Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Beatles – The Christmas Records (Vinyl Review)

From 1963 to 1969, The Beatles recorded a yearly off-the-cuff Christmas offering, pressed it onto economical flexi-disc material, and mailed it out to their adoring fan club members. After the band’s tumultuous year in 1970, they compiled all of the previously released holiday-themed material into one single LP (From Then To You) and mailed that out to their UK fan club members, with a similar LP release (The Beatles’ Christmas Album) being shipped out to their US fan club members the following spring. While multiple bootlegs and trading tapes have surfaced over the years, there’s never been an official release of the complete Christmas recordings available for purchase until this year’s highly anticipated and incredibly stunning The Christmas Records vinyl box set.

First things first, let’s get the logistics out of the way. The Christmas Records vinyl box set features all seven Beatles Christmas fan club singles pressed onto vivid color vinyl, tucked into original artwork sleeves, and all housed together with an accompanying 16-page booklet in a sturdy lift-top box. Since the original yearly releases were sent out on flimsy flexi-discs (a material that was so unruly that one of the newsletters included instructions on how to keep your record needle from jumping all over the disc), these new durable 7” vinyl pressings allow for the best listening experience that this material has ever been offered on. Additionally, the combination of original artwork sleeves with playfully colored vinyl strikes an amazing aesthetic balance that feels both true to the original and also refreshingly updated for old and new fans alike. Looking over each aspect of the design and production, it’s easy to see and feel the care and attention to detail that went into creating and presenting this vinyl box set in a manner that reflects the uniquely special nature of the material inside.

Amazing logistics aside, what makes this retrospective release so interesting is the manner in which it functions as an unintentional time lapse of the unparalleled trajectory of the band – professionally and creatively – in such a short time. The 16-page booklet features reproductions of the five year-end newsletters (the last two years of Christmas records didn’t include a newsletter) and there are a lot of interesting nuggets that remind fans just how much transpired during the Beatles all-too-short whirlwind career. It’s incredibly quaint to read the first Christmas newsletter from 1963 and see: “We’re all tremendously pleased to see how successful our fabulous foursome have been with their latest single “I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND” and their second LP album “WITH THE BEATLES”. The next year, the holiday newsletter posits the question “How would you like to start up a pen-friendship with a Beatle Person in America?” and gives details on how UK fans can swap letters with US fans. The Beatles are top-tier pop music mythos now, so these reminders of their early days bring an extra level of humanity and significance to their seemingly otherworldy existence.

Even the cover art on the singles help track the arc of the band’s creative evolution. The first three covers (covering the era of Please Please Me to Rubber Soul) feature black and white promo shots of the fresh-faced lads with a single splash of color in either the background or line of text. The following three singles (covering the era of Revolver to The Beatles/”The White Album”) feature experimental psychedelic collage work. The final Christmas single from 1969 (the year that saw both Yellow Submarine and Abbey Road released) is just a single blurry photo with no text or discernable framework. The band was essentially no more at this point – even the material on the 1969 Christmas single was recorded separately and feels disjointed when listened to – so the cover photo of something colorful and vibrant that’s been blurred to the point of disorientation is quite fitting as commentary for where the band was at that point.

Overall, this box set is really stunning in all of its visual components (box, sleeves, booklet of newsletters, wax color choices) and reading through the accompanying annual newsletter is a really interesting experience. On its own merits, the individual collection is absolutely worth the purchase to have all of the Christmas singles in one place and presented in such a cool way. Additionally, it’s really impressive to see what it brings to the table as a larger statement by encapsulating some of the wildly dramatic moments of The Beatles career in whimsically unpolished year-end snippets. Whether you’re a Beatles fan or just a fan of pop culture musical milestones, this beautiful collection of Christmas singles is well worth checking out.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Chuck Klosterman X by Chuck Klosterman (Book Review)

My perception of reality is so inflexibly personal that it has almost no correlation to what’s happening in the world outside of my own skull.

This Chuck Klosterman sentiment from “Something Else” – an essay that starts off by discussing the reasons he appreciates AC/DC more now as an adult than he ever did as a 14-year old (short answer: “AC/DC was too real for me. I preferred artifice”) and then transforms into commentary on how his previous preoccupation with death has now flipped in the age of immediate (and extreme) eulogization after a celebrity dies (using last year’s passing of David Bowie and Prince as examples) – is a beautifully concise peek behind the curtain into the overarching worldview and writing style that Klosterman has employed in his ever-developing career as an author, writer, and journalist. His newest offering, Chuck Klosterman X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century, is overflowing with these types of “existentialism via entertainment” dissertations as it collects a wide variety of his previously published pieces from the last decade and contextualizes them anew with updated introductions, footnotes, and unpublished passages.

Much like his other celebrated essay collection releases, Klosterman reveals himself to be an incredibly adept observer at the larger implications that can be mined from analyzing the deceptively ephemeral elements of our era (from minutia to mass consumption), especially when it comes to music, sports, television, film, and our popular culture at large. Throughout the book, Klosterman showcases an impressive range of topics and subjects that he handles with equal proficiency. Whether he’s interviewing musicians (Noel Gallagher of Oasis, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Stephen Malkmus of Pavement), profiling popular athletes (Kobe Bryant, Tim Tebow), trying (in vain) to cover the unearthing of a 50-year old time capsule in Tulsa, trying (in vain) to get Tom Brady to talk about Deflategate, discussing the significance of television shows like The McLaughlin Group, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men, eulogizing Lou Reed and Jani Lane, satirically cataloging all of The Beatles albums, or writing a 10,000-word essay on KISS, Klosterman covers a lot of (seemingly) tertiary territory and (unquestionably) draws out the underlying elements of humanity that can make a story involving a non-descript 1988 basketball game between two North Dakota junior college basketball teams seem incredibly weighty and rich for examination.

Of course, Klosterman is also just an incredibly engaging writer that can be read purely for entertainment purposes as well (and I mean that as the highest of creative compliments). I especially admire the way Klosterman approaches the past from purely non-nostalgic places. For example, when he was tasked with profiling Noel Gallagher around the release of his 2011 solo album High Flying Birds, Klosterman actually takes the opportunity to get Gallagher to have an in-depth discussion about Be Here Now, the maligned 1997 Oasis album that was self-admittedly fueled by so many drugs that cocaine should’ve been given a co-writing credit. Klosterman’s reason for his line of questioning is airtight: “When you like a band, you want to hear about the good times. When you love a band, you want to hear about the bad times.” So, instead of being an Oasis fan who wants to bask in the glory of the otherworldy success of their sophomore smash (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, Klosterman is an Oasis fan that is far more interested in the follow-up faceplant of Be Here Now and how that shaped the band’s legacy and Gallagher’s future creative output. Klosterman’s swerve results in an incredibly entertaining (and quite informative) interview that show’s Gallagher weighing in on the difference between fame and success (“Fame is something that is bestowed upon you because of success. Success is something you have to chase.”), how the band’s trajectory takes on a different spin if you view their catalog in reverse, and how the idea of “perception” doesn’t discredit what the band accomplished at the beginning of their career. Using an American football analogy, Gallagher hypothesizes that if you come from behind to tie an opponent with two minutes left then you feel like you’ve won but if you were leading the whole game and your opponent ties with two minutes left then you feel like you’ve lost; however, it’s still just a tie either way. While being an Oasis fan may heighten the level of your own enjoyment regarding a piece like this, Klosterman’s angles and insights allow for multiple takeaways that don’t make familiarity with the subject a requirement.

With almost 40 essays contained within it, Chuck Klosterman X almost guarantees to have a little something for everyone who has an even passing relationship with (or interest in) popular culture and the way humans interact with (and within) it. It doesn’t matter if he’s breaking down the difference between watching live sporting events versus DVR-ed ones (“We don’t crave live sporting events because we need immediacy; we crave them because they represent those (increasingly rare) circumstances where the entire spectrum of possibility is in play.”) or he’s trying to articulate his overwhelming personal connection to Charlie Brown (“I haven’t watched A Charlie Brown Christmas in at least twenty-five years, solely because I can’t emotionally reconcile the final scene: I can’t get over the fact that the other kids don’t tell Charlie Brown that his decision to pick the tiny, pathetic tree was ultimately the right call… This will bother me forever.”) or wondering if by not being well-versed in something as ubiquitous as the Harry Potter universe, is he “doomed to misunderstand everything else” that will transpire in future decades of popular culture when the “bookish kids reading Harry Potter… almost certainly go on to control the media”? (A point that shows up again in a footnote from his profile on Kobe Bryant: ‘But that’s not a universal thing. That’s like saying every wizard within Slytherin House is a villain.’ I pretend like this makes sense.”), Klosterman navigates cultural snapshots and the passage of time with an unbelievable level of intuitiveness, wit, and dexterity.

Besides, until another writer comes along that can start a piece off with the challenge of attending a Creed concert and a Nickelback concert in the same night, discuss the differences between acceptably reflexive hate and the kind you have to justify (example: “If you criticize Dave Matthews Band within earshot of even one of their fans, you will be forced to justify every negative feeling you possess to the fullest extent of the law”), veer off into a relevant aside about the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis, and then uncover what it means for two bands to represent the “most hated (yet popular) rock band” of one era and the “most popular (yet hated) rock band” of another, Klosterman’s got the market cornered.

Here's a list of Klosterman's upcoming book tour dates as well:

Friday, January 27, 2017

30 Iconic Records Turning 30 Years Old in 2017 (Paste Magazine)

(I originally wrote this article for Paste. Click on the picture for the full article.)

Saturday, January 21, 2017

10 Must-Hear Soundtracks Celebrating Their 30th Anniversary in 2017 (Paste Magazine)

(I originally wrote this article for Paste. Click on the picture for the full article.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Interview with Tracy Bonham


It's official: Tracy Bonham knows how to masterfully rock a NoiseTrade One-on-One like few else. We had an in-depth and engaging chat with the inspiring frontwoman about her debut album (The Burdens of Being Upright) turning 20, how its themes are still relevant for women in today's political climate, and how she's celebrating the album by re-recording it with a superstar cast of like-minded female artists (which includes members of Letters to Cleo, Belly, Frente, and much more!). 

You can also hear Tracy's exclusive Live at Levon Helm's Studios featuring exciting live versions of some catalog favorites and "Tell It To The Sky" from Modern Burdens HERE.

NoiseTrade: First off, how has it been to revisit The Burdens of Being Upright in its entirety 20 years after its initial release?

Tracy Bonham: This was something I had been meaning to do for a while and I had set the calendar for 2016 for the 20th anniversary release, but there are so many other things I have been doing: releasing Wax & Gold and finishing my Topsy Bonsai (working title TBA) children's/young music enthusiasts album (due out fall 2017), so I kept pushing it back. I realized that it was the official anniversary in March of 1996 but, I wasn't quite ready. I figured as long as I started working on it in the year 2016 my fans would be ok with that. 

As I began to dust off these songs, all crusted with angst from another time in my life, I had a really hard time finding relevant meaning for the lyrics. These songs were 90% about a horrible, I mean horrible, ex-boyfriend who treated me very badly in my twenties. I held a lot of anger and refused to forgive him for the longest time. I carried a lot of scars from that relationship. And I hate to say it wasn't that my heart was broken. I am not even sure I was in love with him. That is the weird part. I stayed with him and allowed him to treat me disrespectfully. I allowed him to, quite literally, abuse me. This is because I had no self esteem and no voice of my own. He was the epitome of a misogynist. He was a jailor and I allowed him to hold me captive. 

I know this may be hard to believe when you know my music because my music is so strong and powerful. But now as my fans (and friends and family for that matter) get to know me over these decades, they know that I use my writing and my music as my voice, the voice that is extremely hard for me to use in my daily life. This is something I continue to struggle with. I am actually afraid of conflict. This is how I ended up in this destructive relationship in my early twenties. 

So back to the plot: as I was trying to find new meaning for these old lyrics, I was hearing a lot of talk about misogyny in a social context. Trump was running for president against Hillary Clinton (what a circus that was!). Trump and his awful comments would often remind me of this ex-boyfriend (who is now departed from this world, from a drug overdose and I am not surprised) and a lot of my lyrics struck me again: "You're the one that froze the sun"... "Who's got the bulldog down below?"... Shaving cream is thicker than it seems/Shave them off and don't ask what it means." Needless to say, the project took on a whole new meaning. Since this realization, the album has turned into something even more exciting than a typical twentieth anniversary release. As we watched the elections turn from what we thought would catapult us into the year of the woman, it quickly became an effort to reach out to other women for help in the making of the album. It has now become a collaboration with other female artists to share our strong and powerful voices in a time of betrayal, in a time of confusion as to where the strong female voice currently stands in this mixed up country.

NT: What do you hear when you listen back to your younger self singing these songs?

Bonham: I hear a very angry and immature woman who hasn't yet found her power. I hear a young woman who was scared to use her power but thankfully had music as her platform and expression.

NT: What do you remember about the time these songs were written and recorded, in both your personal life and in the music industry at large?

Bonham: I remember being propped up by the music business as the next big thing, but then Alanis hit and I was the next second best thing. It was clear that there was only a small space for all the strong female artists to fit. This is why I wrote songs like "One Hit Wonder." I could feel the machine gather me up and I just knew in my heart that it would spit me out. 

While contemplating the fickle music business I was also exploring my own inability to commit to relationships in songs like "Sharks Can't Sleep" and "30 Seconds." Once I started touring it became even harder to hold down relationships and friendships and it bothered me that I had a revolving door for people in my life.

NT: To celebrate the milestone, you’re re-recording the album as Modern Burdens with a variety of kindred spirits, including Tanya Donelly (Throwing Muses/Belly), Kay Hanley (Letters to Cleo), Angie Hart (Frente), Nicole Atkins, Rachael Yamagata, and more. What first sparked this approach and how have the recording sessions gone?

Bonham: In October, my producer and friend John Wlaysewski, and I were talking about how exciting the new year would be since we were convinced that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency and it would be an amazing celebration for our country and for women everywhere. We thought it might be cool to invite a female singer to sing one song. I had been listening to Sad13 and Speedy Ortiz (Sadie DuPuis) and reached out to her via Twitter complementing her, saying I liked her music. Within seconds she responded enthusiastically saying how trippy it is that a role model such as myself would tweet at her just as she was listening to my album while driving on tour. That is when I just asked her, on a whim, if she would sing on my album. She immediately said yes. She told me later that my first album, The Burdens Of Being Upright, had influenced her greatly and that it was one of the reasons she became a songwriter. 

So then, we started thinking about other artists we could reach out to. i personally know Nicole Atkins, and she is one of my favorite singers of today, and when I asked her she gave an enthusiastic yes stating that my first album was an inspiration for her as well. This was fun..... my favorite singers are telling me that I influenced them. How cool is that? Then.... Nov 9th, 2016 happened. We all woke up (those of us who could actually go to sleep the night before) to a different outcome than we had expected. Trump had won the presidential election and I and everyone I know was baffled.We were stunned. We were depressed. We were horrified. This is when John and I got the idea to make this album a girl power album. This album became our protest to what was going on in the country. We were dismayed by all the women in this country who had voted for Trump. I started thinking about all the young girls and young women out there who were destroyed by this turn of events. So we started asking more artists to join and we were pleasantly surprised by the responses. I was flattered to know that my music was a part of these women's lives. It had been a long time and it is easy to forget what an impact my first album made. These beautiful and strong women reminded me that it mattered back then, and are now propping me up in a wonderfully collaborative way.

So far we have Nicole Atkins, Sadie DuPuis (Sad13/Speedy Ortiz), Rachael Yamagata, Tanya Donelly, (Throwing Muses/Belly), Angie Hart (Frente), Kay Hanley (Letters To Cleo), Kathryn Calder (New Pornographers), and we're currently getting a track together for Veruca Salt. I will be singing background vocals with all of the singers on their featured tracks and I have reserved three songs that are my personal favorites to sing lead. John and I are also writing an original song for everyone to join in and Pledge Music fans are also invited to sing as part of the process. Everyone can view the offer (among other things) here: 

NT: You’ve stated that the album’s 20-year old lyrics have once again found relevancy and are finding their way into present-day conversations about misogyny. Two decades on, what do you hope men and women will find (or rediscover) in your songs?

Bonham: I hope that the message will be clear that everyone has the power to heal and grow and stand up and be heard. If anyone finds themselves in a marginalized position and fears standing up for themselves they are not alone. But it is important to self advocate. It took, and is taking me, decades to finally learn this. It is never too late. With the help of these seven amazing female we are going to spread a message of solidarity, of courage, of healing, of grace, of empowerment.

NT: How did the idea for your hilarious “audition” video (featuring Fred Armisen) come together and how much fun did you have shooting it?

Bonham: I was inspired by Nicole Atkins' PledgeMusic intro video and how funny it was. I decided I wanted my video to be funny too, like a parody. Every other video I had watched was mediocre and most artists were pitching themselves, which is the most uncomfortable part of the equation. I wanted humor to break the ice. I called Fred, who has been a dear friend since 2003, to ask if he would help. He immediately said yes. Then it became all about scheduling, as he is a very busy person.

I didn't know what I wanted to do but I had an idea of an interview or an audition. But we didn't actually come up with the idea of ME auditioning for my own project until we were in the rehearsal studios in NYC waiting for Fred to arrive (2 hours late). When it hit me that I should be auditioning for my own rerecording of my original album, everything fell into place. Fred showed up and I gave him the plot and a clipboard. John Wlaysewski put up the "Modern Burdens Auditions, Please take a seat" sign on the door and the camera started rolling. Fred did all of that in one take and I felt like I was in a passenger seat of a race car. It was a total blast. I was laughing most of the time. In about an hour we were done. Fred is a genius.

NT: Finally, if you were asked to contribute as a guest on another artist’s reimaginged album, which album would you like to see get this same treatment and which song would you want to cover with them? 

Bonham: I would love it if Supergrass would ask me to guest on their reimagined album I Should Coco to sing songs like "I'd Like To Know" or "We're Not Supposed To." I would probably giggle the whole time because I have crushes on them. But that album, and all of their albums, set a soundtrack for that time in my life and it would be fun to revisit. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

Interview with Tift Merritt


We decided to kick off a new year of NoiseTrade One-on-One interviews with a bang by sitting down and chatting with alt-folk singer-songwriter Tift Merritt. The multi-talented troubadour is releasing her sixth studio album Stitch of the World (Yep Roc Records) on January 27, so we got her personal take on her new batch of songs, what inspires her while writing and recording, and what she has taken away from the experience of working so closely with artists like Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), Andrew Bird, and Hiss Golden Messenger. 

NoiseTrade: I love the evocative title of your new record, Stitch of the World. What can you tell us about the meaning of that title and about the themes in your new collection of songs? 
Tift Merritt: The inspiration came when I was in California and had rented a cabin for my 40th birthday. I was looking out the window at one of those surreal California sea cliff views where the stars and the trees were just so startlingly beautiful that it didn't look real. It looked like some of those old felt cut-outs where you could create your own landscapes. I just started to think about how it looked stitched together and how lucky I was that I was stitched into the picture as well. I asked myself what all of these invisible stitches that hold us together and to each other might look like. Where are all of those invisible seams? Which ones are in our control and which ones are not? That metaphor turned out to be a idea about how to navigate life. If you pull the seams too tight, they'll break. If you aren't careful with them, they'll knot. Maybe the best way to navigate life is to try and be gentle with this thread and be joyful and light-hearted about how we are connected to everything. Spending time writing these new songs in these intense landscapes - the California coast and down on a dramatically beautiful Texas ranch - was a great reminder to be humble about it all.

NT: How did being pregnant with your daughter shape the songs on your new record?

Merritt: Most of the songs were already written by the time I found out I was pregnant, so a lot of them are not mining that specific territory. During that time though, I did move back to North Carolina from New York and I was worried that it would become extremely difficult to sustain my music career. As much as it was a very magical, hopeful process, there was also bit of the feeling of going blindly into something. I think motherhood, which I'm now experiencing, and the joyfulness and openness of it all will affect my songwriting in a completely new way from here on out.

NT: Some of the album was even recorded while you were pregnant, correct?

Merritt: Yeah, we recorded everything pretty fast and I was really worried that I would be too tired or would push myself too hard because I was almost in my third trimester. However, I found out that just being responsible for someone else and literally carrying someone else inside you made the physical experience of singing and playing music even better. You might be singing or playing into a microphone, but that sound is moving through your body and through another person. All of my musical experiences while I was pregnant were really special because I was conversing with my daughter. Whether it was my guitar right up against here or the sheer physicality of singing, I know that she experienced part of that and I really love that.

NT: One of the new songs on your NoiseTrade sampler is “Love Soldiers On” and you’ve said that you were initially inspired while you were watching ranch hands work their daily routine. How did that inspiration transform into the final song?

Merritt: I've always been fascinated by day-to-day process in life. We always talk about the "artistic" process, but we don't talk about how everybody has a process, no matter what they are doing. Watching the ranch hands every day contributed to that thought. It was a very pastoral scene and it felt so romantic, like "Now I want to be a cowboy." The other side of it though, is the monotony. However, there is such a cool requirement in keeping on going. That's the stuff of life, especially in terms of love. Sometimes it's about staying in the trenches and soldiering on. We don't always hear about love's small, quiet everyday victories, but they are so present and so important.

NT: Another one of the new songs represented here is the album’s first single “Dusty Old Man.” Sounds like you and your band were having some fun on that one.

Merritt: I had started playing around with open tunings on my guitar and it reminded me of an old Bonnie Raitt record that I love. The happy, carefree side of the blues, you know? I was thinking so much about that when I was writing and recording that song. I really love the driving beat of it and getting to hear Sam singing "Love" at the top of his voice.

NT: Speaking of Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), he appears on three of the songs on your new album. How did that musical partnership come about between you two?

Merritt: Yes, Sam's a huge part of this record and he helped me with it so much. I have so much admiration for him and I feel so lucky to have a dear friendship with him. I was dealing with a lot of things during the writing process and I didn't always feel like I knew what I was doing. I ended up writing from a really honest place because I didn't always know what my own perspective was on some things. I was able to send him some of the songs during the writing process and he gave me such honest feedback. He also said he wanted to come out and be a part of the recording sessions and that was such a huge gift to me, both professionally and personally.

NT: You also spent some time touring with Andrew Bird in his Hands of Glory band and you appeared on the recent Hiss Golden Messenger album, Heart Like A Levee. What have you taken away from the experiences of working with those artists?

Merritt: I've learned so, so, so much from working with them both. Those projects are such huge gifts for me. You get to see how someone else creates, how they bring their passion to life, and how they run their band. Andrew is a virtuoso, so we come at music from such different places. Playing in his band and trying to help make him feel secure and free to shine has been super rewarding and I love singing with Andrew. I've also had such a ball with Hiss Golden Messenger and in some ways them reaching out to me during my transition back to North Carolina kind of saved my life. They were so encouraging and it meant so much to me. It is wonderful to be around them. I feel so fortunate to have both camps as my musical extended family and my friends.