Looking for some holiday shopping ideas for the music fan who has everything? Here's some recent archival releases that I'd bet he or she doesn't have.
Todd: With Love ... From Me to You
Though the DIY release method was a far more involved and expensive process during the heyday of vinyl, there's literally tons of private press LPs out in the wild, most often discovered today abandoned in dollar bins. Some releases have gradually found renown in collector circles due to the quality of the music; others have become sought-after due to inclusion in the various permutations of "worst album cover" online lists. Perhaps most rarely encountered are those albums that are an intriguing combination of both of these spokes on the private-issue spectrum.
Todd Wathen's 1979 effort With Love ... From Me to You is right on the money. Recorded by Wathen and a group of friends during their Indiana high school days, it sounds (speaking from experience) like the sort of record a group of earnest, semi-disaffected band kids would record. After the cover image and the music began circulating online some years back, a music blogger came up with a story about how the album was only sold at prom -- with the fairy tale ending that Wathen's previously standoffish classmates bought the entire run. While there's a grain of truth in the myth, Wathen has come forward with the real story as part of the campaign for a new reissue of his album spearheaded by the blog Swan Fungus.
Musically, With Love ... falls squarely in the melancholy, introspective piano balladry camp, and vocally he reminds me a bit of Dean Friedman. Yes, it sounds like awkward teenagers, but it's so heartfelt and melodic you'd have to be a Grinch to hate on Todd, who carries the day with his songs and piano playing, even during the times his band mates flail around a bit. Hey, all you outsider music fans who burned this off the Internet and had to admit you liked it: Buy it while you can. (Swan Fungus Records, 2013)
Gene Clark: Here Tonight: The White Light Demos
I wasn't paying much attention to the list of releases scheduled for this year's Black Friday edition of Record Store Day, so I was very pleased to see this LP show up. Omnivore released the CD version back in March, and I'd about given up on ever seeing the vinyl version. Thanks, peeps!
This album is exactly what the title says: acoustic demos by former Byrds chief songwriter Gene Clark for his second solo album, White Light, released in 1971 to critical acclaim and public indifference. (In the U.S., at least; the liner notes report it had success in the Netherlands.) While some of the songs on Here Tonight not eventually recorded with the band for White Light have appeared as bonus tracks on past CD releases, there's a few more here that will be completely new to all except hardcore Clarkophiles.
Either way, this release stands on its own musically, as Clark's songwriting and expressive singing at the time these demos were recorded don't really need much embellishment. For Gene Clark or Byrds fans, this is essential; those unfamiliar with Clark's solo work, or anyone who likes folk music, should find this a good entry point. (Omnivore Recordings OVLP-60, 2013)
Alex Chilton: Electricity by Candlelight/NYC 2/13/97
First things first: This release is for completists and Chilton die-hards only. Big Star fans will likely be better off spending their money on the DVD release of the recent documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me. Electricity by Candlelight is an official release of a semi-legendary audience tape documenting a late-'90s show that morphed into an impromptu acoustic set due to a power outage.
Even listeners used to the wild world of tape trading will wish the taper had somehow gotten a bit closer to the action, because the audience tends to be louder than Chilton and his drummer most of the time -- and worse yet, often warbles along. It's clear they were well-lubricated and enjoying Chilton tossing off completely random covers, in a good mood and interacting with the audience.
All that being said, if you can focus on just listening to the performance, it's incredibly fun to hear Chilton playing a bunch of songs it sounds like he truly loves, pretty much straight and surprisingly well-transferred to solo acoustic in some cases considering the unrehearsed circumstances. There are a few covers familiar in Chilton interpretations as far back as the Big Star years (Loudon Wainwright III's "Motel Blues"), and ones I wish he had remembered the words to (Joni Mitchell's "Case of You"). When Chilton launches into "Wouldn't It Be Nice," it just about breaks my heart that he's gone. Random note for error watchers: The LP labels list the CD catalog number. (Bar/None BRN-LP-222, 2013)