Saturday, July 20, 2013

Third Man Records vinyl exclusives, Part 16

Last week I received the sixteenth set 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, who is the leader of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather, and is now a solo artist as well. 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 postal service, my package was sent on July 3rd. I received it on the 13th. (And it was sent by priority mail…).

This sixteenth set of items celebrates the 10-year anniversary of the release of the White Stripes’ pivotal 2003 album Elephant, featuring a live double-LP recorded that same year, a 7-inch single containing demo versions of two of that album’s songs, and a book containing photographs taken at the album’s recording studio sessions.

The 7-inch single, pressed in dark red vinyl with black whisps, contains demo versions of two of the songs on Elephant. Although it is billed as a White Stripes single, Jack actually recorded both sides solo, working with an old piano. The A-side is a demo of the piano ballad “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart”. It sounds basically similar to the finished version, without the guitar and with some expected demo roughness, although its two-track vocal effect does make it a fairly unusual-sounding demo. The one-minute B-side is a supposed demo of “Little Acorns”, which actually consists of the song’s spoken-word intro from Mort Crim and the sound of Jack working on the overlapping piano chords.

The double-LP Nine Miles From The White City (pressed on one red record and one white record) documents an intense July 2003 concert by the White Stripes, performed at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom. This album is more professional than some other live albums that have been released through the Vault. Both the playing and the sound quality are on a level that would be acceptable for a commercial release. This set took place at a time when the Stripes’ commercial fortunes were on the rise, and they were performing for larger crowds than before. (It sounds as though they filled up this 4,500-seat venue). Judging from the sound of this concert, the duo was feeling quite confident at this point, but they still seemed hungry – a combination that makes for a terrific night of rock and roll.

Of the 26 songs, six of them are selections from the then-new Elephant album. “The Hardest Button To Button” begins flawlessly, before Jack really lets loose with some intense primal screaming. On “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart”, Jack is able to convey good sounds on both organ and guitar, and on “Seven Nation Army” (which became their best-known song), he does a great, if not exactly seamless, job of seemingly providing both bass and lead guitar riffs. “The Air Near My Fingers” gets a good, straightforward treatment, as do the other seven selections on this live album’s third side. On “In The Cold, Cold Night”, Meg White charmingly warbles the lead vocal against Jack’s gentle guitar backdrop. And the Whites jam up a blues-rocking storm during “Ball and Biscuit” – and that storm doesn’t let up throughout the rest of this album’s fourth side.

Clearly, this concert was not merely an 80-minute commercial for the Elephant album, as their three previous albums were also well-represented. Of the selections from those albums, “Hotel Yorba” and “Do” are standouts; the opening number “When I Hear My Name” starts off the show with a fierce wall of feedback and percussion. The duo even performed an embryonic version of “Little Cream Soda”, the studio version of which turned up on Icky Thump four years later. (Instead of “little cream soda”, Jack’s lyric in this version was “Faygo cream soda”, a reference to a Detroit soft drink brand). They also didn’t forget to acknowledge a few obscure singles, as they included their Christmas oddity “Candy Cane Children” and Captain Beefheart’s “Party of Special Things To Do”.

Two Bob Dylan covers (“Love Sick”, “Black Jack Davey”) do the Bard justice, but the Whites show serious passion when performing blues covers. On Tommy Johnson’s “Cool Drink of Water Blues”, they achieve an authentic old-style blues sound; on Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breakin’ Down”, they deliver a blistering jam.

The only real disappointment is the overexcited performance of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”. Jack seemed to be frantically rushing through the song, as if he was in a hurry to get to the next one. That’s a small price to pay for the tireless level of energy that makes the rest of this set great. If you’re an avid White Stripes fan who wants all of the essentials, Nine Miles From The White City is a must-have.

The “bonus” item in this package is a book of photographs taken during the Elephant studio sessions in London in April 2002, by Whirlwind Heat singer David Swanson. Pictures From Elephant contains 44 black-and-white snapshots of Jack and Meg White in Liam Watson’s Toe-Rag Studios. According to Swanson’s foreword, the black-and-white photography was appropriate for the analog studio’s “old, dark, damp, and mostly desaturated” atmosphere. The book is a useful visual accessory to Elephant, providing a glimpse into the milieu in which the duo was able to create the album’s authentically old-fashioned blues sounds.

A 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 present on these items. The A-side of the single has “All complete sentences” carved in the dead wax; the B-side has “Trolling for Crim” carved. The double-LP has these four messages carved on its respective sides: “Got a phone call”, “From a girl down the street”, “Said ‘I saw someone you know’”, and “Made me look like a psychic”.


White Stripes “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart (demo)” b/w “Little Acorns (demo)” (Third Man single TMR212) 2013

Track Listing:

a. I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart (demo)
b. Little Acorns (demo)


The White Stripes - Nine Miles from the White City

The White Stripes “Nine Miles From The White City” (Third Man TMR211) 2013

Track Listing:

SIDE A

1. When I Hear My Name
2. Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground
3. Love Sick
4. Hotel Yorba
5. Aluminum
6. Cool Drink Of Water Blues
7. The Hardest Button To Button

SIDE B

8. I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart
9. Stones In My Passway
10. Stop Breakin’ Down
11. Do
12. In The Cold, Cold Night
13. Seven Nation Army

SIDE C

14. The Same Boy You’ve Always Known
15. Black Jack Davey
16. We Are Going To Be Friends
17. Offend In Every Way
18. Little Cream Soda
19. Cannon / Party of Special Things To Do
20. Candy Cane Children
21. The Air Near My Fingers

SIDE D

22. Screwdriver (tease)
23. Ball and Biscuit
24. Screwdriver (reprise)
25. Let’s Build A Home
26. Goin’ Back To Memphis


Bonus book:

Swanson, David. Pictures From Elephant. Nashville: Third Man Books, 2013.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Smash Palace (1985)

The New Jersey-based quintet called Smash Palace originally came from the same mid-‘80’s Philadelphia scene that hatched the Hooters and Robert Hazard. They were led by brothers Stephen and Brian Butler, who had previously played in an earlier new wave band called Quincy (aka Lulu Temple). In 1985, they appeared to be on the verge of gaining wider recognition when their self-titled Smash Palace album was released on Epic Records, and the video for their single “Living On The Borderline” gave them MTV exposure. Unfortunately, the album failed to take off commercially, and Smash Palace disappeared – until 14 years later. In 1999, the Butler brothers resurfaced in indie-land with a new Smash Palace lineup, and a new album called Fast, Long, Loud. And the band has continued to record during the years since then, releasing several more indie albums showcasing their respectable, mature brand of power pop. Brian Butler no longer performs live with the band, but he continues to be involved creatively.

What ever happened to that long-lost 1985 album released on Epic? The folks at that major label have probably forgotten about Smash Palace’s existence. The album was deleted decades ago, and has never been reissued.

Brian (lead vocals) and Stephen (guitar and vocals) co-wrote and co-arranged the album’s nine songs; they are also credited with co-producing the album with Tom Treumuth and Dick Wingate. These Butler brothers are not related to the Butler brothers (Richard and Tim) from the Psychedelic Furs, but the music on Smash Palace could lead someone to believe they were. Brian Butler’s lead vocals here bear more than passing resemblance to those of Richard Butler of the Furs, and the sound fits into the same basic mid-‘80’s new wave genre as the Mirror Moves-era Furs. But Smash Palace deserves to be regarded as more than just an album of its time period. The production and arrangements may date the album a bit; a then-fashionable keyboard sound is often present, even though no one is credited with playing the instrument. But these songs are rooted in a more timeless power pop tradition. Stephen’s ornate guitar effects (similar to those of U2's The Edge) help to distinguish the material, and also help to put an American spin on Smash Palace’s Anglo-influenced music. The lead-off track “Living On The Borderline” belongs on any essential collection of rock and roll songs from 1985; the rest of the tracks are also quite good, especially “Count The Days”, “Juliet To Me” and “No Love Lost”.


Smash Palace - Smash Palace

Smash Palace “Smash Palace” (Epic BFE 40075) 1985

Track Listing:

1. Living On The Borderline
2. Count The Days
3. Love Will Find A Way
4. Never Say No Again
5. Juliet To Me
6. No Love Lost
7. A Night To Remember
8. Pieces Of My Heart
9. Night Of A Thousand Faces


See also Quincy (aka Lulu Temple)