Devo: New Traditionalists

Devo, New Traditionalists (1981)

Since I’m on my major DEVO kick at the moment, I thought I would just go through all their albums. Today’s killer Devo record: New Traditionalists from 1981.

New Traditionalists took more than one listen for me to really click with it. On first listen, it sounded a little flat, a little dull, sandwiched between the quasi-industrial sound of Oh, No! It’s DEVO and the guitar-synth pop hooks of Freedom of Choice. I wrote this first impression off as exhaustion from listening to too many Devo records at once. Also, it was 4:00 am. Everything turns to mush in your head by that time of night.

So a couple days later, I came back with fresh ears, and was hooked. The first song, the single, “Through Being Cool,” sounds a little off, but it’s really just different, and it gets stuck in your head before long. You’ll notice that singing duties are split among band members on New Traditionalists, giving a real variety to the singing (Mark Mothersbaugh, skilled as he is, always sings in the same high range).

The balance between guitars and electronic synthesizers has begun to shift away from the guitars on this album, clearly foreshadowing where the next album would go. This has always been Devo’s plan, to get away from the guitar-and-drums sound, and into new territory. So perhaps there’s less of that punkish vibe, and more of those magnificent hooks. So what?

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Oh, No! It’s DEVO

Devo, Oh, No! It’s Devo (1982)

I don’t honestly know if you have to have lived through the New Wave era of the early 1980s to really appreciate how cool Oh, No! It’s DEVO is. Probably not. This is one of those rare albums: a perfect snapshot of its era, and somehow ahead of its time. You have to keep one eye on Weird Al’s Dare to be Stupid, the other on industrial music.

I think I’m feeling nostalgic for those days, the early days of MTV (back when MTV played nothing but music videos, all of them good), Atari, Pac-Man, E.T., Rubik’s Cube, the Space Shuttle. It was a great little point in history, so filled with the joy of life and the energy of youth. Well, I was in early grade school, the early part of “youth.” But it was a fun time, the New Wave era. It’s been completely swept under the tide of corporate-sanitized history, desperate to sell brainless 12-year-olds on some vapid saltwater consumerism.

Ugh, today’s pop music sucks. It hasn’t been this bad since the hair metal days of the late ’80s. It might be worse; I don’t know if another Saint Cobain could come along and smash it. If there was ever a time for a band like Devo, it’s here and it’s now. If such a band is truly out there, somebody needs to unlock them from the garage and set them loose.

There’s always been a great degree of subversive attitude from Devo. Essentially an art-house band, they sought to criticize the modern culture and the devolution of our civilization, but wrap that within some killer pop music. There are a lot of souls who listen to Devo songs, never suspecting just what is going on. They’ll toss aside as mere fluff. Even critics, who should know better, look upon it as a big joke. Generation gap, children. The spuds are smiling, but they’re baring the fangs, and they’re laughing at you.

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Sony PS-X75 Biotracer Turntable

Sony PS-X75 Biotracer Turntable

I still miss my Sony PS-X75 turntable. It had just the perfect combination of awesome performance and stylish looks. To my eyes, this is what a great turntable looks like. Today’s designs are far more stripped down and basic, since vinyl records are a small niche. But back in the 1970s, when millions of turntables were sold, Japanese manufacturers were able to devote their considerable engineering skills to the craft.

Sony’s PS-X75 represented the third generation from their golden age of turntable design. The PS-X5/6/7 series began the peak, it then continued with the X50/60/70 series, and then the great X65/75 tables. They continued to refine this design well into the early 1980s, when Compact Disc arrived and sent all the engineers scurrying away to master the new format.

This PS-X75 features Sony’s unique tonearm, dubbed the “Biotracer.” It began on an earlier model (PS-B80 in 1978) and was nearly perfected here. The Biotracer uses magnets and electronic parts for its automated movements, promising shiny touch controls. Just press a button and Biotracer takes care of everything; you never have to lay a finger on the tonearm.

The Biotracer design also tackles tonearm resonance, one of the oldest engineering challenges in turntables. Most tonearms must be matched properly with the tonearm, so resonances do not interfere with the musical signal. Sony’s design essentially eliminates this problem. In theory, you should be able to play any kind of phono cartridge on the Biotracer, regardless of its mass or compliance (the adjustable Vertical Tracking Adjustment helps greatly).

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Babes in Toyland

Babes in Toyland

I once read the perfect description of the Minneapolis and Seattle music scenes of the 1990s: Seattle was Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, Minneapolis was Neil Young and The Rolling Stones. While Seattle had the great rock bands of our generation, towering dinosaurs like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Mudhoney, the Twin Cities followed the fuzz-tone punk of Warehouse-era Husker Du and the country-tinged guitar pop of The Replacements.

Babes in Toyland were always misfits for the Land of 10,000 Suburban Shopping Malls. They were enormously loud, fiercely aggressive, openly defiant. They didn’t care if the locals would rather listen to the Gear Daddies and The Jayhawks, or if Minnesota’s unique blend of passive-aggressive politeness — “Minnesota Nice” — never suited their style. This band came to make noise and shock the neighbors. They came to rock.

Babes in Toyland — vocalist Kat Bjelland, bassists Michelle Leon and Maureen Herman, drummer Lori Barbero — created a punk rock sound that was ferocious, richly textured, deeply passionate, full of sound and fury. They were clearly the heaviest and most aggressive band in Minneapolis, then or now. They played rock music on the boys’ terms. They were following the tradition of Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum and The Ramones’ Road to Ruin, of Sonic Youth and Bauhaus and early Velvet Underground.

With their 1990 debut album, Spanking Machine, the band became a local staple and earned considerable respect within the indie-rock world. Lori Barbero’s Uptown home famously became a regular hostel for every band visiting Minneapolis. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore invited the Babes to join them on tour. British music maven John Peel declared the album the best release of the year.

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When Rock Was Dangerous: Lou Reed’s Lulu

Lou Reed and Metallica

Once upon a time, many moons ago, rock ‘n roll was dangerous. Such an attitude has all but vanished in the age of house-trained consumers, corporate conglomerates, banal no-talent television shows and the Telecom Act of 1997. Everyone plays it safe to pacify the public, company bosses and corporate overlords alike, and the result is the worst stretch of pop music in living memory.

How perfectly fitting that Lou Reed, one of the greatest, most unpredictable, most mercurial of all rock legends, would end his career by dropping a ten-megaton bomb squarely in the laps of the fanboys, hipsters and so-called experts. When his final opus Lulu detonated in 2011, it exploded across the pop landscape with a sound and fury not seen in decades. Andy Warhol would have been impressed.

Lulu is many things — terrifying in its fury, full of passionate intensity, spit and venom, a hurricane assault of atonal distortion and amplified noise. It is about as far from “commercial” as any major musical work released in this century. It is deliberately provocative in every way you can imagine. It is as welcoming as a punch to the face. It is complex, challenging, poetic, defiant. There are moments that make me chuckle (“I am the chair”), moments that make me wince (“Mistress Dread”), and moments that leave me overwhelmed by its beauty (“Junior Dad”). The album feels like White Light/White Heat, Berlin and Metal Machine Music hurled into an atom smasher. It is a brilliant masterwork of rock art.

The aforementioned Lou Reed albums were, in their time, met with universal derision and scorn, only to be hailed as classics many years later, and so we should expect no less from Lulu. This album was never going to be greeted with candy and kisses. Still, the overweening tantrums, the endless kvetching from all sides was surprising. The catalyst, I suspect, lie in Reed’s partners on the project: Metallica, the hard rock titans who inspire devotion and vitriol in equal measure, and often from the same people. It has long been fashionable to pile on Metallica for everything they do, and Lulu became an opportunity too good to pass up.

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Miles Davis – Get Up With It

Miles Davis, Get Up With It (1974)

The 1974 double-LP Get Up With It is the final studio album of the Miles Davis electric “fusion” era, and contains the funkiest, hardest, and wildest music of his career.

This wasn’t conceived as a studio project per se, like 1972’s On the Corner. Miles was rushing in and out of recording sessions with regularity throughout the 1970s, and while the bulk of the album features the “Pete Cosey lineup” (that’s the easiest way for me to remember this voodoo funk period), some of the tracks are recorded a bit earlier.

No doubt, at the time, this gave the impression that the album was a collection of leftovers, like numerous post-retirement Miles Davis albums of the ’70s like Directions, Circle in the Round and Water Babies. But like the 1974 release of Big Fun, which was composed of tracks recorded 1970-72, Get Up With It has a cohesion to its sound. To my ears, it sounds very much like a modern album…and, by that, I mean a ’90s rock album (21st century pop music is terrible).

1990s rock was defined by a lot of experimentation, and it was common for the great artists to jump across genres every couple of songs. It’s not quite the same as the musical brew of the late ’60s, but more of a channel-surfing thing. Maybe everyone was just taking cues from Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Who knows? My favorite ’90s albums — Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Stone Temple Pilots Purple, Hole’s Live Through This, R.E.M.’s Monster, Radiohead’s The Bends and OK Computer, Metallica’s Load & Reload — have that jukebox attitude. Get Up With It carries that very same vibe, and I think that’s the reason why I love it so much.

The two epics, which fill sides one and three, couldn’t be more different in mood and texture. And the shorter songs range from boogie blues to trip-hop dance to dissonant noise. And yet it all feels so similar. There’s a similar plan of attack from Miles and his bandmates, and to my mind it comes down to two things:

One, Miles on the keyboards. While piano and keyboards were always a staple, at this point Miles takes the keys himself, but he uses the instrument almost purely for assault. It’s there to bludgeon you, shock you, to hit you upside the head until you’re kissing canvas. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Miles did little more than just punch the keyboard, or mash his forearm down for dissonant effect. Which brings us to…

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Realistic LAB-420 Turntable

Realistic LAB-420 Direct Drive Turntable (shown alongside a Pro-Ject Debut III Turntable)

It’s another weekend of analog music fun over here at the apartment! A couple nights ago, I picked up a vintage turntable from beloved Minneapolis record store Roadrunner Records. I’m getting it for my Dad as a Christmas present. The table is a 1979 Realistic LAB-420, a fully automatic direct drive turntable from the late 1970s. This table was manufactured by CEC in Japan (a behind-the-scenes player that built decks for many of the major brands) and sold by Radioshack in the USA, and is today regarded as a minor classic. I paid $125 for the unit, which is a steal for anything in high-end audio, and thankfully everything works perfectly.

I took the table home and cleaned it out as best I could, even giving the wood a solid waxing. Then last night, the fine crew at Needle Doctor gave me a terrific deal on a new phono cartridge and headshell. For $150, I received a Technics headshell (in black), and the celebrated Audio Technica 440mla Moving Magnet cartridge.

I took everything home and started to play some albums. The sound, unfortunately, seemed to be off. There was far too much bass, the sound was too muffled and heavy, and for the life of me I couldn’t discover the cause. Was this just because the turntable is old? Is it because it’s a direct drive? Is it because the cart needs time to break in? After some time, I finally discovered what the problem with the sound is, and it’s one of those stupid rookie mistakes: my Pro-Ject Tube Box II phono preamp was set to “MC” mode! D’oh! I had completely forgotten about that. The “MC” (Moving Coil) setting has a gain of 60db, while the “MM” (Moving Magnet) has a gain of 40db. I clicked the button to the correct setting, and instantly everything was transformed.

The Realistic Lab-420 is my first immersion into direct drive turntables, after using two belt drive decks. I’m completely blown away. Now I must rethink everything I’ve been taught about direct drives being inferior to belts. This really is a terrific table, and it’s going to be very hard for me to give it away on Christmas.

The AT-440mla is a stunning cartridge: clear tones, sharply detailed, excellent dynamics, tracks like a dream. Needle Doctor gave me a great deal. They had the cart already mounted onto a Technics headshell, and they sold the package to me for $150. Once again, the Needle Doctor crew delivers!

Right now, I have my Pro-Ject Debut III alongside the Lab-420. This way I can spend a few days testing one against the other. It’s here that I wish I had a preamp with more sockets (the Tube Box only has one pair). So far, it’s been illuminating and a bit humbling.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Your First Turntable

Pro-Ject Debut III Turntable

When you decide to explore the world of vinyl records, you’ll be asking lots of questions about turntables, and you’ll likely be swarmed with a million different answers. This may seem overwhelming at first, but it’s perfectly normal. Analog music (which is what records are all about) is far more nuanced and tricky than simply popping a CD into the tray and hitting the play button. There are many different turntable brands, many different designs, and many different price points. And everybody has their own opinion, which contradicts everybody else.

The great example of this is the “turf war” (I say that half-jokingly) between Technics and Rega fans. In a broader sense, this is a battle between the defenders of belt-drive turntables and direct-drive turntables. In truth, both designs have their advantages and weaknesses, and great tables can be had on both sides equally. But passions are fierce among the devoted, and it can be confusing to newcomers.

Here is my advice for every one of you. At the end of the day, you need to dive in and just get your hands dirty. A first turntable is like a first car. You don’t expect perfection, just a reliable clunker that you can tear apart and destroy as you learn and grow.

Over the past two years, I’ve gone through half a dozen turntables, starting with a $99 Numark PT-101 portable, then moving up to a Pro-Ject Debut III, later followed by a series of vintage 1970s direct drive models: Sony, Technics, MCS, JVC. My current setup — Sony PS-X600 Biotracer, Dynavector 10×5 phono cartridge, Pro-Ject Tube Box SE II phono preamplifier — is one of the best I’ve yet heard, and paired with my Marantz 2235b stereo receiver, it’s an excellent sound system. I learned everything the long and hard way, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

In the process of learning, I’ve become a more skilled listener. I’ve learned to listen critically, something I never really did before. I’ve learned much about the science of turntables, of their designs and the various theories of replicating that perfect sound. And I’ve wrecked my share of parts and ruined my share of records.

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