Monday, 6 March 2017

You Ain't Coming Home With Me! (Part 1)


James Galway, Perry Como, Mrs Mills, Mantovani, Klaus Wunderlich - all the usual, mundane constituents of a dead man's record collection. If a charity shop dig yields no treasure, then I want to see trash that's really, REALLY bad! It needs to make me smile, snort, cringe, squirm, double-take. Anything, but yawn! This one made my nut sack pucker. And not in a good way...


Monday, 13 February 2017

Shelf-Stacker Gets Mathematical

All things considered I'm very happy with the current Mrs Shelf-Stacker. She looks good, understands that U2 and The Smiths are shit, tolerates my profound fecklessness and, because we're a similar age, shares many of the same cultural references. However, it occured to me recently that there would have been one distinct advantage in having hooked up with a considerably younger model. Namely that, when the moment came for her parents to take stock, downsize, and pass their record collection in my direction, it wouldn't consist solely of light classical fluff and what I believe is referred to as French Chanson. I've worked out a mathematical formula to illustrate this:

Shelf-Stacker + (current wife minus 15 years) = in-laws with Beatles / Hendrix / Stones LPs instead of the kind of crap I've just been lumbered with.

Still, I got a laugh out of this man fingering a pussy... 

 

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Black Sabbath - The End



Master of reality-TV, Ozzy Osbourne, and his Sabbath compadres are calling time on touring. Their show at the London O2 Arena on 29th January played out before a crowd intent on rubbernecking the death throes of a lumbering behemoth rather than celebrating its odds-defying longevity. Despite the polite audience reaction, Sabbath turned in a blinding performance. Ozzy's caged animal pacing was noticeable by its absence - perhaps the rigours of touring have finally caught up with him - but his vocals were a revelation, a huge improvement on Sabbath's previous tour. Geezer's playing, as always, was beyond reproach. One day he'll be recognised as being as fundamental to Black Sabbath's sound as riff factory, Tony Iommi. I've always thought that Dirty Women is unfit to breathe the same air as the rest of the band's material, but on this occasion Tony Iommi's beautiful extended guitar solo completely justified its inclusion. Tommy Clufetos' passable impersonation of Bill Ward - visually at least - didn't prevent him from turning in a turgid, toilet-break drum solo. Harsh perhaps, but for me, Bill Ward's playing is integral to the band's sonic DNA. Still, Clufetos is a marked improvement on Vinnie Appice.

Despite the crowd, despite Bill's absence, it was a memorable send-off. Long live Black Sabbath!



Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Random Record Review: Golden Avatar - A Change Of Heart (1976)





The chances are that a charity shop near you has a copy of this album. It'll be lurking somewhere amongst the James Last and Bert Kaempfert LPs. But does it really deserve to be relegated to the same vinyl limbo as some dead guy's record collection? How many times has your eye been caught by the attractive artwork and the medieval-style font before a little voice inside your head has warned you off? Years ago I owned this LP. I have no recollection of ever playing it, nor of any strong feelings about it one way or the other, yet I offloaded it in a vinyl clearout without so much as a backwards glance. The only reason I have a copy now is because a friend performed his own vinyl cull when he moved back to Wales. He went from a shoebox-sized static caravan in a Waltham Abbey trailer park to an airy detached house, but still he couldn't find any room in his life for Golden Avatar. What has this album done to provoke such callous indifference? Is it really that bad?

First, some back-story: Golden Avatar's main man was a New Hampshire-born Hare Krishna devotee, Michael Cassidy, who wanted to use his music to 'promote the values and concepts of Krishna consciousness'. He recorded his album at Golden Avatar studios in Los Angeles, but because his temple owned the studio, the project ended up being hijacked and released under the Golden Avatar name. Despite selling enough copies to go Gold in Canada, as well as shifting a sizeable number of units in the UK, Cassidy failed to make any money. Still, the LP's ubiquity would suggest that he at least succeeded in raising the profile of the Krishna movement. Apparently, during the 1970s, no walk down London's Oxford Street was complete until you'd been accosted by a shaven-headed, saffron robed Krishna disciple offering A Change Of Heart in exchange for a donation. By the time I was an Oxford Street regular in the 80s, vinyl had given way to vegetarian cook books. I'm not sure how history has judged them.




The LP's front cover, illustrated in a style reminiscent of a Victorian children's book (think Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies), is alluring, but not as alluring as the roll-call of instruments detailed on the rear. I'm a sucker for sleeve notes that tease me with vibes, harp and flutes in addition to the usual guitar, bass and drums. Add in a special thanks to, amongst others, Richie Havens, Stevie Wonder and George Harrison, and you have my attention - what a shame then to discover that their contribution is one of inspiration rather than perspiration: you won't hear any of them on the LP. But this aside, does the music contained on the album live up to the promise? Well, yes and no.




World Beyond The Sky begins the album in unremarkable fashion, bringing to mind Year Of The Cat-era Al Stewart. Decent musicianship can't disguise the soft rock blandness of it all. A driving bass motif is the undoubted musical highlight.

A conga and cowbell intro kicks off Questions Questions which soon establishes a mystical Latin ambience. Vibes, strings and brass create a sense of grandeur, whilst another sinewy bass line worms itself into your brain. Tasty soprano saxophone spirals over staccato piano. And phased acoustic guitar escalates the dreamlike quality of a well-constructed track. Definitely up there with the best the album has to offer. But still nothing to warrant the Prog Rock label occasionally applied to the album.

Bhagavad-Gita has its feet in two mutually incompatible camps, failing to convince as either epic Ben-Hur-alike soundtrack (as promised by the massed horns and kettle drum flourishes of the intro), or as acoustic singer-songwriter whimsy. To add to the cut-and-shut feel of the track, the guitar solo, when it appears, sounds bolted on, out of place and too flashy for what little semblance of mood has already been established. Confused, outstays its welcome, and not even an interesting bass line to redeem it.

Seers Of The Truth makes up for the previous track's crimes. Cocktail lounge piano gives way to a hypnotic and meandering conga and bass guitar rhythm. Michael Cassidy's tasteful lead vocal finds itself elevated to another level by male and female backing singers, and an ethereal synthesizer line, muted trumpet, and harp create a chilled, heavenly atmosphere comparable to a vegan Planet Caravan.

You're Not That Body features a nice descending bass riff, a superb trumpet solo, tabla, and massed harmony vocals. Imagine a late 60s West Coast sunshine pop act falling into an unforced funk-lite groove.

The flip-side begins with the title track which, to my ears, is the turd in this particular LP's hot tub. A twee, cheesy nursery rhyme with lyrics about a transforming butterfly. It stoops to the level of musical theatre at one point: all ensemble choruses, harp and saccharine strings. Naff!

After an initial helping of non-descript, pedestrian singer-songwriter fayre, Swetadwip is saved by Crosby Stills and Nash-alike vocal harmonies, some adept guitar, and an almost proggy ambition in its 8 minutes and 15 seconds. It too skirts the edges of musical theatre, but somehow gets away with it. An interesting track.

Oh Govinda is all piano, flutes and syrupy strings in a dull ode to the Hindu deity. The gods deserve better than this.

How often do we hear top-loaded albums that fizzle out after the first three or four tracks? Not the case here, as Golden Avatar keeps the best for last. Time For Going Home is not only the best track within the context of the LP, but deserves wider recognition for the scope of its ambition and its mesmerising groove. Sounds from nature, a simple hypnotic acoustic guitar riff, a shadowing copycat bass line and droning hurdy gurdy set us up for a real head-nodder of a track. Cassidy turns in the album's strongest vocal, imbuing his performance with a trance-like, languid spirituality. Masterfully orchestrated horns create a filmic sense of drama before a killer Moog solo transports us to joyous chants of Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Rama accompanied by finger bells and some urgent funky drumming. After six and a half minutes, I'm so elated that I want to shave my head and wear a sheet, but I guess that's the general idea. This track is the reason why I'll always hang onto this LP, and the reason why you should rescue it from charity shop ignominy.


Monday, 21 November 2016

Songs For Gay Dogs

Saw this in a charity shop today. The record was too trashed to be worth a punt, but I doubt I'm missing much. Besides, I'm more of a cat kind of a guy.


Monday, 14 November 2016

Building A Custom Plinth For A Thorens TD 150 Mk II


About eighteen months ago I picked up a shabby-looking Thorens TD 150 Mk II turntable. It came with an SME 3009 Series II Improved tonearm (fixed headshell) which was missing its rider rod, the rider weight and fingerlift. I paid £210 for the whole shebang - about what you might expect to pay for the arm on its own. I soon got hold of the missing components for the arm, but the turntable sat neglected in its tired, ugly plinth until May of this year when I finally gave in to the urge to prod it with the pretty stick.

Vendor's ebay photo of my unloved Thorens TD150 MkII

The original plinth on the Thorens TD 150 is, to my eyes, inadequate - both structurally and aesthetically - for such an iconic turntable. This particular one was in a particularly scruffy state. I figured that, if I could make a picture frame (which I can), then making a new plinth for a turntable shouldn't be beyond my limited DIY skills. Next stop, ebay, where I found some pre-planed lengths of American Black Walnut.

20 mm-thick American Black Walnut

Concerned that I'd forget which parts of the turntable's innards went where when piecing it all back together, I took dozens of photos of each component from every conceivable angle before beginning the process of dismantling the turntable. You can't be too careful!

The TD150's innards

It took me a while to work out that the screws that secure the turntable to the plinth are located under the aluminium top-plate on the Thorens. And even longer to find out how to remove the top-plate to get at them. Uncharacteristically, I didn't resort to brute force, but searched patiently online for a solution. It turns out that the upper and lower plates of the TD150 are held together with double-sided tape. Its grip showed no signs of having weakened with the passing years, but heating the aluminium with a hairdryer liquefied the adhesive on the tape and allowed the two plates to be slowly and carefully prised apart. Slowly, because the thin top plate could easily crease or bend if rushed.

Using a hairdryer to loosen the grip of double sided tape

I fitted a new blade to my mitre saw in anticipation of the walnut being heavy going, but nothing could have prepared me for the iron-like density of this timber. This is why the DIY gods invented power tools - shame then that my mitre saw is powered by sweat and expletives. It did the job though - eventually. A framers' guillotine was then used to remove wafer-thin slices of walnut from the mitred timber to ensure a good clean, accurate join, and the parts were glued and clamped.

Assembled plinth glued and clamped

For simplicity's sake I made the plinth with the same internal dimensions as the original, albeit with higher (90mm), and thicker (20mm) sides. With hindsight I should have made it a few centimetres wider to accommodate a larger armboard and to give the SME tonearm a bit more room to breathe, but that's a minor quibble.

Once the main body had been assembled and clamped, I used the triangular off cuts that resulted from cutting those 45 degree mitre joints to brace and strengthen the plinth. These were cut to an appropriate length and glued in place. After allowing 12 hours for the glued joints to dry, using the layout of the original plinth as a guide, I cut lengths of 10mm pine stripwood and glued and nailed them in place to provide the necessary support for the top-plate. Once dry, I dropped the turntable into its new plinth and - surprise, surprise - it fit.

Trying the plinth for size

The next stage was to use fine sandpaper and wire wool to give a really smooth finish to the timber. Once the surface was prepared, I applied natural Danish Oil with a cloth to bring out the beauty of the grain. I allowed six hours' drying time between each of the five coats and used a fine sandpaper on the plinth between applications, finally buffing with a cloth to give a warm satin finish to the wood.

Braces and batons

Corner brace

Building up the layers of Danish oil

I replaced the original flimsy baseboard with a piece of 6mm MDF. This improves the structural integrity of the plinth and, as a result, the sonics of the turntable. I could probably have used an even thicker piece of MDF, but that's something that I can easily change down the line. I discarded the original black rubber washers that were masquerading as feet and opted instead for height-adjustable conical metal spikes. They look great and make the turntable easy to level.

Conical turntable isolation foot

I drilled two holes in the rear of the plinth for the power lead and arm cable. On the original plinth the leads were fed through holes in the baseboard, but I was looking for a tidier and more elegant finish. Then I went to work on the platter,  giving it a thorough going over with T-Cut metal polish before buffing with a soft cloth. I opted to keep the original arm-lowering knob on the turntable, even though it's disconnected and surplus to requirements, because, well, why not! It lends balance to the over-all look.

Ideally, I would like an armboard made from the same walnut as the plinth. I've earmarked a piece with a particularly attractive rippled grain, but I don't have the right tools to accurately cut the timber. For now, I'll make do with the original armboard, even though it's looking past its best - not helped by the fact that I used acetone to clean off some dirt and sticky residue and removed part of the black lacquered finish in the process!

Piece of walnut earmarked for the new armboard (with the original)

I recently acquired a new platter weight, with integral spirit level, from a seller in Germany. I had to adjust the suspension on the Thorens to allow for the added weight, but it sets the turntable off nicely and tightens up the sound.

Platter stabilizer weight with integral spirit level

The SME came fitted with an ADC 10E MkIV moving magnet cartridge when I bought it. This is a great little cart, but I have no idea how many hours are on it, or how it had been treated by its former owner. The fact that he was using the arm without the rider weight may hint at the stylus having uneven wear. Being incapable of leaving my equipment alone (!), I had to try a Moving Coil cartridge on the Thorens, just for a comparison. Unfortunately, it sounds so damned good that I don't want to take it off. I had intended using it with my Linn Sondek, but am having second thoughts now. The cartridge in question is an Audio Technica AT-F5 OCC. And it's lush!

Audio Technica AT-F5 OCC and disc stabilizer

At some point, I plan to have a  Perspex dust cover custom-built to finish the turntable off. For what was intended as a cheap back-up turntable to play some of my more beat-up records, this is turning into a rather serious project. The performance of the TD150 since I nursed it back to health is beyond anything I could have imagined. I'm beginning to understand why so many people hold these turntables in such high regard.

Linn Sondek LP12 alongside Thorens TD150 MkII

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Vinyl (Window) Shopping in Italy

You go to Italy for the culture, the food and wine, the architecture, the sunshine, the dramatic hand gestures, the excellent standard of driving, not to buy records. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, record shops are very thin on the ground, and secondly, vinyl (when you can find it) is expensive. Holy shit, is it expensive!




This summer, the Shelf-Stacker clan hit Puglia, deep in Italy's heel. I was resigned to a two week vinyl detox - not a great hardship considering everything else this beautiful country has to offer - but I nevertheless managed to stumble upon two record shops. One (Detroit Rock City in Gallipoli) was closed, the other (Discoshop Detommaso in Monopoli) might as well have been. Not that it isn't a great little shop, but the UK's weak pound, courtesy of the Brexit vote, hasn't exactly taken the edge off the crazy vinyl prices in Italy. Discoshop's owner handed me a delicious stack of under-the-counter vinyl porn including titles by Le Orme, Premiata Forneria Marconi, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Franco Battiato, Claudio Rocchi, New Trolls and Saint Just. Most of these rare LPs - all original pressings - I'd never seen in the flesh before, but with prices ranging from 40 euros to 2,000 euros - ouch! - I had to walk away. However, not before the owner obligingly spun a copy of Il Balletto di Bronzo's Ys LP for me (500 euros if I remember correctly). I knew straight away that I needed to own a copy of the LP. Not that copy, obviously. I've since settled for a 2014 reissue which is sonically stunning and with meticulously reproduced gatefold artwork.





Ignore any reviews you've read comparing Ys to Emerson Lake & Palmer - lazy comparisons like that are as likely to turn people off as steer them towards this classic album. Sure, there is keyboard virtuosity throughout, but Il Balletto di Bronzo's LP is considerably more focused and experimental than anything ELP ever released, avoiding any of the Benny The Bouncer / Are You Ready Eddy?-style knockabouts that sullied many of ELP's albums. If you love challenging progressive rock with a psychedelic twist, this one's for you. What struck me most when I first heard Ys is the intensity and focus. That and the phenomenal musicianship. God knows what the album's about, but whatever it is, the band really means it. From the run-in on side one to the dead wax on side two the listener is treated to eerie female wailing, a smorgasboard of synths and keyboards from squelching Moog to baroque spinetta and haunted dancehall piano, impassioned vocals minus the stagey theatricality that mars some european progressive music, deeply hypnotic bass grooves, urgent snare-fixated drumming, trippy stereo panning, angular guitar lines and searing lead breaks. I love it!

http://www.discoshopmonopoli.com/store/