Pleasant Obsolescence – Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship, Charles Mingus, Willie Nelson, Lou Reed, Peter Tosh
Pleasant Obsolescence: The Legacy Vinyl Reissue Series
Appreciating music through alternative technology.
Sony’s Legacy reissue program is nice, if only to keep music circulating (and rotating) on vinyl. It’s not fancy. The vinyl is sturdy, but not cut from the great oozing slabs that qualify the richest collectors’ series. The packaging is flimsy, at least compared to the sweetly aging cardboard sleeves in which the discs were originally issued (probably the cheapest available process back then). Thrift scores of any of these LPs might be equally satisfying, but these are pretty sweet, too.
Blows Against the Empire – Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship (RCA/Legacy)
A super-confused sci-fi hippie folk concept album perfect for vinyl: double-gatefold liner notes filled with intricate scribbles and sketches, big San Francisco harmonies, and bigger San Francisco jams. Paul Kantner leads, the Jefferson Airplane morphing into the Starship but staying folky for a cosmic minute. Crosby sings ("A Child Is Moving"), Nash congas ("Hijack"), Garcia solos ("Have You Seen the Stars Tonite," "Starship"), and pretty much everybody from the Airplane (minus Jorma Kaukonen) steps on board. "We intend to highjack the first interstellar or interplanetary starship built by the people of this planet," they declare in neat print. "All positions open: captains, astral navigators, cooks, dancers, energy centers." "You will not be contacted immediately," they note. We’re still waiting, but Blows Against the Empire will help you use your valuable capital to stay vigilant by way of the Sony Corporation.
Mingus Ah Um – Charles Mingus (Columbia/Legacy)
Of this batch, Charles Mingus’s 18th album, Mingus Ah Um, suffers most from the cheap packaging, but is also the disc that should—perhaps—feel most at home on LP. With shiny material and obviously scanned-in rear-jacket text, it feels like holding a reproduction. Thankfully, the music is still the real thing, just as an essential starting point for the bassist/composer as it has been since my college housemate spun it incessantly. Bonafide classics (‘Better Git It In Your Soul,’ ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle,’ ‘Fables of Faubus’) serve as platforms for Mingus’s high-concept/control-freak improv, envisioned somewhere between composition and improvisation. Diane Dorr-Dorynek’s liners-as-news are entertaining, casual (‘He didn’t hear Bird until 1952’), informative (‘they are given different rows of notes to play against each chord’) and reverent. Little proper recording information, though. Good thing it’s a classic. Vinyl is nice. So is Wikipedia.
Red-Headed Stranger- Willie Nelson (Columbia/Legacy)
A country concept album is a bit of a strange concept to begin with, even beyond the usual challenges of making one idea sustain through two sides and liner notes. On Willie Nelson’s 1975 breakthrough masterpiece, both the title track and lead single (the 30-year old "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain") come from pens and minds other than the performing artist — not unusual in Nashville, but definitely in concept albums. Nelson’s interludes shape the story about the redheaded preacher who kills his wife and goes on the lam (or whatever), but twangy mope is a surprisingly durable unifier, as is having a 10-panel comic strip on the back cover. Other highlights that have nothing to do with anything besides how awesome an interpreter Willie is include Hank Cochran’s "Can I Sleep In Your Arms Tonight," one of approximately 356,222 perfect country songs Nelson has sung over the years., and no less classic than any of the other 356,221.
Berlin – Lou Reed (RCA/Legacy)
Holding Lou Reed’s Berlin on vinyl, one is struck by the fact that—while it’s a really good album that shouldn’t have bombed to begin with—it’s totally ridiculous. The cover is covered in ornate green script crediting ‘the Company,’ ‘the Choir’ and a few song lyrics. The track list itself is a bit tough to locate (on a small card in the center of the back cover), and more than half is comprised of songs originally written for the Velvet Underground. On vinyl, though, the pretentiousness is well-served: percolating strings on ‘Caroline Says II’ set into the piano, like a dark, deep cabaret stage. It’s a lot of pomposity to create the effect of total desolation. The result is big budget camp. Reed’s voice is tender, and while his recent revival of Berlin is sincere and well detailed, nothing can match the lived-in existential boredom of ‘How Do You Think It Feels,’ the snide Reed of the Factory appearing in the haze.
Legalize It – Peter Tosh (Columbia/Legacy)
The advantages of Peter Tosh’s Legalize It on vinyl are simple: a big flat surface. The pleasures are a little subtler. The solo debut by Marley’s former right-hand Wailer is a reggae classic, fersure, to the point of clichPrecisely, it’s easy to leave Tosh behind, when Marley’s catalogue, plus all the other contemporaneous Jamaican jams loom so large. But, on vinyl, where putting a slab of industrial material on a spinning wheel represents at least a little bit of muscular investment, Legalize It is a great vibe to hang with and not worry about the record dork specifics. Just enjoy the nice touches: the ambient jazz piano (Rhodes?) on ‘Igziabeher (Let Jah Be Praised),’ the reggae-folk adaptation/appropriation ‘Til Your Well Runs Dry,’ as well as ‘Why Must I Cry,’ a Tosh/Marley collaboration that is as sweet as any side from the Studio One Singles Box issued by Heartbeat last year.