Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Third Man Records vinyl exclusives, Part 7

Last week I received the seventh pair of exclusive vinyl items offered to platinum members of Third Man Records’ Vault service. For those who are unaware, Third Man Records is the label owned by Jack White, the leader of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather. The Vault service promises to deliver exclusive vinyl-only records (one full-length album and one 7” single) to its platinum members every three months. According to the postmark, my package was sent on April 15th. I received it on the 18th.

This seventh set of items consists of a 2-LP compilation of all Third Man Records singles released in 2010, and two 7” singles. One of the singles features two cover songs from the 5.6.7.8’s. The other single contains three covers by the White Stripes of Captain Beefheart songs, recorded in 2000.

The 5.6.7.8’s are the Japanese girl group who are best known to American audiences for their appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1. The A-side of the single contains a cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ 1957 classic “Great Balls of Fire” and the B-side contains a cover of “Hanky Panky”, the 1963 Raindrops song which became a #1 hit for Tommy James and the Shondells in 1966. Jack White plays guitar on both. It’s fairly amusing to hear the group belt out “Great Balls of Fire”, mostly in the ladies’ native tongue. But what do they do with the repetitive “Hanky Panky”? They sing that one in English – I suppose it wasn’t heard to learn that line – but its reward comes from an instrumental jam between White and the ladies. It was wise to put that song on the B-side; after all, that was the original purpose of the song when the Raindrops first recorded it, before Tommy James managed to turn it into a chart-topping A-side.

The White Stripes single is a reissue of a single which was first issued in 2000 exclusively through a Sub Pop Records singles club (which apparently was the inspiration for these Third Man Vault packages). It contains covers of three Captain Beefheart songs: “Party of Special Things to Do” is on the A-side; “China Pig” and “Ashtray Heart” are both on the B-side. The reissue was done as a tribute to Beefheart and to former Sub Pop marketing V.P. Andy Kotowicz, who both died in 2010. Pressed in red-white-and-black tri-colored vinyl, the single demonstrates the results of Jack and Meg White’s application of their minimalist blues-rock ethic to the late Captain’s quirkier creations. The Whites make Beefheart’s songs a bit tidier and easier to approach, but all three songs lose some of their original vibrancy. It’s hard to fault the Whites for this result, because there truly was only one Don Van Vliet. Still, the Stripes’ versions are quite good, especially when the duo works up a head of steam on “Ashtray Heart”. Visually, the tri-colored single is an exquisite vinyl curio; the swirl effect is especially unique. (Note: The catalogue number for the original red-and-white vinyl issue was Sub Pop SP 527).

The 2-LP set Third Man Records Single Releases 2010 compiles the A-sides and B-sides of the singles released on Third Man that year, beginning with catalogue number TMR-029 and ending with TMR-068. (This excludes the exclusive singles included in the earlier Vault packages, as well as the Dead Weather’s triple-decker record and the White Stripes Christmas single that was exclusive to their 2010 Christmas Package).

Included among the compiled tracks are the two potent Dead Weather singles from their 2010 sophomore album Sea of Cowards (“Die By The Drop”, “Blue Blood Blues”) and their B-sides: “Old Mary”, a bizarre variation on a traditional prayer; and a fast and furious live version of “Jawbreaker”, recorded at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre. Four other tracks on the compilation belong to Karen Elson, who was Mrs. Jack White at the time. The haunting title track from her respectable debut album The Ghost Who Walks is a good opening track for any album. Maybe it’s just me, but listening to the song on vinyl seems to make its murder-ballad lyrics more effective. That song’s B-side, “Stolen Roses”, is similarly gothic but a shade less striking. The other Elson single, “The Truth is in the Dirt”, is passable but easier to forget; its non-album B-side is an adequate cover of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch”.

The Greenhornes, who have two members in common with the Raconteurs, recreate vintage British Invasion-era rock sounds on their three delightful tracks, two of which appeared on their confidently titled 2010 album **** (as in “four stars”). The other track, “Stay Together”, is a non-album B-side, and it actually comes after “Song 13” on this album, not before it as the back cover's track list has it sequenced.

This year’s spoken-word single from Third Man comes from late-night TV survivor Conan O’Brien, who also recorded a live album of cover songs for the label(!). The A-side is a comedy monologue from the point of view of Dr. Frankenstein; the B-side is an “interview” by Jack White, which basically consists of eight minutes of Jack and Conan playing off each other’s humor. Both sides are mildly amusing, especially if you’re looking to hear Conan goof on Jay Leno, but the single is for Conan-lovers only.

The young English folksinger Laura Marling offers simple, lovely acoustic covers of Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run The Game” (recorded in one take) and Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done”. The Secret Sisters, made up of Alabama siblings Laura and Lydia Rogers, contribute energetic and densely arranged versions of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and the ancient American folk song “Wabash Cannonball”, with help from White, Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket, and the Greenhornes/Raconteurs rhythm section. The two songs from ‘50’s rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson both appear on her recent album The Party Ain’t Over. Her rollicking rendition of Bob Dylan’s 2006 song “Thunder On The Mountain” name-checks her old friend Jerry Lee Lewis instead of Alicia Keys; her immediate version of the Bailes Brothers’ righteous “Dust On The Bible” is a welcome reminder of the country and gospel phases of Jackson’s history.

As for some of the lesser known artists included here…The two songs by Pujol are enjoyable straight-ahead rock and roll numbers that border on punk-like simplicity. The trio called Drakkar Sauna come across as creators of children’s songs for adults; imagine if Jack White produced They Might Be Giants. Their two cheerfully nonsensical songs, complete with references to Michael J. Fox and The Fly, are fun to hear. The Thornbills -- made up of Michigan cousins Tamara Finlay and Jim Weigand -- play a unique brand of folk-pop. The A-side, “Uncle Andrei”, is a Russian waltz partially sung in that language; the B-side, “Square Peg”, is a gentle, pretty tune involving the use of an autoharp. The Thornbills are the Third Man artist that I most hope to hear more from in the future.

Third Man Records Single Releases 2010 demonstrates an improvement in refinement and consistency over last year’s crop of Third Man singles. Third Man Records continues to be a vital indie label for its time; here’s hoping it doesn’t lose that vitality anytime soon.

Another note for fellow vinyl aficionados: the forgotten practice of engraving text in the dead wax, or runout grooves between the sticker and the last track’s grooves, is evident on these items. Side B of the 5.6.7.8’s single has the words “long live mad mike monsters” carved in the dead wax. Side A of the White Stripes single has “Two amazing spirits” carved; the B-side has “gone too soon” carved. The double-LP has the following messages etched in the runout grooves: “used to be little graves”, “confused about Roger’s sisters”, “now with no fade”, and “shaky meet zim”.


Various Artists “Third Man Records Single Releases 2010” (Third Man TMR077) 2011

Track Listing:

SIDE ONE

1. THE GHOST WHO WALKS – Karen Elson (TMR 029)
2. STOLEN ROSES – Karen Elson
3. DIE BY THE DROP – Dead Weather (TMR 036)
4. OLD MARY – Dead Weather
5. AND THEY CALL ME MAD? – Conan O’Brien (TMR 047)
6. INTERVIEW BY JACK WHITE – Conan O’Brien

SIDE TWO

1. BIG RIVER – The Secret Sisters (TMR 050)
2. WABASH CANNONBALL – The Secret Sisters
3. BLUE BLOOD BLUES – Dead Weather (TMR 055)
4. JAWBREAKER (live) – Dead Weather
5. THE TRUTH IS IN THE DIRT – Karen Elson (TMR 054)
6. SEASON OF THE WITCH – Karen Elson

SIDE THREE

1. BLACK RABBIT – Pujol (TMR 051)
2. TOO SAFE – Pujol
3. SAYING GOODBYE – The Greenhornes (TMR 060)
4. SONG 13 – The Greenhornes
5. STAY TOGETHER – The Greenhornes
6. LEAVE THAT HOLE ALONE – Drakkar Sauna (TMR 052)
7. BRUNDLEFLY, MY CHARIOT – Drakkar Sauna

SIDE FOUR

1. BLUES RUN THE GAME – Laura Marling (TMR 044)
2. THE NEEDLE AND THE DAMAGE DONE – Laura Marling
3. UNCLE ANDREI – The Thornbills (TMR 058)
4. SQUARE PEG – The Thornbills
5. THUNDER ON THE MOUNTAIN – Wanda Jackson (TMR 068)
6. DUST ON THE BIBLE – Wanda Jackson



The 5.6.7.8’s “Great Balls of Fire” (b/w “Hanky Panky”) (Third Man single TMR078) 2011

Track Listing:

a. Great Balls of Fire
b. Hanky Panky


The White Stripes “Party of Special Things to Do” (b/w “China Pig/Ashtray Heart”) (Third Man single TMR-079) 2011

Track Listing:

a. Party Of Special Things To Do
b. China Pig/Ashtray Heart

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Radiohead "Supercollider" and "The Butcher"

Those of us who purchased the Radiohead album The King Of Limbs as a digital download before April 18th received a pleasant surprise this week. The band thanked us by offering free downloads of two additional tracks, titled “Supercollider” and “The Butcher”.

These tracks were released on a limited edition 12-inch vinyl single as a Record Store Day item. The song on the B-side, “The Butcher”, was recorded during the King Of Limbs sessions. The A-side, “Supercollider”, was begun during those sessions but was finished this past March. Although both songs use the same basic ingredients – jittery beats, languid soundscapes, low-volume falsetto vocals – as the songs on The King Of Limbs, both of these tracks would probably stand apart (and stand out) if they had been included on the album. “Supercollider” is a seven-minute song with a fuller sound than most of the tracks on The King Of Limbs. Its use of keyboards makes it somewhat reminiscent of the more laid-back entries in the ‘80’s synth-rock genre. “The Butcher” has a somewhat more organic sound, although it could very well have been recorded the same way as the other songs from these sessions. That song has a spooky aura possibly created with the use of a Theremin.

When I listen to The King Of Limbs, my feeling is that it would not have been well-received if it were simply released through traditional commercial channels, especially on a major label. But the two tracks on this single do not leave the same impression. If Radiohead were still on EMI, for example, it’s not hard to imagine that label releasing these two songs. It’s hard to speculate whether this more accessible sound was conscious or accidental. In any case, both of these songs are quite good, though neither is as challenging as much of the band’s past work. Either Radiohead have stopped attempting to break new musical ground, or the world has caught up with them.

Radiohead “Supercollider” b/w “The Butcher” (single) (Ticker Tape Ltd. TICK002) 2011

Track Listing:

a. Supercollider
b. The Butcher

Radiohead - Supercollider / The Butcher

Note: Some of the vinyl copies had the stickers placed on the wrong sides of the vinyl, labeling the “Supercollider” side as the “Butcher” side and vice versa.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Liz Phair “Juvenilia” EP (1995)

Depending on your reference point, Liz Phair is either a daring alternative artist from the ‘90’s, or a commercial-minded one-hit-wonder from the ‘00’s. Phair made a name for herself with her 1993 debut album Exile In Guyville, an amazingly confident set of 18 lo-fi songs (some of which had very explicit sexual lyrics) which opened the door for similar female alternative artists that followed. She continued to push the envelope with her next two albums: the polished Whip-Smart (1994) and the sophisticated whitechocolatespaceegg (1998). But Phair’s next course of action was unexpected: after a five-year hiatus, she returned in 2003 with the self-titled Liz Phair album, a slickly produced set that was evidently designed to appeal to the Avril Lavigne crowd. That album yielded a Top 40 single called “Why Can’t I?”, but it also prompted a backlash from her older fans who felt she had sold out. She tried even harder to sell out on her 2005 album Somebody’s Miracle, an unabashed collection of Sheryl Crow-like mainstream pop, but the album failed to deliver a commercial miracle. It was either irony or poetic justice that Somebody’s Miracle sold fewer units than any of Phair’s previous albums.

After another five-year hiatus, Phair returned with her 2010 album Funstyle, which was initially sold as a digital download on her official site. On this album, she bears more resemblance to the irreverent Liz Phair who made waves in the ‘90’s, and she often makes fun of music industry commercialism in the lyrics. It’s fun to hear Phair casually run carefree and wild in indieland for the first time in over a decade. However, her use of flimsy hip-hop stylings sounds utterly phony, as if she is trying too hard to regain her hip credibility.

But the physical Funstyle CD is worthwhile for Phair’s long-time fans because of its bonus disc, which contains ten tracks from her much-bootlegged “Girly Sound” recordings. The original “Girly Sound” tapes were recorded in 1991 (before Exile In Guyville) on a four-track tape recorder. These demo-like tapes were circulated among a small number of people before some of the tracks were submitted to Matador Records, leading to Phair’s recording deal with that indie label. This bonus disc actually does restore Phair’s hip credibility, even though these tracks were recorded 20 years ago. These ten songs, recorded by Phair alone with an electric guitar, are provocative lo-fi delights, loaded with irreverent and subversive lyrics.

Before Funstyle, there was only one official release of any of Phair’s “Girly Sound” tracks. Five of the songs were included on her 1995 EP titled Juvenilia, which is now out of print.

Tracks 4 through 8 on Juvenilia are tracks from the “Girly Sound” tapes. One of them is “California”, which is also included on the Funstyle bonus disc, but that is the only overlapping track. That song and “South Dakota” (which is sung to the tune of Iggy Pop’s “Funtime”) both make joking references to sex with cows. The other three “Girly Sound” tracks (“Batmobile”, “Dead Shark”, “Easy”) are better examples of the blunt effectiveness of Phair’s early recordings. Unless these three tracks are officially re-released in the future, they may make Juvenilia worth owning for Phair’s avid fans. Still, half an EP’s worth of “Girly Sound” tracks doesn’t make much of an impact on the listener. While the Funstyle bonus disc makes the “Girly Sound” recordings seem like unearthed indie-rock treasures, Juvenilia makes them sound like they’re no big deal.

The other three tracks on Juvenilia are negligible. “Jealousy” is from the Whip-Smart album; it lacks strength as an opening track for the EP. The piano ballad “Animal Girl”, recorded live for Dutch radio, is not well-served by Phair’s vocal limitations. And her inferior cover of the Vapors’ “Turning Japanese” is interesting only because Phair is backed by Material Issue and sings it as a duet with the late Jim Ellison.


Liz Phair “Juvenilia” EP (Matador ole 129-2) 1995

Track Listing:

1. Jealousy
2. Turning Japanese
3. Animal Girl
4. California
5. South Dakota
6. Batmobile
7. Dead Shark
8. Easy


Liz Phair - Juvenilia