Thursday, October 6, 2016

Amoeba Music Report: What's in My Bag?

Last week I visited Amoeba Music Hollywood and put the legendary store's reputation as the greatest record in the land to the test. I visited the store twice over two days for about 90 - 100 minutes combined. To be fair, to truly test a store of its size I would have liked to have spent double that time, but an hour and a half would be more than enough for most people and it's what I had to work with so it will have to be enough. The metric I applied was to see how many records I could find on a list of things I was looking for, most fairly obscure, some I had been seeking for a while - personal holy grails. In some ways this was a challenge of how ridiculous my tastes have become as much as how well the store could satisfy those tastes.

So what did I find out? Amoeba is a great store. If I lived in L.A. and visited it a couple times a month I'd eventually find some of those holy grails. As it was, I didn't end up finding any of those records. I did find and buy seven things from my list that were less obscure, but which still speak to the quality of the collection. I also picked up four other spontaneous finds which also is a good measure of a record store. A really good record store should surprise you and inspire you to buy things you didn't necessarily intend.

Before I get into what I bought, I want to go over what they didn't have.

The record I most hoped to find, in any format, was one I've been trying to find for 25 years. Until recently, I didn't know who performed it. In 1990 I saw a skateboard video which I think was called Off the Richter. It documented the Resurrection Pro skate tour of Australia at the end of the 80s and featured Christian Hosoi, Chris Miller, and Tony Magnusson, among others. The soundtrack was filled with Australian punk songs, including one called "Car Crash." For years, I'd buy any punk record if it contained a song called "Car Crash" on it. There are more than you might imagine. That's how I first heard The Avengers. Even after the dawn of the internet I couldn't track this song down. Then earlier this summer I tried Googling the lyrics I could remember (I had tried this in the past to no avail) and ended up finding out the song was by a band called Ratcat from 1987. Some generous soul had even posted the video on YouTube.

Now in the years that I've looked for this song, my tastes have broadened and my music knowledge has expanded to include the groups that clearly influenced this band. They don't do anything that countless other pop punk band did just as well throughout the 80s. The reason this song has such pull for me is mainly nostalgia for the time of my life that I encountered it, and the mystery behind the identity of the band. There are a few CD compilations of the band, but they're hard to come by domestically or without paying quite a bit. The hunt continues.

Another record I didn't find was Das Letzte Einhorn, America's soundtrack to The Last Unicorn, so named because it was only original pressed in Germany. There was a bin card in both the LP and the CD soundtrack sections so at least I found out there was a CD pressing and that the store had it in stock at some point. Again, it probably seems like a silly trifle to seek out, but it is hands down the best moment of that band, and the songs were written by Jimmy Webb. It came out in 1982, the same year as their great hit "Magic."

Other things I hoped to find included John Cale's Helen of Troy or his Animal Instincts EP (with the original "Rosegarden Funeral of Sores"), Kate Bush's The Kick Inside (with the original UK kite cover), Aynsley Dunbar Rataliation's To Mum from Aynsley and the Boys, Graham Bond's Holy Magick, The Walker Brother's Nite Flights, Josephine Foster's I'm A Dreamer, Justin Hinds & the Dominos' Jezebel (on any format besides cassette, which I have), the Watership Down soundtrack, Magma's Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh on vinyl (I have the CD), Vincent Price's Witchcraft Magic: An Adventure In Demonology, something with Nolan Porter's "Keep On Keeping On" on it, Cockney Rebel's Psychomodo (UK cover) on vinyl and their Human Menagerie on CD, anything by on vinyl by Popol Vuh, Fad Gadget, or any of Dagmar Krause's projects (Art Bears, Henry Cow, Slapp Happy, News from Babel, etc.). There were some close calls: Josephine Foster had bin cards in both CD and LP, there was a nice selection of Northern Soul collections but no Nolan Porter, they had a lot of Magma reissues on vinyl but no M.D.K., they had a pretty cool Vintage Violence t-shirt, and they had Psychomodo on CD and Human Menagerie on wax (which I already have in those formats).

The idea that I might just happen to find all or even some of these records on one random visit is pretty unrealistic. However, the fact that I didn't get any of them was a little disappointing. Any one of those records  or some others would have validated the reputation of the store outright for me. On the other hand, if I was given the chance to raid the employee hold piles, my chances might have increased.

There were a lot of other things I couldn't find, even some that I didn't have time to check for, entire sections I didn't have time to explore, including the 7-inch singles because the section was packed with shoppers. I made it upstairs to the DVD section only for a quick glance. It looked great, but since I didn't have time to fully shop it I didn't want to waste non-music shopping time by checking it out. The book section wasn't huge, but it was filled with interesting things. I had hoped to snag a copy of Julian Cope's book, Krautrocksampler, but no dice.

There were some interesting decisions about how the store what organized in terms of genre that makes me think I might have been looking in the wrong section for some things. There were sub-sections for metal, punk, and the silliest non-genre "oldies." I looked in each for a couple of things, but I didn't dig in each sufficiently to get a bead on what kind of gatekeeping was done for each one. For instance, I think I saw Black Flag in punk, but I don't know if The Ramones or Sex Pistols would have been filed there (Wire were in rock).

So, what did I actually end up buying? Between two trips I bought eleven pieces, four LPs and seven CDs, all for $130 or just under $12 a piece. Here's the full list broken into which night and the order I found them, the format, and a brief description of why I wanted each.

Night the First

Hatfield and the North
- Hatfield and the North used LP: I started with this album not because I wanted it more than anything else, but because I wanted to used it as a litmus test and I thought there was a fairly good chance of them having it. Even though I could probably track a copy down online pretty easily I wanted to build some buying momentum. I've seen it around occasionally, but not recently. For the uninitiated this is a self-aware, light debut by a group of Canterbury proggers out of Caravan, Matching Mole, and Gong featuring great back-up vocals by Robert Wyatt. This copy was a clean, DJ promo copy, so it was a no brainer.

Manuel Gottsching - E2-E4 CD reissue: This disc was just recently reissued, but the album goes back to 1981 (released in 1984). Gottsching was the leader of Krautrockers, Ash Ra Tempel. He recorded this album one night as a live, home demo after coming off tour with fellow Ash Ra founder, Klaus Schulze. This extemporaneous, hour-long piece of music was picked up by American house and techno DJs and was a major building block in what became modern electronic dance music. The title comes from a confluence as a tribute to both R2-D2 and nomenclature of BASIC programming subroutines, and is a reference for the algebraic notation for the most popular opening chess move as well as a guitar tuning Gottsching employed. I just got into this so this was really a new disc for me.

Chris Spedding - Hurt used LP: I already have this on CD, but I only have his self-titled on vinyl. It's his best album and the opening "Wild in the Streets" is the best version of that song. As I picked it out of the section a guy asked if he could quickly take a picture of the cover. He was a graphic designer and liked the look.

Michael Nyman - The Draughtsman’s Contract OST used CD: I only recently discovered Michael Nyman's music. I found him while combing through Dagmar Krause's discography online. She guested on Nyman's The Kiss and Other Movements. While I like that record, this soundtrack to the film of the same name by frequent collaborator, Peter Greenaway, really did it for me. I would have been happy to find this in any format. The CD is great for listening in the car. For those not in the know (like myself, recently), Nyman is a modern classical composer/pianist who occasionally slums it with 70s prog/art-jazz characters. He also did the soundtrack for The Piano. This might be the whitest music ever made. It's a cross between BBC bumper music and a Grey Poupon commercial. It also radiates joy. The opening track rips off Henry Purcell and has been sampled by the Pet Shop Boys. Highly recommended.

Robert Palmer - Pride used LP: A lot of people think back on Robert Palmer - if at all - as a kind of overbearing, British, yuppie Boz Scaggs. While not entirely inaccurate, there were two great records Palmer tucked in between his 70s FM success ("Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor Doctor)") and his 80s mega-hits of Power Station and solo chartbusters ("Addicted to Love," "Simply Irresistible"). Clues and Pride were comparatively sleek Ultravox-styled new wave records of restrained power. I would have bought both if they had them, but only Pride was in the racks. The best song on this is the dark "Want You More." The ghost of his white reggae-funk still haunts the album, but it doesn't grate here like it does on his other records. Palmer was the only artist that the Uber driver who took me to the airport knew when she asked what records I bought.

Francois Hardy - Mon Amie la Rose new CD: One of my unfound holy grails is the "rock & roll version" of Hardy's "Et Meme." It still is. The version on this album is not the one I've been searching for. I was pretty sure that it wasn't, but it was a risk I was willing to take as any version is rare. This version is still great; it just doesn't have the punch of the other. Luckily the rest of the record is top shelf.

Night the Second

Planningtorock - Have It All used LP: I grabbed this out of the recent arrivals towards the front of the store. This was an unplanned pick, but I've never seen it anywhere in any format so I scooped it up. Planningtorock is often associated with The Knife and this debut came out the same year as that group's Deep Cuts. It's not as good as W or All Love's Legal, but it has it's own slinky cabaret charm. At $15, this was the most expensive thing I bought. One side-note: Amoeba's record bins (front-to-back) are a little too deep for those of us who aren't tall and long-armed. I found Have It All at the back of the stack and it was hard to flip that far while on my toes.

Zola Jesus - Stridulum used CD; Valusia used CD: I never picked up either of these EPs when they came out although I've been meaning to for awhile. They were cheap and they're a perfect dosage size for this dramatic, vamp-y singer. I happened upon them in the rock section which made me wonder if there wasn't a goth section. Not that these would have necessarily been included in that section, but it made me second-guess if I wasn't overlooking a bunch of things.

Scott Walker - Scott 4 used CD: I found Scott Walker in the oldies section while looking for the Walker Brothers' Nite Flights. Both group and solo artist were filed under this dubious category which means that Amoeba houses The Drift and Bish Bosch in the same section as Elvis Presley and The Drifters. There's not a good reason why I don't own this already, so I bought it. They had multiple copies and it had been price-reduced.

Coil - Backwards new CD: This was released last year and I've wanted to pick it up since then. This was the unreleased follow-up to Love's Secret Domain. The album came out in recent years in an altered form, but this is the real document of that time. This was the only purchase I made on the second night that was premeditated. It too was found in the rock section, which confirmed that there wasn't a separate spooky section - at least not a good one. I got the feeling that the separate sections were a product of passionate staff members making a case for distinct curation.

Even now there are things I realized should have been on my list. I neglected to check for Penguin Cafe Magic Orchestra while I was back in the new age section. I didn't get a chance to check for Kevin Coyne. I didn't explore the International sections beyond the well-stocked French section, and I missed the Hip Hop and R&B sections entirely. There just wasn't enough time. I could have spent a good hour in the disco section alone. Here's a pic to give you a sense of what I'm talking about.

Is Amoeba Hollywood the best record store I've ever been in? Probably. It reminded me of different qualities of all the different great record stores in Minneapolis around 2000 combined. It benefits from having a huge pool of local record nerds as well as tourists like me to take chance with what they bring in. I wasn't overwhelmed and found it pretty intuitive to navigate through, but then again, I spent 12 years as a record store clerk. I'd recommend it to anyone making a trip to L.A. Hopefully you'll have the time to shop at your leisure instead of running around the place like a maniac.