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The Haul: Obits, Flight of the Conchords, Enablers, Bill Callahan, Tim Hecker, Low, Nas, Hüsker Dü, Pavement, Patton Oswalt, Swell Maps, Wipers

I’d looked forward to the second annual Record Store Day for months, holding off on a few purchases because of the inevitable sale on vinyl. Last year I rushed from the Harvard Square location to the Newbury Street store in the hopes of crossing as many key titles off my list, but this year I opted to bring that list to the bigger location and press my luck.

What makes Record Store Day special for me? It’s not the throngs of people in the store at opening on a Saturday. It’s not the live performances spread across the chain’s various locations. It might be the countless vinyl exclusives, but as I found out later, they’re not as exclusive as I anticipated. Here’s the biggest treat: I had to get a basket. I can think of only one other scenario, which I’ve yet to discuss in full, where I’ve had to grab a basket for record shopping. Even with my list in hand, I still went through every record, pulling out every single option and adding to the bulk of my haul. Perhaps the best part was deciding which albums to buy and which albums to pass up at the end, since yes, I did have a budget, and yes, I managed to stay within that budget (even though I also picked up used copies of The Dark Knight and Mad Men Season One on Blu-Ray). There’s something profoundly satisfying about leaving a record store with a heavy bag sagging at the handles.

While I stayed focused on the albums, Record Store Day definitely seemed like more of an event this year. I got to the store at 10:07 am and a few of the exclusives were already snapped up. The range of people at the store was refreshing—thirteen year-old kids excited about buying Iggy and the Stooges vinyl, fifty-year-old guys with their wives picking out all of those grossly overpriced audiophile reissue pressings (“Hey do you want What’s Going On?” “Yes! Pull that one for me!”), and plenty of twenty-somethings like myself. The best moment came when I was standing next to a father with a stroller who was flipping through the T section and came across a 13th Floor Elevators LP. He made an unintelligible grunt of excitement before pulling the LP out and putting it on top of the stroller. That is what I hope everyone gets out of record shopping and Record Store Day reminds people that those moments occur, all the better.

46. Obits – “I Can’t Lose” b/w “Military Madness” 7” – Sub Pop, 2009 – $5.59

Obits' I Can't Lose single

I opted to buy these two exclusive songs from Obits instead of their full-length for a number of questionable reasons—the LP was more expensive, it hadn’t fully clicked with me, maybe these songs are better than the album cuts, hello, they are exclusives. Both songs sound like the 50s/60s rock of I Blame You’s “Back and Forth,” with the flip side having a very good reason for it, being a cover from Graham Nash’s 1971 solo debut. Both songs are good, but wouldn’t quite fit on the LP, and if I’m going to choose one cover to appear on that record, it’s the completely badass version of “Milk Cow Blues” that’s on it. I wouldn’t mind an EP of this style of material from Obits, however, since Rick Froberg’s voice is so eerily perfect for retro-rock.

Of course, I bought the full-length a few weeks later. I still need to track down the “One Cross Apiece” single, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a copy of it and it appears to be out of print, so I may be out of luck on that one.

47. Flight of the Conchords – “Pencils in the Wind” b/w “Albi the Racist Dragon” 7” – Sub Pop, 2009 – $5.59

Flight of the Conchords' Pencils in the Wind single

After a lackluster second season, the Flight of the Conchords television series appears to be coming to a close. The biggest drop-off between seasons was the songs, since the first season benefited from their existing catalog of road-tested smirk-fests, even if the songs occasionally felt shoehorned into the plot of an episode, whereas the second season relied on freshly penned songs designed to fit into the context of the episode’s plot. Maybe they needed more time in between seasons to write songs, maybe they used up their most potent stylistic touchstones, maybe the novelty of a novelty group was wearing off, but by the end of the season I felt comfortable with a FOTC-less future, at least on HBO.

Still, I enjoy the first season’s dry humor quite a bit, enough to pick up these two leftovers from those episodes. “Pencils in the Wind” and “Albi the Racist Dragon” weren’t quite memorable enough to make the group’s self-titled Sub Pop debut, but I gladly picked up this single when I saw it by the register after initially checked out with my big Record Store Day haul. I blame the RSD exclusivity for this purchase, since I haven’t even picked up the album and that would have been a better use of my money, even though “Pencils in the Wind” is an enjoyably trite anti-racism ode.

48. Low – Songs for a Dead Pilot LP – Kranky, 1997 – $10.39

Low's Songs for a Dead Pilot

I made the mistake of trying to get into Low with their 2005 Sub Pop debut, The Great Destroyer, which starts off with a few atypically rocking songs, one of which (“Monkey”) reminds me a lot of Peter Gabriel—a reference point that works for TV on the Radio’s Young Liars, but not Low. I later checked out a few of their other releases, but the only one I actually own is a free remix single from their 2007 album Drums and Guns, which I’ve never list. My friend Scott encouraged me to give Low another shot, especially with vinyl reissues of their Kranky releases, and given his stellar track record with recommendations, I obliged. Songs for a Dead Pilot features one hell of an album cover and a song (“Landlord”) that Pinebender covered as a bonus track for the vinyl pressing of Things Are About to Get Weird, so it won out over their Kranky full-lengths. Dead Pilot is definitely closer to the standard Kranky aesthetic, taking some of Labradford’s skeletal songwriting approach and merging it with their existing slowcore style. Songs like “Landlord” and “Condescend” are commanding even with minimal arrangements. I’ll put their other Kranky releases (and their first few albums on Vernon Yard) on my want list, but those Sub Pop albums will have to wait a while.

49. Enablers – End Note LP – MidMarch, 2004 – $12.88

Enablers' End Note

It’s rare that I’ll find something I wasn’t expecting to see at Newbury Comics, but this import copy of Enablers’ 2004 debut LP certainly qualifies as a surprise. I got sucked in foreboding atmosphere of their 2008 album, Tundra, after Arlie Carstens of Juno/Ghost Wars recommended it, but I haven’t seen that album anywhere, so I was thrilled to pick up End Note. There isn’t a huge stylistic difference between the records—both set intense spoken word stories to jarring June of 44-esque rock, but End Note has more raw energy and Tundra has more delicate corners. You won’t go wrong with either album.

I’d love to see the band in concert, but their summer tour schedule is all in Europe with June of 44 drummer Doug Scharin sitting in on the skins. They should also have an EP out later this year with some new material, but going with the group’s tradition, it looks like the vinyl will be import only. Just another reason for a US tour, Enablers.

50. Bill Callahan – Woke on a Whaleheart LP – Drag City, 2007 – $10

Bill Callahan's Woke on a Whaleheart

Chalk this one up to completist urges. Woke on a Whaleheart features a few of Bill Callahan’s usual highlights on his first album not utilizing some version of the Smog moniker, but as an album it’s a strange lull after its exceptional predecessor, Smog’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. Whereas that record left behind some of Callahan’s typical strife for a measured perspective on his life, Woke on a Whaleheart feels lighter because of Callahan’s ostensible happiness. Giving Royal Trux’s Neil Haggerty control of the arrangements results in some ’70s AM radio moments and makes Whaleheart feel less like a Smog album and more like a new chapter, but the distracting arrangements of “The Wheel,” “Footprints,” and “Diamond Dancer” make me long for a “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” ethos. It’s still strange that his first “solo” album sounds less like himself than those countless Smog releases, but the follow-up to Whaleheart thankfully corrects this concern.

51. Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle LP – Drag City, 2009 – $13.59

Bill Callahan's Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle

After the letdown of Woke on a Whaleheart’s influx of 1970s AM pop/folk, Bill Callahan returns to form with the excellent, highly personal Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. Calling it “highly personal” puts it in a strange realm for Smog/Callahan. I remember reading an interview in which Callahan stated that he was writing new standards—songs that would survive as times and tastes changed—a task he felt his contemporaries were not pursuing. It’s easy to hear a song like “River Guard,” “Say Valley Maker,” and “I Could Drive Forever” and understand his point; his songwriting tackles universal themes from the perspective of characters who’d understand those themes best. This approach allows other singers to perform these songs (think of Cat Power covering “Bathysphere” and “Red Apples”) without having to pantomime Callahan’s personality in order to retain the songs’ power. Yet Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle has some strikingly unique moments in which Callahan’s recent break-up with harpstress Joanna Newsom shows through. It’s not a traditional break-up album by any means, but it’s hard to imagine the billowing tension of “All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast,” especially the refrain “Sweet desire and soft thoughts return to me,” coming from anyone else.

There are admittedly a few Smog/Callahan records that I need to spend more time with, namely Dongs of Sevotion and Wild Love, but this new LP already ranks among existing favorites Knock Knock, Red Apple Falls, and A River Ain’t Too Much to Love.

52. Tim Hecker – An Imaginary Country 2LP – Kranky, 2009 – $15.19

Tim Hecker's An Imaginary Country

I don’t read nearly as many record reviews as I did a decade ago, but I’ll make an exception for Dusted Magazine. Their aggregate taste is admittedly more avant-garde than mine, but the writing is still approachable. (Unless it’s Andrew Beckerman, whose reviews too often barter with the watered-down cultural criticism Pop Matters cranks out.) So when Michael Ardaiolo damned An Imaginary Country with faint praise, calling it a solid but underwhelming record that doesn’t challenge the listener like Hecker’s previous efforts, I had to give the album another spin before picking up the vinyl. His criticism came too close to my initial positive take on An Imaginary Country.

When I first heard An Imaginary Country, I was pleasantly surprised by the absence of the abrasive noise that occasionally came up during his last full-length, 2006’s excellent Harmony in Ultraviolet. In search of another background album to join the ranks of Stars of the Lid and the Dead Texan in my reading soundtrack pile, the swirling layers of Hecker’s latest seemed perfectly suited for this task. But Ardaiolo is right: An Imaginary Country is not as challenging as its predecessors, even if it’s more inviting. Thanks to dynamic tracks like “Stags, Aircraft, Kings and Secretaries” and “Whitecaps of White Noise I,” the placid valleys of “Blood Rainbow” and “Chimeras” seem more rewarding on Harmony. In contrast, An Imaginary Country comes across as one cohesive piece, existing within a narrower landscape. Does that make it a bad album? No. I’ve already listened to it more times than Harmony in Ultraviolet (which just got repressed on vinyl), and it is an excellent addition to my reading pile. What Ardaiolo’s review did, however, is give me a renewed appreciation for Hecker’s earlier albums, especially Harmony in Ultraviolet.

53. Nas – Illmatic LP – Columbia, 1994 – $8

Nas's Illmatic

Illmatic was another long overdue purchase of a stone classic from a non-rock genre. I’d previously listened to it a few times on MP3 and there simply wasn’t anything that made me think “Wait, this is a classic?” There’s a stunning lack of fat: no filler skits, only one guest appearance, lean arrangements that never sound thin. How many rap albums only have ten tracks? Without any nitpicking to be found, I’m left with only agreeing with overwhelming consensus, a practice that I don’t find much fun.

I’m sure this is a major reason why it takes me so long to pick up great rap, jazz, and classical records. If I pick up the classic album from a major artist, I’m likely just to join the chorus on praising it. If I go for their lesser work, such contrarianism might spoil the artist’s greatness. If I abstain entirely, I’m missing out on a key artist. In most cases, I’ll either end up buying a cheaper copy of a lesser work used or eventually purchasing the classic after countless false starts. Maybe “New Artillery Suffers through the Classics” will be next year’s dominant meme. (Goodbye credibility, if that happens.)

So, Illmatic. It’s really good. “Represent” and “Memory Lane (Sittin' in Da Park)” are instant favorites. Yep.

54. Hüsker Dü – Flip Your Wig LP – SST, 1985 – $8

Hüsker Dü's Flip Your Wig

If there’s a logical way to get into Hüsker Dü’s catalog, it’s their double album Zen Arcade, which everyone and their crazy uncle heralds as one of the finest albums of the 1980s. I tried to take this route by including Zen Arcade in a round of iPod Chicanery, but the Hüskers’ mammoth beast doesn’t work when put on random with a thousand other songs. (“Oh, ‘Reoccuring Dreams.’ I wonder what this one’s like.”) In lieu of this obvious course, I’ve chosen an entirely different, largely illogical path. Having been indoctrinated to Bob Mould with Sugar and some his less dour solo material, I opted to go backwards from there and pick up Hüsker Dü’s swansong, the mixed Warehouse: Songs and Stories on a whim. Now I’ve jumped past their other Warner Brothers full-length, Candy Apple Gray, in part because of its lower critical reception, in part because their SST albums are cheaper on vinyl, and in part because Ghost Wars did an acoustic cover of “Divide and Conquer,” and moved onto Flip Your Wig. Chronological order is for suckers!

Aside from a few Grant Hart stinkers (Mark Prindle nails how awful “The Baby Song” is), Flip Your Wig is a solid album, considerably better and more consistent than Warehouse. The aforementioned “Divide and Conquer” is a clear highlight, along with “Green Eyes,” “Games,” and the closing instrumental “Don’t Know Yet.” Perhaps the biggest improvement over the earlier Hüsker Dü albums I’ve heard is in Mould’s guitar tone, no longer a trebly razor-wire shred without recognition of the mid-range knob on his amp. I’ll spend some time with this album before retrying New Day Rising or, perhaps, Zen Arcade.

56. Pavement – Live in Germany LP – Matador, 2009 – $12.79

Pavement's Live in Germany

Matador didn’t do themselves any favors by issuing this Pavement live LP with the same cover imagebut in orange!—as the live LP included with preorders for the two-disc reissue of Brighten the Corners. Granted, both LPs are from their 1997 European tour, but since they’re both marketed to the limited-edition-seeking collector scum demographic, I’d expect more variety. I nearly second-guessed myself on whether I should purchase it before remembering that the other live LP had piss-takes on the band members’ names and song titles.

My other nitpick about these LPs is why they didn’t include this one with the BTC reissue, since it includes six Brighten the Corners songs and a rockin’ version of “And Then,” which popped up a few times in the bonus tracks for the reissue. (Not that I’m complaining; these rollicking, enthusiastic early takes on “The Hexx” allows me to avoid the dour version on Terror Twilight.) Still, they’re reasonably good live documents for a notoriously inconsistent live band, one I never saw, so I’m glad to own them.

57. Patton Oswalt – Feelin’ Kinda Patton LP – Stand Up, 2004 – $13.88

Patton Oswalt's Feelin' Kinda Patton

It’s rare that I’ll purchase a comedy DVD and rarer still that I’ll pick up a comedy album. Usually one or more of the following apply: the performance isn’t replayable; the performance discourages me from seeing the comedian live because that act will be all too familiar; the album suffers from missing visual cues; or the subject matter loses potency as it ages. Patton Oswalt’s managed to avoid most of these downfalls on Feelin’ Kinda Patton, the Patton Oswalt vs. Zach Galifianakis vs. Alcohol EP, and Werewolves and Lollipops, all of which I’ve listened to a few times, but the last caveat still applies here.

So much of the comedic fodder—whether shock, bewilderment, or ire—for the last eight years came from George W. Bush’s presidency. Oswalt may not rely on Bush for material as much as fellow alt-comic David Cross or spoken-word stand-up Henry Rollins, but the first few bits on this album still cover the absurdities of the Bush administration. Was this material hilariously cathartic during his administrations? Sure. Does it hold up? Not really. I’d rather hear about gay retards, the follies of 1980s metal videos, or Carvel cakes.

58. Swell Maps – International Rescue LP – Alive, [1999] – $11.19

Swell Maps' International Rescue

I received and read Rob Jovanovic’s Perfect Sound Forever: The Story of Pavement this past Christmas. It’s a somewhat underwhelming history of Malkmus and company, floating by on too many readily available anecdotes and asking too few incisive questions into the group’s internal workings, but the zine extracts were a nice dose of nostalgia. One of the best cribbed pages was a list of Malkmus and Spiral Stairs’ favorite artists/records, most of which I’d already known about (you mean they like The Fall?), but seeing Swell Maps on that list reminded me that I still needed to give them a listen beyond the surf-rock instrumental “Loin of the Surf” from A Trip to Marinesville. I haven’t gotten that album or their other full length, Jane from Occupied Europe because those reissues are $25 apiece.

This Pitchfork review convinced me to try out International Rescue, a more recently compilation of their material that comes at half the price of their full-lengths. I’ve listened through it once and skipped around another time, but it’s hard to pull out highlights since a number of songs last little more than a minute, causing the album to blur together. (“Spitfire Parade,” “Vertical Slum”… I’m sure there are more.) Viewing Pavement as a pure conglomeration of their influences, the spontaneity of their early records is drawn from Swell Maps’ self-sabotaging approach to structure and momentum. A number of these songs sound like inspired piss-takes on punk-rock’s early days, a strange complement to Wire’s art-punk editing process. International Rescue isn’t going to supplant Pink Flag in my listening pile or encourage me to spend $50 on the reissues of their full lengths, but its slapdash approach is strangely endearing.

59. Wipers – Over the Edge LP – Jackpot, 1983 – $15.19

Wipers' Over the Edge

After picking up Youth of America on last year’s Record Store Day, I decided to grab the most recent Wipers reissue LP from Jackpot, 1983’s excellent Over the Edge for this year’s occasion. I’d been eyeing original copies on eBay for a few months, but eventually I realized that the record would earn a reissue, much like Is This Real? and Youth of America before it, and it thankfully hit stores in time for the big day. Next year I suppose I have to pick up Is This Real? to keep the tradition going, even if it doesn’t have enough post- in its punk for my liking.

It’s not difficult to separate Over the Edge from Youth of America; the songs are shorter, there’s more upfront intensity , there’s no dreamlike cloud hanging over the record, the guitar tones are more varied, and the rhythm section still takes a distant third to Sage’s guitar and emotional vocals. I still prefer Youth of America because of that dreamlike haze, but songs like the hard-charging title track, the desperate “So Young,” the downright mean “Romeo,” and the heartbreaking “No One Wants an Alien” and “The Lonely One” make a strong argument for Over the Edge. You won’t go wrong with either of them. The same can’t be said about their later records, but I’ll still pick up any LP copies I see in my travels.

60. Great Northern – “Houses” b/w “For Weeks” 7”– Eeenie Meenie, 2009 – $0

Great Northern's Houses single

Part of the draw of Record Store Day is the free stuff, but unlike last year when I picked up a free Wye Oak/Destroyer split single, this year’s lot is slim pickings. (The Elvis Costello pint glass was a better grab than any of these free records.) I imagine the labels came to their senses and realized they could make actual money off of these vinyl exclusives. I wish this was a single from A Northern Chorus, the recently disbanded Canadian group. Sadly, Great Northern don’t barter in A Northern Chorus’s layered folk-rock, opting instead for very familiar female fronted alt-rock on the a-side “Houses,” sounding ready for a car commercial, and ghostly atmospherics on the flip, “For Weeks.” The latter is interesting enough, perhaps because it doesn’t feature the pseudo-U2 rush of “Houses,” but it didn’t increase the odds that I check out the album these songs came from, 2009’s Remind Me Where the Light Is. Their Wikipedia entry reveals that guitarist Solon Bixler has spent time in both indie poppers Earlimart and Jared Leto’s suck-rock 30 Seconds to Mars, which is a strange combination for a guy now contributing songs to the Grey’s Anatomy playlist.

61. Paper Route / Barcelona– Split Single 7” – Universal, 2009 – $0

Paper Route / Barcelona split single

I picked this seven-inch off the free table because I mistakenly thought Barcelona was major-label slow-core act Spain. It was free so I didn’t give it a second, fact-checking thought, so as penance I have to sit through this major label “indie” split. I’m rocking the scare quotes because both of these bands sound vaguely like recent indie rock trends, polished up for modern rock radio. Paper Route’s “Wish” (from their 2009 album Absence) starts off with some 1980s Brit-rock drums and chiming guitars, making me think I might get a New Order clone, but once the vocals kick in the “American Coldplay” comparison comes to mind. Note to self: instead of relying on the lazy journalism of calling up-and-coming bands “the American Radiohead,” flip that around and call groups things like “the English Nickelback” or “Israel’s answer to Creed.”

Flipping the single over isn’t any better. Barcelona waters down Death Cab for Cutie’s recent sound even further, thereby eliminating anything interesting from the mix. I can’t remember a damn thing about this song and it just finished playing.

62. Various Artists – Record Store Day 2009 – Sony, 2009 – $0

Record Store Day 2009 compilation

Last year’s Record Store Day compilation LP featured one side of modern rock and one side of (alt-) country with an embarrassing hit/miss ratio (three country songs were passable, all of the modern rock was decrepit). Letting the above seven-inches take over for the unknown modern rock market this year, this giveaway compilation features a strange array of semi-popular acts promoting their recent Sony albums with a few head-scratchers thrown in for good measure.

Side A is primarily comprised of relatively successful indie-informed rock—not just the album tracks, mind you, but extended remixes or alternate takes! Yes! My favorite! Glasvegas’s live on radio version of “Daddy’s Gone” still sounds like the Jesus and Mary Chain, snooze. Raphael Saadiq’s stylish but unaffecting modern soul is an outlier in this string of WFNX stand-bys, but “100 Yard Dash” is remixed just in case anyone questions its inclusion. Justice remixes MGMT’s “Electric Feel” but it still sounds like any other MGMT song. I haven’t heard the supposedly dance-oriented Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, but this remix of “No You Girls” is straight disco. None of these songs even remotely memorable, but I now look back at them fondly because…

…Black Kids’ “Look at Me (When I Rock Wichoo) (Kid Gloves Remix)” is the most annoying song I’ve heard in months. It makes me long for the soothing, unobtrusive sounds of Radio Disney. In comparison, Living Things’ tepid “Let It Rain” sounds downright palatable, at least until I saw that Robert Christgau compared them to Fugazi. Combine anger at George W. Bush with a little guitar feedback and the Village Voice thinks you’re Fugazi.

Side B leaves behind this slew of remixed rock. Q-Tip’s joyous rap-fusion “Even If It Is So” is pulled from his still unreleased 2001 album Kamaal the Abstract (the liner notes crediting his “Forthcoming… 2001 album” gets a painful laugh). It’s a welcome, surprising inclusion, since CD promos for the album have been floating around for years. Tiempo Libre’s Afro-Cuban Latin-jazz is an enthusiastic next track, but without the liner notes I wouldn’t have guessed “Tu Conga Bach” is from a concept record pulling melodies and harmonies from Johann Sebastian Bach called Bach in Havana. In spite of embarrassing companions like Black Kids and Glasvegas, Charles Mingus classes up the compilation with the yearning “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” from the 50th anniversary reissue of Mingus Ah Um. (I’ll stick with the old LP pressing I bought at RRRecords, thanks.) Mingus’s presence allows me to site this embarrassing line from the Pitchfork review of the album—“ I’m sure I’m not versed enough in jazz to assess what it is that makes Mingus Mingus—which flabbergasts me on why Pitchfork and Mike Powell opted to review it in the first place. I’m embarrassed to admit things like that on this site; imagine if I had an audience!

After three different shades of jazz to start side B, what’s a more logical fourth track than… Willie Nelson? The stripped-down re-mastering job on Nelson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is both endearing and a blatant cash grab, removing the layers of unnecessary production from the original version for the new Naked Willie compilation, but how it fits in with this side is beyond me. Cage the Elephant’s “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” closes the side with some wretched country-inspired rock, sounding like Kid Rock’s understudies. No thanks.

Let’s recap: one great Q-Tip song, a fine Mingus song I already own, an intriguing exercise in Latin jazz, a handful of forgettable rock remixes, a Willie Nelson song, and two profoundly awful tracks. Better than I expected!