Thursday, January 26, 2006

More T. Rex releases

Following the four T. Rex reissues that Rhino released in November, Rhino has now also released three more 2-CD expanded editions of T. Rex albums from the '70's this week: Tanx (1973), Bolan's Zip Gun (1975), and Futuristic Dragon (1976). The 1973 album Tanx is regarded as the beginning of Marc Bolan's downward slide after the albums Electric Warrior (1971) and The Slider (1972) made him a superstar in the UK. Although it is less bombastic and memorable than its two predecessors, Tanx is not a bad album at all. It found Bolan and company toning down the glam-rock excesses (and criticizing them to boot, in the lyrics of "Shock Rock": "If you know how to rock/You don't have to shock") and adding elements of country and blues rock to their sound. The first disc contains the 13 original tracks and seven bonus tracks, some of which ("Children Of The Revolution", "20th Century Boy", "Solid Gold Easy Action") are as essential as anything from T. Rex's peak period. The second disc contains alternate versions of most of the original songs.

The 1975 album Bolan's Zip Gun truly does represent Bolan's worst period. By this time, the band's popularity had faded, and Bolan was living in what he described as "a twilight world of drugs, booze, and kinky sex". Bolan's Zip Gun was the first T. Rex album that was not produced by Tony Visconti. As a result, this album has less bombast than the previous albums, and Bolan offered no inspiration to compensate. (The first disc's bonus tracks are uninspired covers of "Dock Of The Bay" and "Do You Wanna Dance", and those are two of the disc's high points). It may be hard to imagine a boring T. Rex album, but here it is.

The 1976 Futuristic Dragon album was almost a return to form. Bolan was regaining his footing, both personally and musically. Although he had parted ways with his usual partner Mickey Finn, he sounds somewhat rejuvenated on this album. He was experimenting with disco sounds, having entered into a common-law marriage with American r&b singer Gloria Jones. The results are enjoyable, and the album (the second-from-last T. Rex album) is Bolan's best and most consistent post-Tanx work. Like the other two new expanded reissues, this one contains the original album tracks and bonus tracks on the first disc, and a second disc filled with alternate versions and outtakes.

Okay -- so now all of the post-Electric Warrior T. Rex albums are currently available in the United States. Now -- how about domestic releases of the first five Bolan/T. Rex albums that are reviewed on my T. Rex page? Are you listening, Rhino execs?

Also, I have been informed by Noble PR in England that a new T. Rex DVD will be released in the UK on April 17th. T. Rex on TV - A T. Rex Compendium will compile a collection of Bolan and T. Rex's television appearances on French, German and UK television pop programs through the seventies. No word yet if the DVD will be released elsewhere; a DVD manufactured in the UK is not likely to be readable on American machines.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The first two Sparks albums

The reissue label Wounded Bird Records is reissuing the first two albums by Sparks, the strange long-running musical project of brothers Ron and Russell Mael. Those albums are the self-titled Sparks (1971) and A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing (1972). Both CDs are being released on Tuesday. To the best of my knowledge, it will be the first time either of them have been available on CD in the U.S. The Wounded Bird website is here:

http://www.woundedbird.com

For those not familiar with Sparks, they have a long and complicated history that isn't over yet. (Their 20th album, Hello Young Lovers, is being released next month in some countries, although the U.S. does not appear to be one of those countries). The Mael brothers (the only two constant members) were born in Los Angeles, but you wouldn't know it from their seemingly Euro-centric sound. In fact, they never achieved commercial success in America, but they were all the rage in England in the mid-'70's, when they successfully appealed to that country's glam-rock market. Although they have been compared to David Bowie, Queen, Roxy Music, and ELO, they really sound like no one else. They have often used some of the same ingredients as those artists, but their brand of art-pop has often been the exact opposite of conventional music. Russell Mael's deranged falsetto, Ron Mael's musical experimentation, and the duo's strange sense of humor have always made them unique -- and understandably hated by many who have heard them. Their output over the years has been about as inconsistent as can be, but some people love them for that reason.

The two early-'70's albums that are being re-released on Tuesday were the only two that were recorded by the original quintet, which included another pair of brothers: future record producer Earle Mankey, and future Concrete Blonde founder Jim Mankey. They were originally known as Halfnelson before being convinced to change the name to Sparks.

The self-titled 1971 debut is the band's original demo tape, cleaned up by the production hand of Todd Rundgren. Rundgren was able to get the band signed to the Bearsville label after numerous labels rejected them. The album was a sparse and very unique mixture of German cabaret music and rock primitivism, placing Russell's nervous falsetto against a more subtle backdrop dominated by Ron's clunky organ and low-budget tape-loop experimentation. The lyrics are surreal and often nonsensical. The lead-off track "Wonder Girl" very nearly became a U.S. hit single -- and inexplicably became a regional #1 hit in Montgomery, Alabama! That song even helped them get a TV appearance on American Bandstand, whose audience must have been bewildered. The song "Biology 2" was written and sung by Earle Mankey, and it actually presages the work that his brother Jim would do with Concrete Blonde many years later. The snappy closing song "No More Mr. Nice Guys" is unrelated to the similarly titled Alice Cooper song; in fact, it predates it! Sparks is definitely not for all tastes, but it's about as uncompromising as albums get.

That same description applies to the follow-up A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing, which is more fully realized in terms of sound, but is no more conventional or commercial. In fact, it pushes the surrealism even further. A bizarre cover of "Do-Re-Mi" from The Sound Of Music fits right in with the Maels' aggressively weird creations, which are full of quick-tempo changes that must have been totally unusual at that time. This 1972 album was at least ten years ahead of its time; early-'80's new wave and synth-pop are the styles that it bears the most resemblance to. A very cool alternative classic that flouted all musical convention, and probably inspired others to do the same.

As of now, the vast majority of the later Sparks albums are still out of print in the U.S. It will be interesting to see if more become available in the future. Those who wish to investigate the larger Sparks story are advised to search out the 2-CD/2-cassette compilation Profile: The Ultimate Sparks Collection. That 1991 release provides the best overview of the Mael brothers' first two decades, and will help you decide if you wish to investigate further.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Do Burned CDs Have a Short Life Span?

I thought I'd pass on this article from PC World:

http://msn.pcworld.com/news/article/0,aid,124312,00.asp?GT1=7645

Here is some key text:

Opinions vary on how to preserve data on digital storage media, such as optical CDs and DVDs. Kurt Gerecke, a physicist and storage expert at IBM Deutschland, has his own view: If you want to avoid having to burn new CDs every few years, use magnetic tapes to store all your pictures, videos and songs for a lifetime.

"Unlike pressed original CDs, burned CDs have a relatively short life span of between two to five years, depending on the quality of the CD," Gerecke says. "There are a few things you can do to extend the life of a burned CD, like keeping the disc in a cool, dark space, but not a whole lot more."

The problem is material degradation. Optical discs commonly used for burning, such as CD-R and CD-RW, have a recording surface consisting of a layer of dye that can be modified by heat to store data. The degradation process can result in the data "shifting" on the surface and thus becoming unreadable to the laser beam.

"Many of the cheap burnable CDs available at discount stores have a life span of around two years," Gerecke says. "Some of the better-quality discs offer a longer life span, of a maximum of five years."

Distinguishing high-quality burnable CDs from low-quality discs is difficult, he says, because few vendors use life span as a selling point.

Assuming that Mr. Gerecke knows what he's talking about, you are probably better off buying pre-recorded CDs than burning them, if you intend to keep them for a long time.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

David Lee Roth says Van Halen reunion "inevitable"

Oh boy. Are you ready for more reunion rumors? David Lee Roth said in a Tuesday Pittsburgh Tribune Review interview that it is "inevitable" that he will reunite with Van Halen, and predicts that it will happen sooner rather than later. Haven't we heard this before? Roth says:

"I talked to the drummer [Alex Van Halen] about a week ago. And I think, eventually, the inevitable will happen."

I'll believe it when I see it, and no sooner. Why am I skeptical? A good back story on this can be read in this article.

By the way, Roth made his debut this week as Howard Stern's replacement on a number of radio stations. It's mostly a talk radio show, with a minimum of music involved. He has plenty of enthusiasm and stories to tell, but time will tell if he can keep it going for any length of time.