LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #7: The Impressions–The Vintage Years, 1976)

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Modernity brings us a lot of nice things and preserves a lot of other nice things.

It doesn’t preserve everything…or get everything just right all the time.

That picture above is the best I could find on the net of the classic compilation released on vinyl in 1976 by Sire Records (who did similar comps on a number of other acts around that time).

Most record junkies and list makers have their “go to” album. Call it the greatest, the best, your favorite, your “desert island” disc, the “one you’d save if the house caught on fire.” Whatever.

This one’s mine and neither it nor any close equivalent has been released on CD.

Like I say, lots of nice things are preserved. But not everything.

I’m not crying. If I really want to, I can collect up all the music on this record from various digital sources, load them on my computer and put them on a disc myself with the running order preserved. Not quite the same, of course, but at least the purely musical part of the experience can be recreated at home.

The only thing that would be lost is the psychic experience. The connection to my own past and the role this or any record with it’s own history plays in it.

Hardly the biggest deal in the world in and of itself. But I wonder if the small things (and I’d hardly call this the smallest), aren’t representative of something larger.

The Vintage Years isn’t on CD. No big deal

The record store where I bought it moved. No big deal.

The record store where I bought it moved from a hole in the wall next to a bowling alley (circa 1981) to bigger hole in the wall halfway across town (next to a hole in the wall book store, circa 1985) then moved to a giant warehouse down the street (the book store moved to a still bigger hole in the wall halfway across town in the other direction, circa some time in the 1990’s). No big deal.

The record store went out of business five or six years back. No big deal.

The book store went out of business last year. No big deal.

They haven’t been replaced. And they won’t be.

No big deal.

We still got the internet. Better deals anyway. Amazon, E-Bay, Gemm.com.

Time moves on. Heck, if you read about something now, say the way I read about The Vintage Years in 1980 (in Dave Marsh and John Swenson’s original Rolling Stone Record Guide, the one with the red cover as it happens), you don’t have to spend three or four (or ten or twenty) years looking for a playable, affordable copy. You can just look it up. If somebody in the world doesn’t have it this week, somebody in the world will probably have it next week.

In any case, it’s not really likely you’ll have to wait three or four years.

Or flip through piles of used record bins.

Or wonder if what you’ll hear when you finally do track it down will really be worth  the wait.

If it will hit you like this when you do whatever the modern equivalent of dropping the needle is:

And then take you on a journey from this:

to this…

to this…

to this…

to this…

Because, of course, now you can just go on YouTube, or come to somebody’s clever little website. If you’re really interested you can probably pull up every single song and sample it for free.

Take the mystery out of the thing.

Believe me, this is not entirely a bad thing. It’s probably not even mostly a bad thing.

But it’s not entirely a good thing either.

Because there’s no way you can surf the net and re-create what it’s like to walk out of grocery store and see somebody has opened a little hole in the wall record shop in the Winn Dixie strip mall, in a space about as big as your efficiency apartment, and walk in there and realize the guy is not only selling stuff you’ve only heard about but selling it for three, four, five bucks apiece.

And you can’t therefore know what it’s like to have one of the very first things you find in that store be The Impressions: The Vintage Years, an album which, when you get it home and slide it on your cheap-o turntable, will discover crosses fifteen years and five distinct phases of three brilliant careers (not just the doo-wop and soul years of the Impressions, but the two major phases of Jerry Butler’s solo career and the beginning of Curtis Mayfield’s) so seamlessly they constitute a mind-blowing journey from the street corner where Mayfield,  Butler, and their mates, figuratively if not literally, conceived both “Your Precious Love” and a way out of the lives History had assigned for them in the late fifties, to a doomed junkie running scared in the seventies as Mayfield, now alone, literally if not figuratively, sings “Freddie’s on the corner now, you want to be a junkie wow, remember Freddie’s dead,” and first circumscribes, then transports, the pain and fear from a life that might have easily been his if he hadn’t once upon a time happened to find his own genius on that same street corner or one so much like it the difference hardly matters.

In the New Gilded Age that came after (soon accompanied by the New Jim Crow, the New Puritanism, the New Dada, et al…no truly bad idea ever dies), all this music is far more readily available, the world over. There are better and fuller compilations of any one of those five “phases” I mentioned. I’ve got them. I listen to them. I even wrote about one of them at length. And, to tell the truth, my very favorite Impressions’ record isn’t even on this particular album:

But there’s no single shared experience that’s quite the same as this vinyl comp that’s unlikely to ever be reproduced for the modern age…Nothing, for my money, quite as satisfying, quite as simultaneously uplifting and gut-wrenching as The Impressions: The Vintage Years.

I’m mostly glad I don’t have to spend years tracking things down. Really I am.

But there are some experiences I wouldn’t trade.

MY VERY FIRST OFFICIAL CD REVIEW (The Paley Brothers Help Me Define How I Really Feel About Certain Things…Or Something Like That)

The Paley Brothers: The Complete Recordings

(NOTE: The Paley Brothers were a sibling harmony duo who released an album and a few singles at the height of the Do It Yourself Punk/New Wave moment in the late seventies. Their complete recordings, including some previously unissued and live tracks are now available. This is the first time I’ve ever formally reviewed a CD. Somebody was kind enough to send me a review copy so, of course, since I was obligated to write about it, it fell into that most difficult of categories–Liked-it-didn’t-love-it-even-though-I-really-wanted-to. Still, thinking about it like a “reviewer” provided an interesting experience. Unlike books or movies, which require a certain level of engagement, music can and should be experienced both deeply and casually. Hence I tried on a mix of close attention and having it on in the background over the course of several weeks. It never really grabbed me…but it did leave me with a few things to say.)

The Paley Brothers were one of those “can’t miss” acts who missed. They were slated Power Pop–a genre that never quite seemed to live up to its potential in any case–but I hear as much Retro (along the lines of Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids) as anything. As much Fifties as Sixties in other words.

That’s hardly a bad thing. The Paleys were certainly skilled as both writers and singers–enough that I can readily understand the cult that’s developed around these recordings even if I can’t quite join it.

I’m left on the outside by, among other things, my aversion to half-formulas.

Pop, I hear, in every second.

Power? Not so much. And, unfortunately, whatever the marketing label, all first class Pop needs it, a lesson the DIY brand the Paleys specialized in failed to learn in general.

Having said all that, I can’t deny that these recordings are quite good as knockoffs (or that I have a fondness for knockoffs). And the Brothers certainly had pedigree, or, at very least, connections. They recorded most of these sides in either the Beach Boys’ own Brother Studios or Ardent Studios in Memphis (home of Power Pop avatars, Big Star).

You can read those kind of details in the very engaging liner notes which are actually the best thing about this package. But in the end, all that information does is re-emphasize how the best Power Pop (or Retro) bands always added a little something (if not a whole lotta something). And it was that extra something–not the imitative elements–that made the Raspberries or Badfinger or Cheap Trick or Big Star or, yes, I insist, Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids–special.

The Paleys, on the other hand, do some perfect imitations (especially of the Everly Brothers and late period Beach Boys, though on “Too Good to Be True,” they sneak in a Bobby Fuller Four Vibe that is perfect in every respect except for their keeping their distance in a way Fuller never would have imagined even when he was throwing one of his occasional change-ups), or, sometimes, perfect-imitations-of-imitations like a live cover of Tommy Roe’s “Sheila” which itself was a top-notch Buddy Holly homage.

To be fair, the Paleys did do a bit of anticipating as well. But it was of future Retro acts like Shaun Cassidy (who they would end up touring with) and the Stray Cats (1979’s “She’s Eighteen Tonight” could be a template for that band’s entire career). And those acts would be just that little bit better–or maybe just that little bit more focused–that is so often the difference between hitting and missing.

I do hear a lot of passion in the Paleys music, especially the vocals. But in the end, their records were always let down by something. Strange to say, given that Andy Paley went on to become a big-time producer, but there are several sides here I can imagine taking off if only a little more care or imagination had been applied to some particular element of studio-craft: “You’re the Best” and “Runnin’ In the Rain” have great melodies and fine vocals but are built around seriously undercooked arrangements (a common problem with the entire DIY movement, actually, given that arrangements are the life-blood of all great Pop) while “Magic Power” which does have a strong arrangement is dragged down by an uncharacteristically misguided lead vocal.

And–background or foreground–so it goes with this entire record and with my first exposure to the Paley Brothers. They chased after so many bits of other people’s genius that they never quite found their own.

Granted, they wore their influences so proudly on their sleeves that it amounted to a kind of integrity. But it also added up to a sound with no strong central focus. That’s what separates them from bands like the Raspberries or Badfinger, who had hits by getting within shouting distance of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. And I suspect it’s the missing ingredient, as well, that prevented them from producing a single transcendent track after the manner of Starz’ “Cherry Baby” or Sniff N’ the Tears’ “Driver’s Seat”, which at least scraped the Top 40 by getting within shouting distance of the Raspberries.

So I guess at bottom I can hear how something bigger might have happened for the Paleys with a small twist of fate here or there.

But, even on their magnum opus “Can You Come Out and Play,” I can also hear why it didn’t.

And in this latter, there is a certain poignance and even relevance.

If “Can You Come Out and Play” had as much vocal impact on Shaun Cassidy as I suspect, then that’s reason enough for the Paleys’ recordings–and this package–to exist. I mean, you can take my Sinatra records (well, Frank’s anyway) and do with them what you will, but you’ll have to pry “That’s Rock and Roll” and “Hey Deanie” from my cold dead fingers.

The heartfelt liner-note tribute from Seymour Stein, the Sire Records label head who signed the Paleys, believed in them and stood by them as long as possible, shows how much good will and real respect they generated.

There is some real love for them there and in a lot of the quotes from other big-timers as well–not to mention a lot of positive-to-rave reviews in the here and now.

They clearly had some sort of magic.

I only wish I could honestly say it translated to my own ears.