Analogology: Stories from the Vinyl Frontier~ by David Hicks
Episode 1: A Joyful Noise ~ by David Hicks
My album recommendation for the month of November 2016 is one that first appeared in my home via the US Mail at the beginning of August. That a CD or vinyl LP arrived in my mailbox was not an unusual occurrence in and of itself, but the fact that I received this particular package was indeed out of the ordinary.
Backing up a bit, let me say that I love going to Audiophile events and audio shows not just to ogle the gear, but equally for the possibility of discovering new music. Hearing a piece of music that grabs me by an artist I’m not familiar with, or a piece on an album by an artist that I know of but from an unknown release, makes a visit to even an uninspiring room at a show more than worthwhile. But going to shows is not as easy as the option of listening to Tidal through Roon, and enjoying the experience of hearing something unknown in my own home on my own gear. When that happens, I can take more time to see if the piece that caught my ear is available on an album with enough other material that interests me that I want to decide to actually buy the album. Then I can either place an order on the artist’s web site, which delivers the most profit directly to the artist(s) or via another online retailer. Then, I wait a few days more or less, and eventually the order arrives conveniently at my home.
It’s not that I’m adverse to supporting local brick and mortar stores, I sometimes trek as far away as Suisun City to Collins Music & Thrift Shop (soon to change their name according to Steve Maag, the owner) or over into San Francisco to the ginormous Amoebae Records, or more frequently close by to Rasputin’s or the local Good Will or Salvation Army. But, the luxury of time for these trips has to be balanced against all the other things I need to do in my free time away from work. That’s where online purchases often win out, although most, but not all, brick and mortar stores have an online presence too and I do occasionally order from their websites. It just depends on what I might be looking for and in what format- digital, analog, new or used.
Back to the mail-
So, there are now record clubs you can join that will mail you a new title each month, just like in the olden days of vinyl, and then there is the completely unexpected situation that occurred for me last August. I was in the process of opening a couple of LP sized boxes that from the day’s mail delivery when I opened the last box and was presented with an unopened copy of Sun Ra’s Blue York. The image on the cover was not completely unfamiliar to me, I recognized from somewhere before seeing the perforated paper design with the plain font text in blue of Sun Ra with Blue York underneath, but I couldn’t place where. Had I listened to this on Tidal or through Roon? Pandora? Had I read a review of this album in the pages of Stereophile. Had I heard this album at a show and written down the name and placed it in the cart of an online retailer only to order it many months later without remembering anything about the LP? I looked at the box. It wasn’t from one of the usual places I order most frequently. The return address said Bull Moose in Portland, ME, but that didn’t jog my memory. Next I thought to myself, what did I pay for this? It was then that I looked at the billing insert for the LP and noticed I hadn’t ordered this. It was for someone who lived two blocks away from me. How cool! There was another vinyl lover within throwing distance (for Aroldis Chapman) of my home. No, I hadn’t noticed it when looking at the return address on the box. I wasn’t looking for a name other than my own to be on the address label.
At this point I was glad I hadn’t removed the shrink wrap from the LP, but I wanted to hear what was on the disc. So I looked on Tidal and was somewhat amazed. I’m sure there must be a majority of music lovers out there who know who Sun Ra is, (in fact I later watched a Michael Fremer interview with a record store owner who mentioned he had some customers who only collect Sun Ra LP’s) but at that time I was completely without a clue. When I looked on Tidal I saw that they had listed 82 main albums! How did I not know this guy? 82 Main Albums by Sun Ra- but no recording of this one. So, I listened randomly to bits and pieces of some of his other albums. The music did sound familiar, though not recently so. The familiarity of my musical memory went way back to my youth, somewhere in my early high school years when I specifically remembered listening in my room late at night to something completely weirdly/spacey in the jazz domain on a college radio station (probably with some 60’s chemical enhancement- mine and Sun Ra’s) and recording it on a portable mono cassette player. I just recorded a bit of whatever it was that was playing, but today I would swear it must have been Sun Ra from one of his recordings. I may even still have that cassette, though the task of finding it, listening to it, and trying to match it to a particular Sun Ra album is a chore I’ll save for retirement, or later…
In case you’re wondering, I replaced the LP in the box that it came in along with a handwritten note, and one of my SFAS cards. In the note, I apologized for opening the box and introduced myself as a neighbor while explaining the postal carriers mistake, and then my subsequent mistake in opening the box. I also invited the intended owner of the LP to a future SFAS event. He eventually replied by email and thanked me for delivering the LP to his house and mentioned that he’d visited the SFAS website after receiving my note and said that he looked forward to possibly attending an event in the future.
And me? I looked for the Blue York LP at the Music Coop record store in Ashland, Oregon when I was visiting there a couple of weeks later. John and Trina Brenes ran the Music Coop out of Petaluma from 1975-2001 before moving the store and themselves to Ashland. But no copies of Blue York were available. John said he thought all Sun Ra albums sounded the same and suggested I buy one of the two LP’s that he had available. I did so, but still longed to get my copy of Blue York just because I thought I was destined to own it! It seemed an online purchase was the only way to go. Last week my own Blue York arrived, and I can say it does not sound just like my other Sun Ra LP, except that it does sound like what you would expect a Sun Ra album to sound like, in much the same way that you can identify some pieces by certain classical composers based upon listening to their other works, or like being able to identify a Carlos Santana song based upon his guitar playing in spite of his penchant for changing lead singers like some people change clothes.
Since I’m recommending this Sun Ra album to you, would I try and describe the music on it? Well, I’d just go with the weirdly/spacey Jazz domain comment from my first take. I think Su Ra has a peculiar affinity for the spacey sounding music. You can get an idea why that might be if you read the Wikipedia pages which have a plethora of information on him, including: Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, legal name Le Sony’r Ra; May 22, 1914 – May 30, 1993) and as much more information as you might expect in reference to someone with such a prodigious output of music and poetry. You could start with the section wherein Sun Ra describes his “Trip to Saturn.” Really. It was a religious experience that included a voice telling him to drop out of college. Not boring, and this is in fact what I’ll also say about Sun Ra and his “Arkestra’s” music. Though there are brief passages (think saxophone playing by someone strung out on Meth) of music that make me a bit crazy while listening to Blue York, those passages don’t last too long, and they’re always replaced with something different enough to entertain me. But maybe I have an affinity for spacey too? YMMV.
And if you find yourself intrigued by reading the Wikipedia Sun Ra information- or my references to him- and you want to look further, there’s a documentary about him (available on Netflix) called “Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise.” And I think that’s a description I can leave you with that should have you searching out his music.