Record #418: Firefall – Firefall (1976)

After years of smug punk-ethos and hipstery you-wouldn’t-have-heard-of-thems, I’m trying to be a better poptimist. Cynicism and taste policing stopped being fun a long time ago.

Part of that is embracing the mountains of soft rock filling discarded collections, thrift stores, and $1 bins.

But sometimes, I find records that don’t require me to lower my standards to enjoy them.

As long as I’ve been collecting, I’ve seen Firefall all over the place. So when I stumbled upon it this past weekend, I decided to take a chance on it.

And that gamble is paying off.

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Record #417: Cool Hand Luke – Cora (2017)

About a week before I started 10th grade, I was at a Taking Back Sunday show (at a small coffeeshop in my hometown—this was before they got huge), and I saw a guy wearing a shirt that said, “Cool Hand Luke.” Always eager to find new music, I hopped on Interpunk.com (they’re still open, B.T. Dubs) and did a quick search.

And friends, I’m not sure if any other internet search has ever had such an effect on my life.

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Record #415: The Edgar Winter Group – They Only Come Out at Night (1972)

In the 1940s, in perhaps one of the greatest strokes of fate in rock and roll history, John and Edwina Winter—their real last name—gave birth to two sons with albinism.

They encouraged both sons—Johnny and little Edgar—to pursue musical pursuits.

The era of their birth, their albinism, and their nurtured talents paved the way for them to become mega stars in the glam rock scene in the 1970s.

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Record #414: Dolly Parton – Best Of Dolly Parton (1975)

As a child growing up in the ’90s, Dolly Parton seemed a bit corny to me.

She owned her own theme park (which I’ve visited). She made random movie cameos. There was even a bit of a joke that she was more plastic than skin and bone.

​But lemme tell you what, suckers. Dolly Parton is a friggin’ saint.

And this Best Of album confirms it.

Released when she was just 29 and including only one song she didn’t write, the sheer variety and consistency of this compilation speaks volumes to the quality of her body of work (my dad would make a punchline here. Something about work done on her body. Shut up, dad). 

She shows herself a master of dark, mournful ballads (“Jolene,” “Corner Store), tender love songs (the indelible “And I Will Always Love You”), and unbridled country-western jubilance (“Coat of Many Colors,” “When I Sing For Him”). 

There’s not a bad track on here. And while I famously dismiss greatest hits comps, this one doesn’t have a bad second of music on it. Nothing seems out of place. It’s just pure Dolly, through and through, and that’s all it needs to be.

Record #413: Boz Scags – Silk Degrees (1981)

One of the strange things about classic rock radio is that the songs the stations play aren’t always the best representation of the albums they were cut from.

For instance, if you were expecting Silk Degrees to sound like “Lido Shuffle” throughout, you’re in for a few surprises.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that this isn’t as much a glam rock record as “Lido’s” Eltony shuffle would suggest. The musical center of this record is actually a bit closer to disco and soul. Strings, horns, and a lush choir join Boz on a number of tracks as he croons his way through the tunes. “It’s Over” co-opts classic R&B so much that I was surprised to see it’s an original and not a Supremes cover.

It’s often given slapped with a Blue-Eyed Soul tag, which accurately describes the Motowny instrumentation and the way Boz’s inflection often mimics Diana Ross. But it glosses over how firmly his tongue is pressed into his cheek as he transcends the cliches of the genre. Throughout the record, his delivery seems to be thumb over to Michael McDonald as if to say, “this guy, amiright?”

Which isn’t to say the album is devoid of any heart. Even in his more self aware moments, Boz manages to maintain his earnestness. “Harbor Lights” is as gorgeous a ballad as anyone has ever made. “Lowdown” is a big, cinematic soul blowout. And by the time “Lido Shuffle” comes around, it’s almost out of place.

Record #412: Billy Joel – Songs in the Attic (1981)

I haven’t been that kind to Billy Joel.

I’ve derided him as a Paul McCartney wannabe who was far more concerned with making soundtracks for music videos than writing good pop tunes.

But that’s not entirely fair. Nor is it necessarily true.

I made a conscious decision a few months ago to be a bit kinder to the Piano Man; to let him be as corny, cheesy, and gimmicky (heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack!) as he wants. It’s been rewarding, mostly. But the most rewarding, probably, is this live album that I picked out of a pile of records that was going to be used for wedding directions.

This is an unusual live album: after The Stranger made him a huge star, Billy released an album of live versions of his old songs to introduce new listeners to his back catalog. In the liner notes, he specifically mentioned that he wanted to focus on lesser-known cuts: which means no “Piano Man.” 

But there are several gems on here. “Captain Jack,” a deep cut from The Stranger is played with a heavy hitting energy that the studio version lacked—including a shouted final chorus. “She’s Got a Way About Her,” the lead track from his ill-fated first album , finds new life here—this version became a charting single, and for good reason. 

Even besides these standouts, the entire tracklist is filled with gems. The best songs from a talented young songwriter played with the conviction and power of a star performer. The songs are lifted from the murky swamp of “potential” and given the performances they deserve.

October 14th Haul

My childhood best friend got married in a punk rock wedding this weekend, and I officiated. 

They were using a bunch of old records as decorations—hanging them on walls, using them as chargers for plates, and other unsavory treatment that no good record should be subjected to.

So I went through the stack ahead of time and saved these. 

Especially important is the punk classic Easter by the Patty Smith Group. An absolute gem of a record.

Skipping Records: What You Can Do

​There’s nothing like digging through a crate of discarded records and finding an absolute classic—just this weekend, I found a copy of Easter by the Patty Smith Group in a stack of records meant to be used for decorations at a wedding.

But there’s no telling how well those records were taken care of. That same copy of Easter had scratches all over the title track, causing maybe a dozen skips.

There’s nothing I can do but toss it back in the garbage, right?

Wrong.

With some patience, steady hands, and nerves of steel, I was able to get the record to play through without skipping. I’ve been able to do the same with a few other records too, including the copy of Wish You Were Here that I carelessly dragged the needle over once and a trashed copy of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless that I got for cheap.

And now, I’m going to pass on that knowledge.

But before we go on: this is a last resort. Do not attempt this on any record that isn’t otherwise unlistenable. 

To understand how to fix skipping records, we have to understand what causes these skips.

Vinyl is a physical medium. The music is physically in the grooves. As the needle drags through the grooves, it translates the physical shape of the grooves into soundwaves.

Vinyl is also soft. When a record is scratched, the vinyl  in the upper portion of the groove is pushed into the path of the needle. When the needle hits this displaced vinyl, it’s kicked out of the groove and lands in an earlier portion of the song. The needle travels the groove until it hits the scratch again, and it kicks out again.

Forever.

But if you’re feeling brave, you can clear the groove and give the needle  a clear path, getting rid of those pesky skips.​

Picture

Grab a pin. I use a thumbtack myself (though I’m thinking about finding something smaller). You’ll also need a bright light, and maybe some reading glasses to get a good look at the record. Make sure your hands are clean.

Play your record and listen carefully. When the needle skips, stop the record and look carefully.

Manually push the record through the skipping portion. Look carefully to see exactly where on the disk the skip is happening.


With the light shining on the record, you’ll be able to clearly see the obstruction. It will usually be a scratch or a speck of dust that got caught in the grooves (this is usually from the records being packed too tightly on the shelf). Some colors will be much harder to see (especially white).

​Run your finger over the source of the skip. If you can feel a a bump, try light scratching it with your finger nail in the direction of the grooves. Start the turntable again. If the skipping persists, it’s time to get a little more serious.

Push the record over the skipping section again. Try to keep your eye on the exact groove the needle is passing through. You will probably see a scratch or a speck on the record. If it’s a particularly deep scratch, it might be grabbing dust off of the needle as it skips. Look for any spots on the scratch where dust is collecting.

Take your pin and rest it near the obstruction. Be very careful to not push down very hard, or you might make more problems for yourself. Keep a steady hand to avoid adding more scratches

Apply some light pressure to the pin and work it back and forth through the groove at the scratch or contamination. As you push the pin along the groove, you should feel a little bit of resistance from the problem area. Take care not to bump the needle.

Start the turntable again and watch. If you found the right spot, it should play through with a mild pop or static. If this happens, stop the turntable and manually move it back and forth over the scratch, like a really boring DJ. If it keeps skipping, try hopping to either of the adjacent grooves.

Keep note that this method only works with looping skips—that is, when the record skips to a previous portion of the song. If the record jumps forward, that’s because the divider between the grooves has been worn away, making the two grooves one. As far as I know, you can’t fix that.

But you know what’s even easier than fixing scratches with a pin? Avoiding them altogether. Here are some tips to avoiding scratches.

  • If your turntable has a cue lever, use that to lower the needle
  • Avoid bumping the needle while the record is playing (or at all)
  • Take care when inserting records back into inner sleeves—watch out for dust in the sleeves
  • Be careful when flipping the record and placing it on the spindle
  • Don’t pack records too tightly. This presses dust into the grooves

​If you’re feeling bold—or if you have a worthless record to practice on—give this a shot. I’d love to hear if anybody else is able to make it work.

Record #411: The Killers – Hot Fuss (2004)

Thirteen years ago when this record was released, there’s no way anyone could have guessed how it would embed itself into the social consciousness…
Yet a decade and a half later, I still know every word (except to “Believe Me Natalie”). “Mr. Brightside” is still on the radio (and a great meme). And, this was one of the most anticipated vinyl reissues in recent memory. 

We all assumed this was little more than an indie rock album filled with catchy songs. And there are hundreds of those released a year, but we aren’t still talking about them. But there’s something about this record that won’t let go of you. The earworms, synth lines, funky-as-hell bass riffs, and disaffected post-punk vocals are a Trojan horse for some incredibly fun and heart-tugging tunes. “Smile like you mean it” isn’t exactly an original sentiment, but Brandon Flowers sings it with an earnestness that makes you want to cry. Then he hits you with this verse: “Someone is calling my name from the back of a restaurant / And someone is playing a game in the house that I grew up in / And someone will drive her around down the same streets that I did…”

The album isn’t always this intimate though. Much of it is wrapped in the same irony that their new wave and post punk progenitors utilized. After all, is there any earnest way to sing, “Don’t you put me on the backburner” or “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier”? If there is, would you even want to mean those lyrics?

Much of the album’s power is in Brandon Flower’s ability to flip from a bleeding poet to a snarky comedian to whom nothing is sacred. But if it weren’t for the band’s ability to craft exciting rock and roll around it, it’d be for naught. The band riffs on New Order and Duran Duran as much as it does the Rolling Stones, and each with equal conviction.

It’s worth mentioning that when I first bought this CD, I was disappointed that all of the songs didn’t sound like “Somebody Told Me.” What a fool I was.