for years, even long before my own appearance on the show when I routinely taped (yes, taped, on a VCR) the episodes, I time-shift my viewing not only to skip the commercials, but also to bypass the contestant introductions and chats. This enables me to view a full three episodes in an hour, and makes the show all about the trivia, and not the trappings.

Besides, the contestants are really just a never-ending series of interchangeable trivia geeks. Unless one stands out as particularly charismatic or attractive—or on the rare occasion I recognize a face, such as that of Matt Ottinger, host of WKAR-TV’s QuizBusters and one of many victims of the Ken Jennings buzz saw (game 14)—they’re all the same. Myself included.

And Ken was certainly no exception. That’s not meant as a slam on him, it’s just stating a fact that Jeopardy! is hardly an ideal venue for anyone’s personality to shine. He was just an ordinary, clean-cut, “Opie-looking guy from Utah” (his words, not mine), and the fact that he kept showing up behind Podium #1 was, from a purist’s point-of-view, a distraction from The Game. And he was so damn good at it, and yet so overtly milquetoast, that it seemed the only way to make him interesting was to believe he was some sort of replicant, or android. So while it was fun to see his streak continue on the basis of witnessing quiz-show history, both of those facts—his persona and his prowess—made it awfully hard to root for him.

With that bias firmly in place, imagine my surprise when Ken showed up last month on a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” interview, under the pseudonym “Watson’s Bitch”—a self-deprecating reference to his recent on-air drubbing at the “hands” of a specialized IBM supercomputer—responding off-the-cuff to dozens of questions, big and small, with witty jibes and candid good humour. Some of his replies were snarfing-coffee-out-the-nose funny. And somewhere in there he mentioned his blog, which I found contains much more of the same.

And, shockingly, he’s got a taste for the occasional dirty joke. I suppose we should have figured that out from game 53, given his response to the clue “This term for a long-handled gardening tool can also mean an immoral pleasure seeker”—although maybe that particular example is more of a pun. But if your idea of “what Mormons are like” comes from a certain HBO series, you might be surprised by his reprinting of a typically smutty old Spy List on his blog, or this response in his Reddit AMA:

TheCrimsonKing: You’re a little too funny, did you hire writers with your winnings?

WatsonsBitch: Bruce Vilanch is hiding under my desk right now. Unfortunately he’s not writing jokes for me, if you know what I mean.

Or this exchange with a friend while they toured Stevens Point, Wisconsin, during that city’s annual three-day trivia event:

Earl and I decide to spend the day visiting as many trivia players as possible, and so we pore over a list of all 435 registered teams. “Shall we just go by team name?” asks Earl. “I want to visit K-Y Jelly Doughnuts and Drain Bamage.”

“Some of these names are pretty dirty,” I notice. “Let’s just visit every team where the name is an oral sex reference.”

“I don’t think we have that kind of time.”

Ken Jennings’ 2006 book, Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, is a must-read for any trivia buff, dilettante, or even neophyte. The narrative is excellent; through the course of the book Ken takes us through his complete Jeopardy! experience, from audition to post-defeat interviews. Some of the behind-the-scenes action, while never dishing any dirt or revealing Sony’s top secrets, does give prospective contestants a good general idea of what to expect with the show.

Meanwhile, Ken takes us on a journey through trivia. He presents us with a thorough rundown of trivia’s history from (not-so) ancient times. The scandals of the 1950s, and the birth of College Quiz Bowl in the 1960s. The amazing surge of trivia popularity in the 1980s, fueled by the blockbuster sales of Trivial Pursuit. The bar-trivia NTN network, a.k.a. Buzztime, and the annual temporary insanity of Stevens Point (which, by the way, begins tomorrow evening). And much more.

It’s a terrific book for trivia junkies, not least because he slips trivia questions into each chapter (usually ten, although the chapter about the general types of trivia questions and how to compose them triples that total). Just like a good game of trivia, there are plenty of “aha!” and “I didn’t know that!” moments. Without overreaching, he explains how trivia is a pervasive and positive force in modern life, its most obvious benefit being the way in which it brings people together.

On his website, Ken Jennings is hawking copies of Brainiac, which he offers to autograph and personalize, and still sell at a steep discount off the cover price. Although this has led to a spate of “high maintenance” signing requests, I suspect it’s a good ploy to unload a case (or three) of books that he likely got for free from the publisher and might otherwise sit in his garage forever.

I ordered a copy for myself, making a (low-maintenance, I hope) request for him to “feel free to make any witty-if-disparaging remark you like about my one-day appearance on Jeopardy!” Ken’s response was absolutely typical Ken Jennings—humourous, upbeat, and not the least bit mean-spirited:

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy

12 March 2011
Categories: From the armchair

Groundhog Day, 2011. The day the media deemed “The Blizzard of 2011” in the hubristic assumption that we won’t get another one to match it for the rest of the year. I prefer to call it Thundersnow! 2011—with obligatory exclamation point and boldface and italics—because it’s not often that we get the bonus drama of thunder and lightning in the midst of a snowstorm.

Thanks to the snow’s accumulation and blowing drifts my office was closed, and I worked from home that day, and the next.

(Could have been worse—I could have been one of the hundreds of idiots innocent people oblivious enough to think, if they thought about it at all, “I take Lake Shore Drive home every night, why should tonight be any different?” even as the weather forecast shouted in seventy-two-point headlines about the impending sixty-mile-an-hour gusts off the lake and the quarter-mile-at-best visibility and the twenty-five-foot waves crashing over the breakwater to send freezing spray across the roadway. Why should anyone have wondered whether driving on an exposed, limited-access boulevard in the face of those conditions was a good idea?)

That sarcastic aside… aside, we spent the next couple of days hunkered down at home, living comfortably on our stockpile of franks and beans and telecommuting via laptop. Sitting at the dining room table, I got down to some much-needed coding, something that I had been unable to focus on at the office with its usual distractions. With noise-cancelling headphones on and iTunes in shuffle mode, I tuned (iTuned?) out the world and maximized my productivity.

In mid-afternoon, iTunes played a song I’ve listened to dozens of times in the twenty-plus years since I first heard it: “Firing Up the Sunset Gun” by Animal Logic.

Before I continue, maybe I should explain that I imagine my music collection forming a dense, elaborate web of connectivity—something like a vastly expanded version of the “Jethro Tull Family Tree” that appears in the liner notes of the band’s 20 Years compilation and depicts ties to Fairport Convention and Yes and numerous other bands. Some of the connections in my web are strictly personnel-related (so-and-so played on this record, and later formed that band), but other connections are more personal (that friend introduced me to both this album and that one). In one way or another, then, pretty much all the music in my personal collection is connected in some way to all the rest.

But amidst it all I’ve always felt like Animal Logic (and, of course, its follow-up) formed a sort of promontory: Stewart Copeland connects it to the Police, and Stanley Clarke to Return to Forever, but this was Deborah Holland’s debut; nothing else sounds anything like this band; Animal Logic II sold poorly and the band broke up to pursue other projects. To my mind, Animal Logic stands alone.

Anyway, sitting there listening to “Firing Up the Sunset Gun” I realized for the umpteenth time that I had no idea what that phrase meant. But for the first time while having that thought, I 1) was sitting at a computer and 2) could easily abide the 30-second distraction it might take to Google it and finally put that nagging-yet-trivial question to rest.

So it turns out Copeland borrowed the phrase (with the word “up” added for improved rhythm, perhaps at the expense of meaning) from the novel Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy:

Barry is a widower, his wife having died of alcoholism before he left Seattle. “Firing the sunset gun” he called her drinking. “Every day she’d be at it as early as one o’clock.” “At what?” “Firing the sunset gun.”

Now, I have to admit I’m not exceptionally familiar with 20th-Century American literature. Henry Miller bored me, or at least underwhelmed my expectations. Ayn Rand told a story that was fun enough, but which only worked if I went along with her world-view. Most of the books I read that might be considered classics of the “20th-Century American literature” aegis—Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird—were required reading in high school English classes, or fulfilled liberal-arts credits in college. Beyond that I pursued other avenues of reading interests. So amidst that desultory and unfocused regimen, I think it’s unlikely that I ever would have become aware of Walker Percy.

Except. One of my all-time favourite books is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. A book that might never have seen the light of day, if not for Toole’s mother and her persistence in bringing the novel to the attention of an instructor at Loyola University in New Orleans: one Walker Percy.

What a strange thing, at least to me. One of my favourite books, one that stands alone and unconnected in any obvious way (The Neon Bible notwithstanding) to anything else in my book collection, or indeed to anything I’ve ever read—is tangentially yet distinctly connected to a song on an album that likewise stands relatively alone within my music collection (and listening history). This connection so surprised me that, without any further knowledge of the book or its author, I immediately went out and bought a copy.

In reading Love in the Ruins, having no expectations or preconceptions about what I was getting into, I felt a bit like Percy did upon reading Confederacy: as he wrote in its introduction,

[O]ne hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. … Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.

It took only the first half-page of Love in the Ruins for me to realize that I had been grabbed, not merely intrigued and interested, but grabbed by the shoulders and thrust headlong into an exciting tale from which there was no escape until I reached its conclusion.

In a pine grove on the southwest cusp of the interstate cloverleaf

5 P.M. / July 4

Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?

Two more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won’t and I’m crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good.

Here I sit, in any case, against a young pine, broken out in hives and waiting for the end of the world. Safe here for the moment though, flanks protected by a rise of ground on the left and an approach ramp on the right. The carbine lies across my lap.

Just below the cloverleaf, in the ruined motel, the three girls are waiting for me.

Undoubtedly something is about to happen.

Or is it that something has stopped happening?

Wow. An astonishing hook, and off we go. It’s a rollicking ride, and I enjoyed this novel immensely. I count it as one of the most engaging and enthralling pieces of fiction that I have read in years.

One final connection to note: just like A Confederacy of Dunces, Love in the Ruins has never been made into a motion picture. I wonder why.

Chicago Auto Show 2011

17 February 2011
Categories: Transportation

The last time I wrote about the Chicago Auto Show was… 2007. Wow. It’s been four years, and so very little has changed.

Sure, the handful of concept cars is different. And at least a couple of concepts of the past few years—the retro-look Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger—have made it into production. Nevertheless, what little change has occurred is not entirely for the better.

Back in 2007 I wrote, “Honda has figured out that its Element, now in its fifth model year, is more popular among the thirty- and forty-something age groups, rather than the hip-hop and surf kids it was originally targeting.” This was wishful thinking. Honda never knew what a gem they had in this vehicle—spacious, economical, fun to drive, versatile, and a great value. They insisted on marketing it to a demographic that couldn’t care less about practical transport; and meanwhile the people that would have appreciated the Element’s strengths—middle-class folks with families and a solid need for a dependable, do-everything daily driver—had no idea it was a viable option. Sure, the “Car Talk” guys have touted it week after week for years. But Honda did not.

And so, the 2011 model year will be the last one for the Element, and the lone example of the vehicle that Honda brought to the show was stashed in the corner, behind a giant display wall, treated like some unwanted stepchild. It was getting some attention, though—from current Element owners, commiserating about its demise. One guy said he owned two. His friend grinned and said he owned three Elements. Both were forty-somethings with families. They love their Elements, and spoke of them with the devotion of someone who would buy only Honda Elements for the rest of their lives. If only they could.

Airstream got smart, after last year’s crowded traffic jams, and now has gated access to its area. A lovely spokesmodel stands smiling at the Tensabarrier and allows only four groups in at a time to view the four products on display: a pair of classic polished-aluminum trailers and two well-appointed Class B conversions. The elbow room makes touring the Airstreams so much more comfortable, and really fueled our desire to hit the road someday and see America through the windows of a small RV.

Kia was very smart too. Downstairs, near the ticket sales kiosks and outside the show proper, they had a booth set up with a pile of high-quality cloth tote bags. It’s nice to have a tote bag at the show, to carry all the brochures and stuff, and it’s extra nice if it’s a bag you might wind up wanting to use later too. But to get a bag (and a baseball cap), they want you to take a five-minute test drive of the Kia Optima sedan.

No problem, I said, and we hopped aboard. It’s really a terrific car. Comfort, ergonomics, legroom, fit-and-finish, it’s all top-rate, especially for the price. The turbocharged four-cylinder engine gave it a nice kick in the pants as we cruised down Martin Luther King Drive. Sedans don’t fit our lifestyle, so it’s unlikely I’ll ever buy one, but next time I’m renting a car if I see a Kia Optima on the lot, I won’t hesitate to nab it.

Fiat stopped teasing us this year—after last year, when their only 500 model sat safely out of reach on a turntable—and brought a whole passel of the little coupés to sit in. Including a black one with bright blue racing stripes and a snowboard rack on its tail. These little babies are sporty and adorable; I’d want one if I weren’t so worried about getting flattened by an SUV. Alas, Fiat left the 500 Abarth model, with its mad 170-horse powerplant, back in Italia.

Toyota continues to struggle with the aftermath of recalls and bad press, spending their effort this year with a lot of handwaving about “what’s the plural of Prius?” Meanwhile, their FJ Cruiser is unchanged and remains two-thirds of a decent vehicle, looking classic from the front and fine in its chassis, but with its rear such an ignored design afterthought that any rearward view is all but impossible. The old, real FJ Land Cruisers were like terraria with all their glass; driving one of these is like sitting at the mouth of a cave.

Overall, one thing kept jumping out at me as I sat in numerous vehicles built by umpteen different manufacturers: the latest must-have, the portable music player connection, is not yet ready for prime time.

Amenities like this tend to go through phases: Phase One runs from prototype through early adoption, to the point where nearly every model has an example; Phase Two begins as real-world use and experience provide feedback that enables designers to redesign, upgrade, and improve the original.

Cup holders are a good example. For instance, our trusty ’97 Toyota came out toward the end of cup holder Phase One; it has exactly one cup holder, sized to fit a standard 12-ounce pop can. Passengers (or the driver, if he’s nice) must do without. An oversized cup won’t fit. This cup holder is, to be honest, laughably inconvenient much of the time; in praxis, we tend to wedge our drink containers between the parking brake handle and the sides of our seats.

Nowadays, every car has multiple cup holders—often more than the passenger capacity of the vehicle. (That makes a good punchline, but really, if everybody aboard has a bottle of water and a cup of coffee, you’ll want to have twice as many cup holders as seats.) Some are retractable; most are versatile in the size cup they’ll hold. That Kia Optima I drove—like many others—even has cup holders in its doors, along with a little graphic telling you to use capped bottles and not open cups in those holders, so they won’t spill when the door is used. The cup holder has come of age.

Not so the portable music player connection, which presently is stuck in the midst of its Phase One. Most cars now have an AUX jack; many include a USB port too. In recognition of modern use of cell phones, GPS receivers, iPods, etc., all at the same time, lots of dashboards have multiple 12-volt outlets (once upon a time, and occasionally still, used for cigarette lighters). This is rapidly becoming the norm.

However merely providing this connection is not enough—placement is important too. Most dashboards put the AUX jack on the face of the CD/radio unit; that’s fine for the assembly line’s convenience (aside from a different audio unit, nothing has changed and no extra wiring is needed), but where then do we put the music player? Most lacked a tray for it. Meanwhile, the power outlet is somewhere else entirely.

One manufacturer included an open slot for a player, presumably big enough for an iPod (though it looked tight for an iPhone wearing a protective cover) but left the device out in plain sight—and one thing we know from living in a city is that thieves won’t hesitate to break a window if they spot anything inside the vehicle with even the slightest value. Another manufacturer put the audio jacks inside a center armrest console, good for security and storage; but left the power outlet outside, so that a power cord will prevent the console lid from closing.

The upshot of all this is that today’s cars, with few exceptions, come with the unspoken expectation that we’ll accept a dashboard that looks like a spaghetti farm, with cables strung every which way, while our expensive personal music devices and other gadgets toss about at random with every start, stop, and turn. And that we’ll pack all that mess up every time we park the car.

Earlier, I mentioned the Honda Element. On the passenger side of its dash, in a flat, lipped tray above the glove compartment, is a 12-volt outlet and an AUX jack. It’s exposed to view, making it still a Phase One design, and yet—my music player stays put, and all its cables can be neatly tucked away. And that was in the 2009 model.

By the way, if you’re going to the Chicago Auto Show, I definitely recommend going on a weekday. The weekend crowds are completely insane.

Albums that deserve a thorough listen

11 February 2011
Categories: Music appreciation

Some truly excellent record albums have spawned a hit single or two, but for the most part have been otherwise ignored. Here are seven examples that are essentials of my music collection.

MoontanGolden Earring, Moontan. “Radar Love” is an indispensable staple of Classic Rock radio. The four other tracks on this album: “Candy’s Going Bad,” “Vanilla Queen,” “Big Tree, Blue Sea,” and “Are You Receiving Me?” are each jazzy, dynamic, extended jams with solid hooks, and unique unto each other. Too bad they’re all too long for airplay—except for “Candy’s Going Bad,” which comes in just under the 6½ minutes of “Radar Love,” but whose subject matter is perhaps a bit too risqué for the radio. Apparently the same could be said for the original album cover: for its CD release MCA Records replaced the lovely, orgasm-faced, pastie-wearing burlesque dancer with a disturbingly close-up profile of an ear wearing—oh, how witty—a golden earring. And, in case that wasn’t obvious enough, the earring sports a tag stating “Golden Earring.” It is one of the worst fig-leaf album covers of all time.

IABDIt’s A Beautiful Day, It’s A Beautiful Day. “White Bird” is a strange beast, a slice of what might be deemed easy-listening psychedelia. The song is an anomaly, a red herring. So is that cover art: a wholesome young girl, standing on a windy precipice and gazing heavenward—combined with a dim, silhouetted gatefold photo of the band captioned “For those who love… time is an eternity”—can give the impression of a distinctly white-bread Christian record. Don’t be fooled. “Hot Summer Day” is like a fever dream, only far more pleasant, and the loosely melded suite of side 2 (“Bombay Calling” – “Bulgaria” – “Time Is”) surges with energy. Sure, some of the other tracks delve awfully deeply into the cheesiest tropes of acid rock—lyrics like “they told me that the sun turned green,” and pretty much all of “Girl With No Eyes.” No matter. Even with those oversteps, the record as a whole is one of the high points of the late-’60s San Francisco sound.

ChaseChase, Chase. Few have even heard of this early ’70s jazz-rock combo that, in terms of complex arrangements and virtuoso musicianship, gave both Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears a serious challenge—until a plane crash in 1974 took the lives of its namesake leader, Bill Chase, and much of the band. “Get It On” hits the airwaves occasionally, mostly on Deep Cuts weekends. Beyond that, radio listeners miss out on the album’s opener, the dense, cascading declaration-of-intent “Open Up Wide”; the eminently borrowable riffs of “Livin’ in Heat” and “Hello Groceries”; and a “Handbags and Gladrags” that stomps Rod Stewart’s 1972-charting rendition into lite-rock oblivion. Even the five-part suite “Invitation to a River” that closes the album is a worthy tour de force, studio tricks and all. (Link is to a two-disc collection of all three Chase albums. Totally worth it.)

Talk ShowThe Go-Go’s, Talk Show. Their third and final studio album before splitting up (not counting their middling 2001 reunion album) and, sadly, out of print. Sure, their debut Beauty and the Beat is the one that’s regarded as “one of the cornerstone albums of new wave,”* an accolade it deserves. Yet to me there’s something compelling about Talk Show’s high-aiming aspirations, the band finally shedding the last vestige of their punk roots—and outgrowing the bubble-gum tendencies of their sophomore effort, Vacation—and putting together something approaching a pop masterpiece. It’s not perfect, but it’s refreshingly low on filler, and surprisingly coherent given the ongoing tensions (and rampant drug abuse) within the group. Too bad “Head Over Heels” is about the only thing that has ever gotten airplay. Among that song’s many terrific companions on this album, the heartbreaking lament “Forget That Day” and the Cold War meditation “Beneath the Blue Sky” are gems.

BoomtownDavid & David, Boomtown. The lead track “Welcome to the Boomtown” hit the charts in 1986, but it’s just the opening salvo of a manifesto that skewers the excesses of the 1980s as soundly and completely as the Eagles’ Hotel California did to the 1970s. This is the only album David & David made—they kind of came out of nowhere, made this record, and departed for the obscurity of studio work on others’ projects (mostly; one of the pair seems to have had a solo career as well). Boomtown is an odd, troubling blend of dark topics and heavy lyrics atop well-crafted and often-upbeat pop melodies, with a sound that avoids the worst clichés of mid-’80s audio production. It’s one of the best records of the decade; too bad only wonky music critics ever give it its due.

Child is Father to the ManBlood, Sweat & Tears, Child is Father to the Man. With “I Can’t Quit Her” sounding vaguely like BS&T’s later hits (“And When I Die,” “Spinning Wheel,” “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”), it’s all too easy to dismiss this album as the group’s “no hit single” debut. But this original incarnation of the band is very different from the chart-topping (albeit short-lived) group that followed, and this album alone within the BS&T catalogue stands as a masterpiece of the post-Sgt. Pepper’s era. Al Kooper took a vision of jazz-rock fusion, added tasty morsels of R&B and soul, layered on some studio strings, mixed it with a dash of psychedelia, and came out with this daring assemblage. Along with several solid Kooper originals are neatly assimilated covers of Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, and Tim Buckley. It begins with an “overture” of overdub bedlam, and allows a Goffin/King pop tune to digress into the same tripped-out pandemonium for the closer. Would it be as unique a sound if the band had made a similar follow-up, rather than shattering and re-grouping sans Kooper? Definitely not. Which makes this album all the more special.

“But Seriously, Folks...”Joe Walsh, But Seriously, Folks. “Life’s Been Good,” with its tongue-in-cheek tale of a rock star’s wretched excess, is a Classic Rock staple—helped in part by its nine-minute length, making it popular among deejays as a smoke-break spin. But beyond that song, and despite reaching #8 on the Billboard charts, the album seemed to be swiftly ignored. When I sought out the LP record in the mid-’80s, it was hard to find and already relegated to the cut-out bin. It wasn’t remastered to CD until 1991, well after the initial spurt of “let’s put everything on CD as quickly as possible, audio quality be damned.” True, the album’s mellow, contemplative mood is belied by the guitar-rock sound of the hit single, making an unexpected juxtaposition. Too bad for us. “At the Station” and “Tomorrow” deserve routine airplay, and all the songs are catchy pop treats. The two instrumentals, easily dismissed as lead-in filler to the “Life’s Been Good” finale, are each atmospheric and evocative. All in all, it’s a witty, wistful collection.