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Miles Davis In The 80s: My Retrospective Inspired By That’s What Happened 1982-1985: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 7

I was a late bloomer regarding a lot of things – including music. I was only vaguely aware of pop and rock music as a kid – even as a teenager. As a kid, I was into classical music, big band music, and ragtime. When I was in college my ears were opened to rock and jazz – and specifically to jazz-rock fusion. I got into two Miles Davis masterpieces: Kind of Blue (1959 – jazz) and Bitches Brew (1970 – jazz-rock fusion). I quickly became a music-head/obsessive.

Kind of Blue was an easy entry – it is totally accessible and most people like it right away. Bitches Brew is another matter – it is hard to digest. I bet it took a hundred listens over several years before I learned to like it – it took persistence. I never understood why Mile’s electric jazz-rock was considered a sell-out – it was hardly commercial – it was challenging to listen to.

When I was getting into Miles in the late 70s he was off the grid – he was in a 5-year “lost period.” We learned later that he was drugged out and at times speedballing (injecting himself with a cocktail of heroin and cocaine) and not into music. In a 1982 interview with Musician Magazine, when asked what he did during that time, Miles answered: “Nothin’. Gettin’ high. I didn’t feel like playing the trumpet, didn’t feel like listening to music. Didn’t want to hear it, see it, smell it, nothin’ about it… I didn’t come out of the house for about four years… But then Dizzy came around and said, ‘What the fuck are you doing? You were put here to play music!’ So I started back.”

It was a big deal in 1981 when Miles released The Man With The Horn after several years of silence and even a longer time since he had produced new material. I bought it right away as it was new Miles. The critics said it was pop, but it didn’t sound like pop to me. It sounded like unlistenable shit. But I reverently listened to it and continued to buy the next several studio albums (1983’s Star People, 1984’s Decoy and 1985’s You’re Under Arrest). Some of the material was accessible, very pop, and in line with the lite jazz of the day. I didn’t get it, but assumed I was just too ignorant to get the great master.

The only time I witnessed Mile live was in November of 1981 in Minneapolis. It would have been shortly after his appearance on Saturday Night Live and around the time We Want Miles would have been recorded. I don’t remember much other than Miles stalking the stage and that it was more like watching a rehearsal. Miles was more engaged with his band than the audience. I recall he played keyboards with one hand and trumpet with the other. I recall being more captured by Miles the celebrity, vs. Miles the musician.

My first revelation that there was greatness to the 1981-1985 material was the 20 CD box: The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991. The live material from that era put the music in a new and exciting light. I could now see the brilliance of what he was doing. It was pop jazz, but that was OK as it was well executed and had a unique take that was different from anything anyone else did. Miles had successfully reinvented himself again. I went back to those early 80s albums and now appreciated them. Although The Man With The Horn is the weakest of the four and 1982’s live album We Want Miles would have opened my eyes sooner if I had listened to that when it first came out.

This brings us to That’s What Happened 1982-1985: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 7. It is a three-CD set that includes two discs of previously unreleased studio material from the Star People, Decoy and You’re Under Arrest sessions–and a third disc showcasing Miles Davis live in Montreal on July 7, 1983. I chose to get the two-LP (vinyl) release that collects highlights of the studio material pressed on white vinyl (note the CD is a more complete collection). The three-CD set is available on streaming services. The live set from the third CD is available on Record Store Day release from 2022 titled What It Is: Montreal 7/7/83 and is still available in many independent record stores (I picked that up too).

LP 1 Side A:

“Santana” – As best I know, this song is unreleased. Per the liner notes it is from the Star People sessions. It is a funk workout with Miles as an engaged soloist on muted trumpet. Saxophonist Bill Evans is a worthy foil to Miles. Guitarist Mike Stern has figured out his role (he seemed a bit overwhelmed on The Man With The Horn).

“Minor Ninths” (Part 2) is Miles on electric piano and trombonist J.J. Johnson, an old friend, playing a slow and moody blues solo. Although not documented in the liner notes, based on the recording date I assume this is from the Star People sessions.

“Celestial Blues (Part 2)” – Again based on the recording date and musicians, I assume this is from the Star People sessions. This is a funky blues that is more of a jam session, than a tune. Miles sounds great on open-horn (not muted, although it has echo). Miles really swings on the track.

LP 1 Side B:

“Remake Of OBX Ballad” – Yet again, I assume this is from the Star People sessions. Miles only plays synth under a smooth jazz solo from Bill Evans and a similarly smooth guitar solo from Mike Stern. Despite the smooth jazz genre, it is tasteful and not schlocky.

Miles brilliantly curated some of the best pop ballad melodies from the 80s. He covered them with a gentle beauty. From the You’re Under Arrest sessions we have alternate takes of “Time After Time” (Cyndi Lauper) and “Human Nature” (Michael Jackson). Miles must have concluded that including another 80s mega-hit cover on You’re Under Arrest would have been overkill, but he should have gone for it – “What’s Love Got To Do With It” (Tina Turner) is as good as anything on You’re Under Arrest. These covers are dated – they reek of 80s production values – but in a good way. This stuff sounded great at the time and still sounds great. It should be no surprise that Miles would create lite-jazz masterpieces.

LP 2 Side C:

“Freaky Deaky” (vinyl Edit) – Per the liner notes this tune comes from a Decoy session cassette from guitarist John Scofield’s collection. “Freaky Deaky” appeared as an alternative version of Decoy. This is a slow mellow blues. I can see why Sco saved this recording – his solo is tasty!

“Never Loved Like This” is a You’re Under Arrest session demo. This tune was part of a medley that concludes that album. It is an absolutely beautiful ballad and Miles plays a very clean and unadorned horn. His tone is spectacular.

“Hopscotch” (fast) – is a You’re Under Arrest outtake. This is one of my favorite songs on this release. It is funky AF and has a great hook, Miles’ solo is playful.

LP 2 Side D:

“Theme From Jack Johnson (Right Off) / Intro” is from the You’re Under Arrest sessions. It is the only song that comes from Miles’ back catalog: 1971’s Tribute To Jack Johnson. It is funky and sounds like jazz that Miles and Prince would make.

“Katia” (full session from You’re Under Arrest) is a special delight that includes a stinging solo from guitarist extraordinaire John McLaughlin over a funky groove from bassist Daryl Jones. Miles muted trumpet spars with McLaughlin. Great jam!

The live album (disk 3 on the CD release) What It Is: Montreal 7/7/83 is Miles back on the top of his game with an amazing band: John Scofield on guitar, Bill “The Other Bill Evans” Evans on saxophones, flute, and electric piano, Darryl Jones on bass, Al Foster on drums, and percussionist Mino Cinelu. It includes tracks from that year’s Star People, the Marcus Miller tune “Hopscotch” and the song “Jean-Pierre” that appeared on 1982’s We Want Miles. The recordings of “What It Is” and “That’s What Happened” were so well thought of by Miles that he utilized them for his 1984 release Decoy, but in heavily edited form and this release includes the first release of them in complete form. The audio quality of the live set is near studio quality – it is stunning. Miles and the band’s performance is amazing. This is jazz rock funk fusion at its best. It may not be for everybody, but it is all right with me!

Maligning Miles’ 80s output is mistaken – That’s What Happened 1982-1985: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 7 is proof Miles was not washed up in the 80s, but on to a new and exciting chapter in his career. He is a jazz-leaning peer of his pop contemporaries like Prince and Michael Jackson versus conventional jazz players of the 80s (e.g. the hard bop young lions or even pop/jazz-lite purveyors). As usual, Miles has recruited amazing young talent to achieve his vision. I was as guilty as any of not appreciating Miles’ 80s catalog at the time. It took me a while to get it, but now I love this period of Miles’career as much as the universally acclaimed periods.


Rega Planar 3 (P3) Turntable

I don’t consider myself an audiophile, merely a musichead who likes good sound. I am not technical, so this is non-technical subjective review.

I recently upgraded my Phoenix location (AKA Desert 🌵 Sessions) turntable. I had been using my daughter’s Music Hall. I knew eventually I would need to return it to her and I thought I would give myself a retirement gift.

I am 64 years old and have been serious a collector of LPs for 45 years. When the CD era began I switched over to CDs, but thankfully I never got rid of my LPs. I have about 4,000 LPs, 3,000 CDs and 200 45s. I had a pretty nice Sony turntable (Sony PS-X600 Biotracer Full-Automatic Direct Drive with a Shure V15 Type V Cartridge) that I picked up in the late 70s. By the mid-80s I mostly listened to CDs, but sometime in the late 00s I started listening to vinyl again and in the spring of 2011 I purchased a new turntable: a Pro-Ject Audio RPM 1.3 Genie. The Sony was wearing out. The Pro-Ject continues to serve in Minneapolis. I love that turntable except that I get a mild hum, which I assume is the motor – no amount of isolation has solved that. So I thought for this next purchase I would try another brand and double my budget.

I selected the Rega P3 (see link for details) because it got great reviews, was in my price range (below $1500) and it came in red. I found a great hi-fi dealer in The Valley: Audio Video Excellence who sold Regas and had various models set up in-store for auditioning. I brought several LPs into the store and owner Bob Koopman set me up in a listening room and let me audition in peace. After 30 minutes I was sold. They did not have a red P3 in stock, but had some inventory coming in a few days. I bought it and picked it up a few days later. Bob personally checked it out and assured me it was properly set up.

A new turntable (actually the cartridge) needs about 50 hours to break in. Although, it sounded great from the get go. It is now broken in and sounds fantastic – better than my Minneapolis turntable (as the P3 should at more than twice the cost of the Pro-Ject). What do I like about the P3?

  • Low to no noise
  • Visually gorgeous
  • Sounds fantastic
  • Love the build quality of the arm
  • Great factory cartridge
  • A cool feature is that the ground is built into the RCA cables – why don’t all manufacturers do this?
  • The platter is slightly smaller than a 12 inch LP which makes it easy to switch and flip records – again why don’t all manufacturers do this?
  • Did I say it sounds fantastic?

The P3 is not turntable perfection. A few issues:

  • The dust cover was scuffed. The dealer quickly addressed the dust cover and got me a replacement.
  • The motor has a weird noise on start up and slack in the belt (see video below). Googling this and talking to Bob I learned this is normal. The good news is there is no motor noise coming through the speakers and once up to speed there is vey little to no ambient motor noise. Is this why I see so many people in the Rega Facebook group upgrading their sub-platters?
  • Like a lot of manual turntables, changing speeds is a production: remove the platter and shift the belt. However, this can be resolved with an optional external power supply. This is not much of an issue for me as I rarely play 45s.
  • I wish it was a little heavier. Not due to sound, but if you don’t lift the dust cover with two hands the table moves. I had similar issues with the Music Hall. Rega claims their lightweight plinths are low mass/low energy storage resulting in better sound. I do love the visual profile of the thin plinth!
  • The feet are not adjustable and so you have to improvise leveling. This is not a unique problem to Rega and not a big deal.
  • The spindle is short and so my Michell record clamp doesn’t work. The Rega user base is of mixed opinion on record clamps (this is not unique to Regs users) – with the majority anti-record clamp. Allegedly Rega advises against clamps, but I have not seen anything official on that. This is not a big deal as Michell makes a clamp for short spindles.
Weird noise and belt slack

Overall, I am very pleased with the Rega P3. It is not perfect as I note, but the audiophile business rarely is – especially pure analog like turntable. The most important feature is the sound, and on that note, the P3 is heavenly. Although, I shouldn’t care, looks do matter and the Rega is a visually beautiful piece of equipment.

Final point: never underestimate the value of a good local dealer. You can’t audition, talk to an expert, double check the set up, or resolve a damaged dust cover easily on line. Audio Video Excellence is a top notch hi-fi dealership and they made all the difference in this, dare I say, transaction. Correction: experience.

🌵Desert Sessions rig

Bob Dylan: Fragments – Time Out of Mind Sessions 1996-1997 The Bootleg Series Vol. 17

Time Out Of Mind (TOOM) is one of my top-5 Dylan albums (see my hall of fame post here). I have been looking forward to this bootleg edition for years – we had been teased with TOOM bonus material in 2008 on the Tell-Tale Signs bootleg. Fragments, the latest entry in the Dylan bootleg series, is focused on TOOM. It includes: a significant remix of the album, alternate takes, unreleased songs, and live TOOM material. Below is the official Fragments unboxing video:

Part One – the remix

I was apprehensive about the TOOM remix. Normally, I would find the remix of a masterpiece album as heretical – especially when the key feature of that album was its sonics/production/mix. However, for years I have heard that Dylan was not happy with the TOOM production. When TOOM was released I was a huge fan of Daniel Lanois productions: Eno, U2, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robinson, Emmy Lou Harris, etc. Dylan’s Oh Mercy had been produced by Lanois and I loved the production on that album. So in 1997, after a long songwriting drought, the fact that Dylan was releasing a new album with new songs with Daniel Lanois was a thrill. This did not seem like an album that should be messed with.

When TOOM first came out I recall being highly distracted by the processing of Dylan’s vocals, But over time, I grew to love it. I loved the swampy fog of the overall production. Usually I don’t like it when a producer’s aesthetic overpowers the artist, but Lanois is an exception – I like his meddling with my favorite artists. And in the case of TOOM, I felt that Dylan and Lanois had brilliantly collaborated to create a masterpiece: lyrically, musically and sonically.

I never understood Dylan’s frustration with TOOM given its critical and commercial success. But after my first listen of mix-master Michael Brauer’s remix on Fragments, I get Dylan’s frustration. It reminds me of when I first got glasses as a kid. I had normalized blurry vision. When I put on that first pair of glasses the clarity was shocking (in a good way). I am similarly shocked by the Brauer remix of TOOM and the clarity it brings to the songs and performance of Dylan and the band. My initial reaction to Fragments is, despite the success of TOOM, Lanois had overreached by obscuring Dylan with his own artistic swampy vision. No wonder Dylan was pissed. Dylan famously declared his distaste for Lanois’ production of TOOM in a 2001 Rolling Stone interview saying that Lanois’ “swampy voodoo thing” resulted in a “sameness to the rhythms.”

Michael Brauer has successfully created an alternative version of TOOM without changing its fundamental beauty. He has reduced the processing on Dylan’s voice and brought forward the instruments without overpowering Dylan’s vocals. Per Brauer:

“It’s more of a singer-songwriter approach” and he was determined to “maintain the integrity and the essence of an iconic record.”

I judge the remix a success – it reveals another TOOM without subverting the original. I don’t love the original album any less, in fact I appreciate it even more. I am a huge Steven Hyden fan and I love his essay in Fragments. He captured my feelings about Fragments perfectly when he writes in the liner notes:

For someone who has listened to Time Out Of Mind more times than I could possibly count, this set is a real gift – for the first time since 1997, I can hear one of my favorite Dylan records with fresh ears.

Part Two – outtakes, alternative versions and previously unreleased material

The backstory of TOOM was that recordings were worked on at Lanois’ Teatro studio in California, but Dylan did not like the vibe and moved the production to Criteria Studios in Miami Florida. Once at Criterion, more players got involved- including a who’s who of session royalty and some of Dylan’s touring band. The outtakes and alternative versions come from both studios. It is cool to get a peek at the evolution of the songwriting, arrangements and production. Lyrics change, arrangements are changed, and some songs are ultimately abandoned or deferred to future albums.

There is a lot to absorb here and I imagine spending a few months listening to these outtakes and alternate versions. But some initial highlights for me:

Fragments outtakes and alternates opens with “The Water Is Wide” – it is the perfect transition from the folk songs of his prior two releases and TOOM. It is a traditional Scottish folk song performed early in the Teatro sessions.

“‘Till I Fell In Love With You” (Version 1) is a faster more rocking version from what appears on the original album.

“Can’t Wait” (Version 1) is a completely different vibe from what appears on the original album. Much more urgency to it.

“Dirt Road Blues” (Version 1) is a wonderfully raucous joy.

“Mississippi” is one of my favorite Dylan tracks. My initial exposure to the song was Sheryl Crow’s cover. “Version 1” on Fragments is great, but I can see why it did not make the cut for TOOM – too playful. This is a song that gave Dylan trouble – Fragments has five studio versions. Ironically it never did appear on TOOM, but finally found a place on his next album Love and Theft. I like all the versions presented here and on Love and Theft. Not sure which one I would have picked for TOOM or Love and Theft.

The alternative version of “Cold Irons Bound” has a nice funkiness to it – a little simpler arrangement than the final version.

“Love Sick” (Version 2) vocals are exceptionally smooth and sweet. This alternative version is reason enough for the deluxe bootleg to exist.

“Make You Feel My Love” may be the schmaltziest song in Dylan’s catalog. The “Take 1” version however, is simply arranged and just plain beautiful. This is one of those Dylan songs that is better in cover artist hands than Dylan’s.

Some of the outtakes and alternates were on 2006’s bootleg Tell-Tale Signs. Although these songs where previously released, it is nice to have them here with the rest of the TOOM tracks. Tell-Tale Signs is one of my favorites in the bootleg series.

Part Three – live

Fragments attempts to provides a TOOM live experience by including live versions of the album tracks from the few years after the release of TOOM. The performances are great, but the recording quality is poor (although they sound better on vinyl on the big boy stereo vs digital via earbuds). But it is worth it to hear these songs live. Most are close to the album arrangements, but some are completely different. There aren’t liner notes on the life stuff, but Dylan obsessive Ray Padget does a nice job here of creating liner notes for live tracks. Note there is not a version of “Dirt Road Blues” given Dylan has never performed it live.

Vinyl edition – deluxe, numbered (mine is #2700), and limited to 5000

I ordered my vinyl edition when Fragments was first announced. It didn’t ship until after release date and arrived at my home a week later. It did sellout and it is being sold for double the list price on Discogs. I initially panicked when it arrived as the shipping box was damaged.

Fortunately the actual product was well packed and survived the shipping abuse.

The vinyl sounds great – clean and well pressed. I hope to write another post comparing the vinyl to digital high-resolution streaming (Tidal). The package for the box set is nicely done. There are five gatefold double albums – each double album is the equivalent of the CD version. The is a nice booklet with great photos, memorabilia and liner notes (essays by Douglas Brinkley and Steven Hyden).

Parting thoughts

The “Dylan Camp” has taken a different approach with this bootleg. Normally to get the full package you have to buy it (vinyl, CD, or downloads) and only a sampler is on streaming services. Sometimes a few years later the full release is made available on streaming (but you never get the liner note or art). This time all the music is available day one on streaming services. As a guy who spent $275 on a preorder of vinyl I have no issue with this. Selfishly I like the high resolution streaming access (I use Tidal) for mobile access and given vinyl shipping delays it was my only access. But more importantly I want people who can’t afford or those who only have casual interest to have access.

I am still digesting Fragments, but one thing is clear, TOOM would have been a success even without Daniel Lanois – it’s the songs not the production. However, Lanois’ pixie dust created a unique sonic masterpiece in the Dylan catalog and for that I am thankful. The fundamental bluesy/Americana nature of the arrangements would become the sonic approach for the rest of Dylan’s career. Fragments does not betray TOOM – it increases my appreciation of the masterpiece. This is exactly what a deluxe and expanded edition of an important album should do.

Various links:

  • Jeff Slate’s Daily Beast article including interviews with producer Daniel Lanois and engineer Mark Howard here
  • Interview (podcast) with remixer Michael Brauer
  • Interview (podcast) with Steven Hyden who wrote the liner notes for Fragments
  • Discussion (podcast) with Jeff Slate on Fragments
  • Ray Padget’s notes on Fragments live tracks
  • Dylan FM Substack has more information on TOOM than the average human can consume

🌵 Desert Sessions 🌵 2.0: Cheap Used Records – Ronnie Laws – Pressure Sensitive

Ronnie Laws – Pressure Sensitive (1975)

Well now we are talking real cheap: 25¢. It is just a little worn – not bad at all – playable. This is a really easy album to find cheap (it reached number 25 on the Billboard soul chart).

This is a excellent soul jazz LP. After working with trumpeter Hugh Masekela and Earth Wind and Fire, Ronnie Laws decided to go solo and put out this LP. Produced by jazz super producer George Butler and Wayne Henderson of The Crusaders, the album has a pop jazz sound – on the funky side of pop jazz vs. the smooth jazz side. Not too slick, in fact a little greazy.

🌵 Desert Sessions 🌵 2.0: Cheap Used Records – Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants”

Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants”

This is a weird-ass follow up to the artistic and commercial success of Songs In The Key Of Life. It is a soundtrack (mostly incidental music, but some songs with vocals too) to a documentary film (based on a book). I have never seen the movie. Last I checked Stevie is blind, so the fact he wrote a movie soundtrack blows my mind.

Some background per Wikipedia

“Wonder created the film score by having Michael Braun, the film’s producer, describe each visual image in detail, while the sound engineer, Gary Olazabal, specified the length of a passage. This information was processed to a four-track tape (with the film’s sound on one of the tracks), leaving Wonder space to add his own musical accompaniment. Wonder attempted to translate the complex information of the book and film into song lyrics.”

This is not a pop album, but given it is the work of a pop savant, it has pop elements. It is a cool album to examine the more experimental side of Stevie Wonder. This is not a bunch of hit songs like a typical Stevie album. This is for completists only and not an essential Steve album. That being said, I bought this in real time back in the day based on the strength of Songs In The Key Of Life. At the time when I bought this I did not have a very large LP collection and so I played it until I liked it.

A lot of effort was put into the packaging: it is a trifold album cover and there are embossed elements on the cover (including braille).

Outside cover
Inside cover

The braille says:

⠄⠁⠃⠧ ⠯ ⠔⠎⠊⠙⠑ ⠮ ⠑⠍⠃⠕⠎⠎⠫ ⠎⠟⠥⠜⠑ ⠊⠎ ⠮ ⠳⠞⠇⠔⠑ ⠷ ⠁ ⠋⠇⠪⠻ ⠾ ⠧⠑⠔⠫ ⠇⠂⠧⠑⠎⠲
⠠⠌⠑⠧⠊⠑ ⠠⠺⠕⠝⠙⠻⠄⠎ ⠄⠚⠳⠗⠝⠑⠽ ⠄⠐⠹ ⠠⠮ ⠠⠎⠑⠉⠗⠑⠞ ⠠⠇⠊⠋⠑ ⠷ ⠠⠰⠏⠇⠁⠝⠞⠎⠲
Above and inside the embossed square is the outline of a flower with veined leaves. Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants.

This album was recoded and edited on the Sony PCM 1600. Per Wikipedia this: “is an early digital recording, released three months after Ry Cooder’s Bop till You Drop, generally believed to be the first digitally recorded popular music album, with this album being the second.”

I don’t recall how much I paid for this duplicate, but assume a couple of bucks. The vinyl is pretty clean with just a few pops and clicks. The cover has some slight wear. Per Discogs, the value of this LP., even in great shape, is less than five bucks.

One more thing – this is a double album formatted as side one backed by side four and side two backed by side three. These are from the days when most people had a “changer” which was a turntable that played several LPs in sequence without user intervention. In this case the changer would have automatically played side one and two and then the user would flip the two LPs and play sides three and four automatically. Kind of a interesting nuisance in today’s one-at-a-time turntable convention.

The value of this album is more as a novelty: experimental Stevie, packaging, and early digital recording.

Catchgroove’s Hall Of Fame: Albert Collins, Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland – SHOWDOWN!

Inspired by a $1 duplicate that is part of the 🌵 Desert Sessions 🌵 2.0: Cheap Used Records series.

Albert Collins, Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland: SHOWDOWN!
Alligator Records

It is hard not to love the blues. I learned to love the blues in the late 70s and early 80s. That was a great time get to turned on to the blues. Young bucks like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray were attracting serious attention. Under appreciated acts, in their prime, like Albert Collins (the Ice Man) and Buddy Guy were finally getting their due. Titans like Muddy Waters (who past in 83) and Willie Dixon were still around. I was just hip enough to witness some of it first hand: saw Albert Collins a couple of times. Met Willie Dixon (that is another post). Witnessed Robert Cray when he was about as big a superstar as a bluesman can be – saw him move from clubs to theaters. Never did see Johnny Copeland.

This album was released in 1985 and I was ripe for it as I was already a big fan of the Ice Man and Cray. It was an amazing introduction to Johnny Copeland. What I like about the album is that despite three gunslingers, they found a way to share the ball.

This album was about midway in my exploration of the blues. It was a hell of a teacher. I have listened to this hundreds of times and it never gets old and it continues to reveal itself to me.

One of the great features of the album is the back cover identifies the soloists. This helped me learn each guitar soloist unique guitar voice.

This album is top shelf and on my top 25 of all time (I have not formalized that list – another post someday). It is playful sparring, yet each guy is seriously strutting. You will fall in love with each of these guys. Albert has a gentle bite, Robert is suave, and Johnny is a gruff sexy. If I had to pick the star of the show it is the Ice Man. It was his label after all and great musicians know how to be brilliant yet polite – Robert and Johnny are gentleman.

Trust me – listen to this album and if you don’t love it you should quit following me. This is a great album!

As for the dollar LP – it is in pretty good shape. Some surface noise, but not bad – nothing serious. The cover is a little bent on the corners. My estimate is that this album, in this condition, would go for about $8 in a respectable record shop.

🌵 Sessions 2.0: Billy Strings – Renewal

Billy Strings – Renewal (2021)
Rounder Records

Billy Strings has done one of the most unlikely things: become a rock star playing bluegrass. I am late to the Billy Strings bandwagon, but I can see why he is a big deal: he is a virtuoso picker, has unique twang to his voice, is a solid songwriter and modernizes bluegrass without dishonoring it.

One of the attractions for me was the album was produced by Jonathan Wilson (Roger Waters, Father John Misty and the new Margo Price album). I love Wilson’s production of Father John Misty and Wilson’s solo work is outstanding. What I like about Wilson’s production is that it is invisible. He supports the artist’s vision and not his own. There is a time and place for a heavy handed producer (e.g, Daniel Lanois and Todd Rundgren), but usually a light touch is what is preferred.

I particularly like when Strings get a bit psychedelic and jammy like on “Hide And Seek.” At times there is a jazz/ragtime vibe (“Ice Bridges”).

Liked it enough to purchase the vinyl

This is a wonderful album and don’t be turned off by the bluegrass classification. Strings transcends the genre (much like David Grisman did). He makes Billy Strings’ music.

Wilco – Cruel Country (vinyl take)

When it comes to issuing vinyl, the challenges of the Covid supply chain disruption are exacerbated by the music industry’s overall incompetence. There are not enough vinyl record factories to meet demand despite a decade-long trend that vinyl is a “thing.” Therefore, some artists are impatient and focus on the digital/steaming release and then put in their order for vinyl. I appreciate the artist’s urgency to get music in front of their fans. I also appreciate the delay between digital and vinyl as it allows me to get familiar with the album and determine if I am really committed to owning the vinyl version.

I love streaming, but I also love vinyl. I mostly listen to music via streaming services – even on my home stereo. My bias towards streaming is due to convenience. It is obviously great when you are on the go, but with the right streaming service and the right equipment, you can get audiophile quality out of a streaming service. I use Tidal’s MQA via a Bluesound Node – it sounds fantastic. This post is not a record review, but rather a comparison of digital to vinyl releases of an album. I am not someone who passionately believes vinyl is better than digital or that digital is better than vinyl. It depends – in a 2021 post on the Bluesound Node streaming device I said:

Since I am focused on streaming and I am a vinyl guy – which sounds better vinyl or digital? I can give you a definitive answer: it depends on the specific recording. How an album was recorded, how it was mastered and how it was transferred to the final state (a vinyl record or a digital file) can make a vinyl record sound better than the digital file and vice versa. Don’t forget your mood upon listening. I find I am a more attentive listener with vinyl because the format demands more engagement: pull the album off the shelf, clean it, drop the needle, flip the record, etc. But in general, a well recorded digital album (and most everything recorded in last 20 years is a digital source anyway) that has been well mastered to digital generally wins over its vinyl sibling. Ultimately the last steps in production is an art form. Those final steps in the production to form the final product, whether vinyl or a digital file, are an artistic expression too. They are susceptible to the skills and taste of the engineer. All that being said, I love vinyl and despite the great sound and convenience of the Bluesound NODE 2i, I will not be giving up on vinyl any time soon.

When vinyl is well done it is worth the expense and the inconvenience. When it is well executed – it often is not – it is a great experience. When a recording artist gives a shit about vinyl (vs. money-grab merch), they will make an effort:

  • Creating a unique vinyl mix that is sensitive to what vinyl is good and bad at
  • Stamp the vinyl in cool colored wax – although this is more about vinyl as a fetish collectible vs. a superior audio media
  • Great packaging – the vinyl format allows enough space and purchase price to do some creative presentations – (not much has been done with the digital medium and CDs were just too small to do much creatively)
  • High-quality pressing (the rarest of successes – most new vinyl is not carefully pressed resulting in surface noise)

I fell hard for Cruel Country when it was digitally released in late May 2022. I loved Wilco’s full-scale embrace of country music, albeit with Wilco’s unique take on country music. It ended up as my number two favorite album of 2022. As soon as Wilco announced the vinyl release I pre-ordered it. The vinyl was released on January 20, 2023.

The vinyl mix sounds fantastic – I am hearing things I missed on the digital/streaming version. It is luscious with a nice wide stereo sound stage. The guitars sound especially good. Comparing it to the digital version (Tidal Master/MQA) I find the digital a bit harsh vs. the mellow warmth of the vinyl. The digital soundstage slightly compressed compared to the vinyl. The wax is not as pristine as it could be (see Blue Note’s Tone Poet series for the gold standard) – although it is generally quiet, it does have pops and clicks. Despite the surface noise I prefer the vinyl version.

I love vinyl sides that are appropriate in length; too many new vinyl records are 2 or 3 songs on each side. Cruel Country‘s sides are 4 to 6 songs. Wilco must have thought through the song sequencing in advance to be ready for vinyl as there are no awkwardly short sides. The 21 songs are nicely paced across 4 sides.

One of the clever packaging decisions was to include postcards that have the lyrics and credits on the other side of the postcard. Another is the cover doily image is expanded on the inside gatefold with the song titles. The photos of the band members on the album sleeves have a deliberate old-time photography feel.

Inside gatefold
Inside gatefold closeup
Back cover
Record sleeves
Record sleeves
Vintage postcards
Reverse side of postcards – lyrics and credits

In general, Wilco has met my expectations of a good vinyl release: unique mix, great packaging, beautiful red and blue wax, and great sound that offers something different from the digital release. I would recommend this vinyl edition despite pops and clicks. However, the digital version (even the Spotify version) is well executed – the differences between the high resolution stream and the vinyl is very slight. Wilco really knocks it out of the park with the vinyl packaging. If you are a Wilco obsessive the vinyl is must have.

🌵 Desert Sessions 🌵 2.0: Margo Price – Strays

Margo Price

Strays is Margo Price’s best album. That is saying a lot as she has been a three album roll since her 2016 debut on Third Man Records (Midwest Farmer’s Daughter). That album was pure country (almost retro), but with each successive album, she has evolved away from that sound to a more classic rock sound. On Strays she takes that classic rock sound to a new place: a hybrid of 80s New Wave and 70s Country Rock with a psychedelic twist – it is actually pretty hard to categorize. I hear so many influences, yet those influences are neither appropriation nor imitation, but inspiration. It is psychedelic without being nonsensical – she manages to be a hippie without being dippy.

Just as her career was getting some traction, the pandemic hit. She did not let COVID overwhelm her, instead, she finished and published a memoir, quit drinking and recorded and released Strays. The album narrative for Strays is that Margo and her husband/musical partner (Jeremy Ivey) took a psychedelic trip in 2020 and that was the creative spark for the songs they wrote for Strays. As a bonus, the psilocybin inspired Margo to quit alcohol (she is now two years alcohol sober, but she still enjoys weed and psychedelics).

What influences do I hear on Strays?

  • Patti Smith
  • Tom Petty
  • George Harrison
  • Linda Ronstadt
  • The Moody Blues
  • Joni Mitchell
  • Father John Misty (not surprising given producer Jonathan Wilson)
  • Fleetwood Mac/Stevie Nicks
  • Rosanne Cash

I hear so many influences, yet those influences are neither appropriation nor imitation, but inspiration. It is psychedelic without being nonsensical – she manages to be a hippie without being dippy.

Producer Jonathan Wilson is the perfect sonic complement to Margo’s psilocybin-influenced songwriting. They took the classic rock sound that Margo and Sturgill Simpson produced That’s How Rumors Get Started (2020) and perfected it. It is now as slick (in a good way) as a Fleetwood Mac or Tom Petty album. Strays sounds confident and fully realized. Margo has evolved on each record; I believe this is the best version of herself.

“Been To The Mountain” was the first single and the opening track. I am an album guy and so I rarely listen to the teaser tracks, but I did listen to this one and it definitely caught my ears and foreshadowed that this was going to be a special album. I have seen some reviews that suggest the song has a Janis Joplin feel, but I don’t hear it; instead, I hear Patti Smith fronting the Moody Blues.

“Light Me Up” features Mike Campbell (Tom Petty) and it is epic. I know Margo is a Petty fan and she makes his sound her own – similar to how Stevie Nicks successfully “stole” Petty’s vibe. This is a wonderful example of Jonathan Wilson’s production genius.

“Radio” features singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten in this brilliant cocktail of 80s new wave and folk rock. Imagine if The Cars and The Eagles got together to back up Linda Ronstadt.

“Change Of Heart” continues the New Wave/Country Rock vibe. I could easily hear Tom Petty covering this song.

“County Road” has a nice mid-70s Linda Ronstadt vibe mixed with a countrified Fleetwood. The song opens with a beautiful Joni-inspired piano intro. Lyrically it imagines an old friend who never had a car who is now passed, but now has wheels in the afterlife.

“Time Machine” has a playful Kacey Musgraves vibe. This is the only song on the album not penned by Margo – it was written by Chris Denney & Dillon Napier (Margo’s drummer).

“Hell In The Heartland” is Rosanne Cash meets Fleetwood Mac.

“Anytime You Call” features Lucius and has a George Harrison feel.

“Lydia” was the second teaser single and is a mournful narrative of a woman’s visit to an abortion clinic. Sonically it is the most austere track on the album. The simplicity of the arrangement makes it better – a busy arrangement would have overshadowed the raw beauty of the song. Lyrically it is like a feature movie.

“Landfill” is Margo’s strongest and most impressive vocal on the album – coupled with the arrangement it is a gorgeous track. The last track is a wistful life-to-date self-reflection and the perfect end of the album.

This is a magnificent evolution of a recording artist: great songs, great performance, and great sonics (production). What an album to open 2023! I can’t wait to see/hear this live on the “Til the Wheels Fall Off Tour.”

🌵 Desert Sessions 🌵 2.0: Cheap Used Records – Billy Cobham – Spectrum

Billy Cobham

This was Billy Cobham’s debut album. He had made a name for himself as a jazz rock fusion drummer with Miles Davis and then with the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The core band for this album is: Billy Cobham – drums, percussion, production and Jan Hammer (also in the Mahavishnu Orchestra) – electric and acoustic pianos, Moog synthesizer. Other players include: Tommy Bolin – guitar, Echoplex; Lee Sklar – electric bass; Joe Farrell – soprano and alto saxes, flute; Jimmy Owens – flugelhorn, trumpet; John Tropea – guitar; Ron Carter – acoustic bass and Ray Barretto – congas.

This is a classic example of 70s jazz rock fusion. It is more accessible than the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but still adventurous. It has a nice touch of funk to it. Under the credits, Cobham is quoted: “What is life but a Spectrum and what is music but life itself.” Dig it!

Jon Lord of Deep Purple (guitarist Tommy Bolin would later play in Deep Purple) called Spectrum “an utterly astounding album. There was Tommy Bolin just shredding away like mad. And it was just gorgeous stuff, all improvised, all just off the top of his head.”

My copy is in decent shape for a $1 record. Some pops and scratches, but no skips. The cover is well worn, but not broken. Overall condition is “Good” per the Goldmine standard.