Some thoughts on Record Store Day

Published April 16, 2011

When I was younger, I dreamed of finding a record store that was like the one where Goldie Hawn works in Cactus Flower (scroll to about 0:24 for a short glimpse), or like Hayley Mills’ place of employment in The Family Way, or perhaps as manned by Elvis Presley on the sleeve of the Elvis For Everyone album (bizarrely, the first Elvis record I owned). Polite and friendly young women and men behind a counter, dressed in Sixties fashion, doing their best to keep their customers happy.

The reality turned out to be somewhat different. Whereas I could always lose myself happily browsing the actual singles and albums, I’ve often found record store counters to be very tense environments. Rather than a Goldie, Hayley or Elvis, I feel that I’ve more often been confronted with stuck-up and snobbish men doing their best to make you feel uncomfortable, eyeing your purchases suspiciously before passing silent judgment on whether your tastes in music are cool or not. Worst of all was the singles department at the Mega Store here in Stockholm, where the staff literally chose to ignore you because they were too busy chatting with their super-cool DJ friends. Being the naïve soul that I am, it took a long while before I finally realised that the record store I dreamed of didn’t actually exist.

Today is Record Store Day, celebrating independently owned record stores the world over with various events and special releases. The aim, according to the Record Store Day website, is to celebrate “the unique culture surrounding … independently owned record stores”. The picture painted is one where knowledgeable staff guide interested customers in their search of exciting new music. The dialogue between record shop attendant and music fan leads to a happy ending, where the customer leaves the shop with something he or she didn’t even know existed. Although I myself have seldom had similarly rewarding experiences in record stores – except, for some reason, in certain second-hand stores: the more eclectic the stock, the more relaxed the owner, seems to be the rule – the record store as such does still have a special place in my heart. I can still recall where I bought several of my records, and with age I've learned how to ignore rude staff. After all, for me it was mainly about the actual records and less about who sold them to me. For all the convenience of online shopping, a world with no physical record stores would indeed be a sad one.

 

Auto-tune + George Michael = a great combination

Published April 11, 2011

If you’re listening to mainstream pop these days, it’s virtually impossible to avoid the sound of the auto-tune effect on lead vocals. As such, its ubiquity has made it an increasingly controversial “gimmick”, at least among us old-timers who started listening to pop music long before Cher brought auto-tune-treated vocals into the mainstream with her 1998 mega-hit ‘Believe’.

Apparently, Kate Bush fans are currently up in arms because the singer has used auto-tune on her new single ‘Deeper Understanding’ (a re-make of a track from her 1989 Sensual World album). Another recent recording that has caused quite a stir is George Michael’s Comic Relief cover of New Order’s ‘True Faith’, on which Mr Panayiotou’s vocals have been heavily auto-tuned. Most people seem to hate it. Personally, I love it.

Auto-tune is a tool like any other in recorded music: it can be used to enhance a song or to ruin it. In this case, it has brought an elegiac feel to the recording, which I find quite moving. Imagine the opposite situation: George Michael over-emoting (as he has an unfortunate tendency to do) to showcase the “classic song qualities” of a tune us other mere mortals thought was simply a late-Eighties electronic dance track. Doesn’t sound very appealing to me. The fact of the matter is that he does manage to bring out a new dimension in 'True Faith', just by more subtle means. So give the man some credit for daring to take this route and mess with our expectations of both him as a vocalist and the song itself.

 

A kind of great Carpenters album

Published April 08, 2011

Reading the Little Girl Blue book, as blogged about the other day, sent me off on a Carpenters binge. I’ve been re-watching documentaries, browsing the good ol’ www, and, of course, listened to their music. Which got me thinking about how their music is perceived. I agree with Richard Carpenter when he says that “soft” doesn’t necessarily equal “bland”, and Carpenters are a good example of that, although to these ears they did stumble into bland territory on a few occasions.

However, I have to disagree with the general opinion of the 1976 release A Kind Of Hush, which seems to be Carpenters’ most-maligned studio album – the one that even die-hard Carpenters fans feel is bland. Even Richard Carpenter himself dislikes this album. Well, I have to admit that for listening from start to finish, this is my favourite Carpenters album. Remove ‘Breaking Up Is Hard To Do’ from the track list, and add the outtake ‘Ordinary Fool’ (not released until 1983), and it’s a near-perfect album. The song that’s often held up as the low-point of the album, ‘Goofus’, is one I absolutely love, just because it’s such a weird choice of song and they still manage to make something of it (I will admit I go through periods when all I want to listen to is ‘Goofus’) – although it’s definitely an album track and I have to wonder what Carpenters and A&M were thinking when they decided that it should be released as a single (was anyone really surprised when it only reached #56 on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart?).

What I particularly like about the Kind Of Hush album is its melancholia, its toned-down pensiveness, for want of a better word. Except for ‘Breaking Up...”, the strained jollity that sometimes marred their work, is absent from this album. By 1976 Carpenters were tired, and they do sound tired – not in the “over-the-hill” sense, just like they need to take a step back and think things over for a while.

So if you’re a Carpenters fan and have decided to neglect this album, based on what you may have read in books, on the Internet or elsewhere, I say: give it a shot – you may be surprised.

 

Little Girl Blue - The Life Of Karen Carpenter

Published April 06, 2011

Whether you love them or loathe them, Carpenters certainly had everything to carve their own unique niche in pop music history: a distinctive sound, a strong image – and a back-story that simply couldn’t have been made up. Out of a conservative, wholesome, little-too-close-knit family emerges a brother-and-sister duo, who, despite being adult millionaires, are more or less unable to leave home because their domineering mother won’t let them. And when they finally do, they move in together. At the height of their career the male half of this supposedly “squeaky-clean” act has to take a year out to rid himself of a Quaalude addiction, and the girl develops Anorexia Nervosa, ultimately leading to her death.

If you’re a long-time Carpenters fan, like me, you may have already watched a number of documentaries and perhaps even read Ray Coleman’s authorised biography of the group. But even though Coleman touched on many of the uncomfortable aspects of the Carpenters story, it was clear that he was held back here and there and was unable to tell the full, uncensored story. Randy L Schmidt had no such considerations in his biography Little Girl Blue – The Life Of Karen Carpenter (published last year in the United States and Great Britain). Although it was already quite obvious that Richard and Karen’s mother, Agnes, with her curious combination of coldness, inhibition and the need to control everything and everybody, was probably not someone I would like to spend a lot of time with (regardless of the positive qualities I'm sure she had as well), Schmidt’s book makes it clear that she was often even worse than that.

But Little Girl Blue is mainly about Karen, of course: her amazing voice, the fantastic music and all the other fascinating aspects of the Carpenters story are not forgotten. I was hooked from the first page and found the book virtually unputdownable, although in the final few chapters I kept wishing that the story would not end the way it inevitably would.

A highly recommended book, and I urge you to use one of the ordering links to the right for an engrossing read.