Sunday, June 29, 2014

Neil Young - Re-ac-tor - 1981

Re-act-or:  the beginnings of Neil Young's awesome and much maligned 80's albums, a noisy precursor to Trans, and recorded with Crazy Horse.  What's not to like here?  Re-ac-tor is loaded with heaps of fuzzed-out electric guitar, from Frank Sampedro, ridiculous percussion from Ralph Molina, and thudding bass from Billy Talbot.

There's "a story of Surfer Joe, who caught the big one and let it go" that exemplifies Young's folky, storytelling talents.  This is only to be followed by the bold and brash, "T-Bone," where Neil sings about mashed potatoes and T-Bone steaks.  Yes, you read that right.  It's a pretty silly track, but who cares?  It's fun to listen to and very few lyrics.  Literally, "Got mashed potatoes, Ain't got no T-Bone" repeats endlessly over this nine-minute jam session with the Horse.  Yes.

Side-B is full of trains and cars.  The train-track, "Southern Pacific," sounds like it could fit easily on Neil and Crazy Horse's retro covers album, Americana, due to its rootsy pace, dark lyrics, haunting back-up vocals, massive guitar mashing, and bass line.  Some people might listen to "Motor City" and think it's strange how Young sings so crankily about his car, but seeing as cars are a giant part of his life the song makes total sense.  It's a funny and simple 50's style track with a great sing-a-long "who's driving my car now?"  From reading his autobiographical book, Waging Heavy Peace, you would know how driving huge, old cars on the open road is just about his favorite pastime (after making music and playing with toy trains).  "Rapid Transit" is prescient of his yet to come Landing on Water, not sure why.  His vocals are playful; he's scatting a bit, and doing some lip drum rolls, and yowling too.

Album closer "Shots" could make a guest appearance on Le Noise, Young's recent album that sounds like a "feedback drenched apocalypse."  "Shots" is far ahead of its time.  It's grungy.  Really gritty.  All kinds of machinery sounds are made here with nasty guitar feedback.  Stunning.  Young's singing laid on this backdrop is spot on.  Neil and the Horse are in an intensely focused jam till the end of this track when it just crumbles in chaos.  Total destruction.

Re-ac-tor has howls, kazoos, oohs, ahhs, wood block, cow bell, hand claps, whubba whubbahs,  and the occasional whooh.  As an album it's brimming with reckless abandon.  It's messy at times and frankly lacks in musical focus.  It's Neil and the Horse possibly well loaded and joyously jamming out.  Crazy Horse brings out ripping sounds and fiery intensity on each and every one of these tracks.

Seems like a lot of the music here could perfectly fit into other great Neil Young albums that he later created.  Was this album ahead of its time?  Then why is it that Re-ac-tor is not highly regarded by the general public?  These VVer's don't care about that kinda stuff and like what they like.  It has been in their collection for quite a few years and there it will remain.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Well this Changes EVERYTHING!

Here is a true story of how your favorite vinyl enthusiasts went truly analog (gasp!) in a herculean effort to confront their sneaking suspicion that the turntable was playing at less than satisfactory speeds.   This is how it went down:

The VVers were savvy enough to have purchased tickets for the sold out Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings show at the newly renovated Lincoln Theater on U Street.  Those Dap Kings and Miss Jones really brought down the house during their stellar set!  This spurred VVer #1 to buy a 45 at the concert (shocking!) of the super single "100 Days 100 Nights."  The following eve, upon first listen in the Casa de VV, Sharon's voice sounded decidedly off.  "This is not Miss Sharon Jones!"  Truth be told her vocals dragged, sounding all bass and lacking her signature zazz.  Did the turntable need a nap?  VVer #1 suggested listening to a YouTube snippet of the song to see if any difference could be heard.  With this it was immediately apparent that the turntable was not operating up to speed.  How long had this been going on for!?!  Had any 45 speed vinyl been playing at up-to-par speeds and how does one tell?  The standard method for testing and measuring the speed and  accuracy of your turntable is to use a strobe disc which you put on your player much like a record.  The strobe is a disc that has dots all around it and when spinning at the correct speed the dots are supposed to look as if they are staying still.  The strobe works due to a combination of how electric lights oscillate, plus the distance the dots are apart, times the actual speed of your player.  Sounds kind of dull, right?  Oh, you fell asleep just now?  Wake up, there's a turntable to fix here!

VVer #2 had already been formulating a crazy idea in her mind of how to test the speed of the turntable sans strobe and suggested, "oooooor, we could just count how many turns the record makes in one minute, if it's 45, then we are good."  BUM BUMM BAHHH!  Brilliant!  VVer #1 was all in for this crazy experiment.  It went sort of like this:

VVer #1 demanded a listen to both 45s and 33s to determine if the various speeds were off.  LPs had been sounding fine, but it seemed appropriate to be thorough.  VVer #2 queued up the stopwatch and VVer #1 put a part of a post-it note on the very edge of a 45 and ... GO!  Strange, it got to almost exactly 33 rotations in a minute ... and, oops, the player was set to 33!  These VVers sometimes have problems adjusting to the correct speed as elaborated on here.  Upon a re-count at 45 speed, it got to 42 rotations in a minute.  It was in fact playing at 3 rpms too slow.  Horrors!  Now this might not seem like a lot of rpms to the lay person, but a lot of oomph can be attributed to a few missing rpms!  Where do the speed challenged VVers go from here?

Post-it note sliver

Turns out they break out their ace in the hole; the vintage portable suitcase record player.  Just last year it was dropped a few dollars on to have professionally serviced, a near guarantee that it plays at the right speed.  Time to play all the 45s and hear them for the "first" time.

Tools of the trade
But in reality, this is just a solution to mask the problem.  The newer table must be fixed!  Upon calls to AudioTechnica and a drive belt replacement (free and easy thanks to some reasonably quick tech support via email), a re-test still sounded slow.  When timed at 45 speed, it took one minute and three seconds to get to 45 rotations.  Still slow.  The VVers were still determined to fix (or at least try to fix) this themselves and had a hunch that the problem had more to do with the motor than the belt.  Seeing as these are the times of the inter-webs, and that there is a lot of information out there, VVer #1 did some digging, and found a useful thread that pointed to this word previously unknown to man-kind, "potentiometer."  Isn't that the scientific term that describes the exact measure for the possible good that lives inside every one of us?  Noooo.  Turns out it is apparatus that connects the speed doodad to the table framastat.  Accessible through one of the two minuscule holes on the underbelly of the turntable, you can choose either 33 or 45 to adjust.  Who needs instructions!?!  Apparently not the VVers!  Problem is, you need some sort of tiny tool and tiny hands and tiny light to be able to adjust this little widget.  With a steady hand and a fair amount of bravado anything is possible!  With this in mind the VVers enlisted an eyeglass size screwdriver and head lamp.  After about 20 tries of turning this tiny screw inside a tiny hole, covered by a tiny foam sliver, and then testing the speed each time, the turntable was fixed.  Huzzah!  The 45 that assisted and then ultimately proved success?  Good ole Guns N' Roses "Sweet Child O' Mine" which features that unmistakable opening solo.  If you can't tell the speed accuracy from that then you probably should stop reading now.

Some of the 45s we tested our turntable with
Thanks to their daring ambition, the VVers had managed to put off dropping a pile of moolah on any new, fancy, high-end system (WOW there is a lot out there) for awhile and can continue to run their current one into the ground.  This whole series of events encouraged some research on technical aspects of turntables and the audiophile kingdom.  As intimidating as that was to do, it encouraged them to at least purchase a new needle for improved sound.  It's a small thing the VVers can do to reward their fix-it-yourself victory!