Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Cat Power - "He War" from the CD You Are Free

Cat Power You Are Free CD coverBefore I heard "He War," Cat Power was just another of the cryptic names that Cerveza had tossed out at me, a Cat Power here hard to distinguish from a Hot Snake there or a Beehive and a Barracuda over in the other direction. The names can get overwhelming, all the animals mix me up.

But any confusion I may have had ended when I first heard "He War." Amazon, back when they still offered a free download or two, had made the song available, and I found it upon first listen quite simply stunning, powerful in so many ways as the husky rhythm guitar slides forward, the bell-like fills in tow, with the pretty piano flourishes in the spaces between, with Dave Grohl's regimented drumming pounding the idea into our heads that this song is all about rhythm. Not beat, but these odd multilayered levels of rhythm, if you get me, and on top of it all, Chan Marshall's rich, expressive voice blended with itself like a red wine or something, notes of sour cherry, chocolate, tobacco, and a coy wistfulness.

AMG has Cat Power's music filed under the label sadcore, and for the most part, OK, but the mood in "He War" is not sad or downbeat at all. It's pretty joyous actually, with just a touch of that wistfulness mixed in, maybe at 1:58, when the compressed voiceover about not being the hot new chick comes in.

The lyrics are purposely obtuse I think, but I get a release in keeping with the album's title, a gal who didn't want to be all that to a guy who wasn't all that much anyway, and whatever he might have done for you, now he's split, your needle broke his back and you are free. Hey hey hey.

A long time ago I read a review or a press kit or something for Sonic Youth's EVOL, which talked about how SY's 1986 album collected songs of "vison and power." It was true, too. Every once and a while since then, I've come across music that also merits that highest of praise, that meets this standard I've somehow set, a song or an album that hits you in the gut while also stimulating the higher processes. You Are Free is some of this music, and some of the best this decade has yet offered up. Talented beautiful and insane

As far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out on Cat Power's ongoing Memphis phase. She has the voice to carry it off, for sure, but where's the innovation, where's the chop or the verse or the riff that you've just never heard before? "He War" (and almost all of You Are Free) demonstrate that Cat Power, for all the sultry smoke in her voice, is at her best when extending herself beyond the Stax/Volt traditional songbook, into places where the vision and the power of her songwriting can display themselves.

Cat Power - You Are Free - 7 - He War.mp3

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File under: Gladcore

Friday, February 20, 2009

Self - "Cannon" From the CD Subliminal Plastic Motives

Subliminal Plastic Motives CD coverConsidering how much I integrate music into my conception of, umm, self, it's surprising that I don't remember more songs based on where I was when I first heard them.

I do remember being on the road trip with Mike and Rick, stuck in traffic near Dallas, listening to the radio, when I first heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit," well before the song broke on MTV, at the time like a punch in the gut, not just for the song's razorblade hooks, but also for the realization that there was actually a radio station playing this kind of stuff in the months before hair metal died.

I remember running around with Mark Gadol that day as a teenager, smoking a joint with him in his orange Chevy Vega, "the shitshaker," then stumbling into Spec's and buying Iron Maiden's Killers. Then stopping by the house of a buddy, who played my new British metal record on his crappy Radio Shack stereo, and played it LOUD, too, the huge volume and enormous amplifier clip visibly bothering Mark, who grimaced, stoned and uncomfortable, as "Drifter" blared on, Dave Murray's wah-wah solo and speaker dregs forming a tornado of unwanted noise in dude's living room . . .

And I remember "Cannon," late Saturday night sometime early 1995, driving to work in the tricked-up black Malibu, on my way to work at the Miami Herald building, on my way to put out the Sunday morning paper. The expressway as you would expect on a Saturday night was full of enthusiastic would-be drunks, their lechery transmitted through the beams of their headlights, driving faster than they ought, playing their stereos too loud, maybe as loud as mine, maybe they could hear how this Cannon song just exploded in alternating parts, right?

That Malibu was equipped with a sound system designed to fight the stereo wars, even on a Saturday night, and designed to modulate Self's post-grunge guitars, designed to make dust of them all. "Cannon," even in its first introduction, was ammunition, motherfucker. Fire met powder, soprano vocals, dirty guitar, amped out, amped up, and this time clean.

Well, for 4:01, anyway. Then I went to work, while everybody else went to party. So it goes.

But to cop a line from a different act, the memory remained. Thing was, "Cannon" blew me away, but the DJ had neglected to mention the name of the band, or the name of the song, and the station--or any other--never played it again, not while I was listening, anyway.

So I went around for 8 or 9 years not knowing the name of the song that had rocked my world that Saturday night during the Clinton administration. Well, OK, I kinda guessed the tune was called "Cannon," but I couldn't hear it again until I knew the name of the band.

As you might have guessed, the mystery was solved with a fileshare search earlier this decade, and the RIAA might keep in mind that I bought Self's debut album not in spite of, but because of, the fileshare networks they demonize so much.

But back to the music--or at least what it conveys to me.

I used to know a guy who was best friends with a drunk. The guy's name was Gary and the drunk's name was Billy. Billy managed to keep a decent job stamping concrete, managed to pay his alimony, managed to keep his Oldsmobile Delta '88 running, managed, for the most part, to keep going despite a pretty severe drinking problem that was slowly destroying his liver. His doctors had told him that he had to stop drinking if he wanted to have a chance at saving his liver, but Billy pretty cheerfully admitted that he wasn't going to be able to stop. Again, Billy was mostly Gary's friend, so I can't even tell you whether Billy's poison of choice was rum or vodka or rye or scotch or what.

All I know is he wasn't gonna stop, and that he didn't.

Anyway, so I'm hanging out at Gary's one night, maybe we were playing cards, used to play poker with Gary some, and Billy pulls up in his battered Olds, and the rear bumper is hanging even lower than I remembered it. We got to talking and Billy told me how he'd hit a wall or an iron gate or something, and how he'd bashed the front and back ends of his car so many times that the safety factor had pretty much all gone out of them. "All my crumple zones are crumpled," he told me sheepishly.

Gary always kept a copy of this letter to the editor Billy had written to the Herald stuck to his refrigerator. Something about how we shouldn't kowtow to the Russians. One day sometime later I was pulling open his fridge to grab a beer and I saw the thing, and asked "how IS Billy?" and Gary told me that Billy's liver had failed a few months previous.

Well. The world asked him to leave, and he obliged. But I've never forgotten Billy's crumple zones, and I'm always reminded of them, don't ask me why, when Matt Mahaffey from Self, in between the rocket guitar, sings that "Destiny is towing your car."

This file was removed April 7, 2009. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

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File under: LOUDquietLOUD

Skip James - "I'm So Glad" and
Cream - "I'm So Glad" from the Album Goodbye

The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James CD cover Cream Goodbye album cover
Funny how people get when presented with obscure music. While I would hope that most approach the stuff with the clear and open mind with which I try to engage it, most times, it seems two other attitudes apply. Some poor souls are spooked by the unfamiliar music with the unfamiliar name, and sadly resist building a familiarity with something that could possibly enrich them.

But another type is even more misguided, I think. These are the ones who embrace the obscurity, who in fact value the obscurity more than the other salient characteristics of the music.

I sound pedantic, shit, that's no good. Let's go to Terry Zwigoff, let me illustrate.

Zwigoff is an accomplished film director with whom I am familiar because of the two excellent films of his that I have seen: Crumb and Ghost World. Ghost World, on which I'd like to focus here, is based on the comics of Daniel Clowes, and tells the tale of a pair of disaffected young girls, and how their friendship wanes in the months after their high school graduation.

A major theme of the movie is how consumer culture stultifies us. Enid (the more troubled one, and the one who, as played by Thora Birch, gets most of the screen time) in several instances refuses to play nicely with the consumption infrastructure.

Along with her object of disaffection Seymour, she rejects the prepackaged bar band music of "Blues Hammer" and takes up with the music of Skip James. James, who first recorded his finger-picked Mississippi Blues at the onset of the Great Depression, becomes a symbol of individuality through his tune "Devil Got My Woman," the keening refrain of which can be heard throughout Zwigoff's film.

All well and good. But, as I had said, let's go to Zwigoff, to illustrate. The following is from Zwigoff's liner notes to the movie's soundtrack CD:

I tried a lot of my favorite 78s with different scenes and it was very satisfying when they worked. Skip James I knew would work, and it was a great privilege to be able to use his music as part of this film. "Devil Got My Woman" was the first old 78 I ever heard that stopped me dead in my tracks.

[ . . . . . . . . . . . ]

One further note about Skip James. His "I'm So Glad" was part of a huge hit rock LP by The Cream during the 60's. When I was in college it was impossible to escape that damn LP - it was playing in every house, apartment, and coffee house, or so it seemed.

Although aided by the blasting volume of electric guitar, bass, and drums, The Cream's version was vastly inferior in every way to James' intense, frenzied masterpiece which was no doubt fueled by the immense inner anger he clearly possessed. Although The Cream's version sold over a million copies, and James' probably sold less than one hundred, it is James' version that will be remembered (while Bjork and The Cream records are rotting in some New Jersey landfill).

While I'm all for seeking out and finding the music that moves you, by the second paragraph, Zwigoff's notes seem to have devolved from In Praise Of into a Screed Against.

Looked at a certain way, Zwigoff's caterwauling seems to be trying to reignite a battle that's long since ended. It's like, get over it, dude: Muddy Waters and Bob Dylan both fought as footsoldiers in the war that was won by electrically amplified instruments.

Too loud? How very charming.

And, of course, we as readers of Zwigoff's liner notes don't particularly care WHAT kind of music it was that the kids who used to beat him up once listened to.

But as I suggested uptop, I think there's more going on here. I think there's an illustrative trap that Zwigoff falls into, a trap that we need to be careful of as, ahem, consumers, of music. Basically, we need to understand that obscurity is no guarantee of superiority, nor is primitivism, nor poorly-defined notions of "authenticity."

None of us, of course, want to become collector scum. The Misfits on CD are no more or no less authentic than the same fucking songs on the limited edition singles, and Cream is no more or no less "real" than the man they covered shortly before his death in 1969.

Once I get past the hiss, I quite like the Skip James version of "I'm So Glad." The man could clearly play some guitar. And of course he wrote the tune, or at least he wrote it as much as anyone did.

James was a pioneer of the fingerpicked delta blues, it's true. But Cream were pioneers, too, playing the heavily amplified blues as if they were jazz, stretching boundaries and stretching time. And just as their popularity was not their fault, neither was it that their imitators were for the most part not as good as they.

The idea that Cream's interpretations of Skip James songs are in any way inferior to the originals--simply because they are (relatively) newer and louder and more popular--is absurd. To play at the sort of pretention that would hold otherwise sort of reveals some insecurities, no? Because in the end, things like your distribution and your amplification are irrelevant to the music at hand.

Anyway, I thought you the reader might like to compare at least one of Cream's two versions with the earliest known version of Skip James' original. I'm sure any of you who do prefer the James version will at the least not have silly reasons for doing so.

Skip James - The Complete Early Recordings 1930 - 16 - I'm So Glad.mp3

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File Under: Delta Blues

This file was removed April 7, 2009. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

194 kbps VBR mp3, up for six weeks (Right click and save as target)

File Under: Supergroup Rock

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Dehumanizers - "Chemical Death" From the Album End of Time

The Dehumanizers End of Time Album cover
Wiseass skatecore from the Seattle that existed before Green River had even broken up.

My favorite part, of course, is the breakdown, where they read the ingredients from the back of a bag of Doritos to illustrate the pestilence all of us have placed upon Mother Earth.

Even though they don't pronounce "hydrogenated" correctly, it's still a mosh part where you can give the band credit for being silly and clever, earnest and ironic all at once, an indecipherable postmodern moment in a genre that rarely features them.

I remember I first heard the song on this Senseless Death compilation my metalhead buddy Alan had unearthed somewhere. Most of it was Thrash of the sort that was played (and we listened to) in the late '80's. I think he'd bought it for the Sacred Denial tracks. But the Dehumanizers and one other band on the comp, AMQA, won us over as they played a lighter, faster, funnier crossover than Sacred Denial or Cancerous Growth or any of the other thrash bands therein.

AMQA were pretty great themselves, Big Fat Muffins who loved to explode, but this Chemical Death thing . . . my goodness, it absolutely shreds.

So I went out and hunted down the album, and while The Dehumanizers don't sustain the energy of "Chemical Death" throughout the entire LP, there are several songs on End of Time just as good, like "Planet of the Apes," and "Grandma I'm A Drug Fiend." The last, at the very least, should be played by any who might be unconvinced that the irony I cite in "Chemical Death" was intentional.

I'd probably prefer it if the Dehumanizers HADN'T reunited last year and I'd probably prefer it if the reunited band didn't have a MySpace page that would "like to recognize the tragic deaths of both Cliff Burton and Dimebag Darrell."

I'd probably like it better if all I had was this record I'd searched out that no-one knew about, this relic of pre-Grunge Seattle.

But what the fuck, right?

Dehumanizers - End of Time - 5 - Chemical Death.mp3

This file was removed March 31, 2009. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

File under: Sk8core

Monday, February 9, 2009

Rush - "A Passage to Bangkok" from the Album 2112

Rush 2112 album coverAh, shit, is it the times that have changed, or is it I who have?

When I first heard "A Passage to Bangkok" as a 16-year old, I was fairly certain I'd never heard anything so very fucking cool before.

That's one of the things about adolescence (even aside from a fascination with controlled substances): it's very prone to superlatives. These days, while I still might be tempted to term "Passage" the "best weed song ever," I'm aware, in that world-weary way of an adult, that there might just be a better weed song out there, one I've not heard as of yet, or maybe even one, shit, that I've forgotten.

I'm also a little more likely to temper my enthusiasm for the song just based on the subtext that the lyrics have sadly gained with me over the years.

Let's take a look at those lyrics for a second.

Our first stop is in Bogota
To check Colombian fields
The natives smile and pass along
A sample of their yield

Sweet Jamaican pipe dreams
Golden Acapulco nights
Then Morocco, and the East,
Fly by morning light


We're on the train to Bangkok
Aboard the Thailand Express
We'll hit the stops along the way
We only stop for the best

Wreathed in smoke in Lebanon
We burn the midnight oil
The fragrance of Afghanistan
Rewards a long day's toil

Pulling into Katmandu
Smoke rings fill the air
Perfumed by a Nepal night
The Express gets you there


While I have maintained all along a sort of admiration at Rush's literacy, and their ability to come to a point (a talent many bands further along the prog scale don't always share), a quick scan of the lyrics yields an awful lot of blood.

To the world-weary these days, "A Passage To Bangkok" is not only a seeming tour of the world's great trouble spots, half of it seems a tour of places that have been deeply and mortally affected by the black market sale of illicit recreational drugs.
Alex and Neal and Geddy

The band's first stop was in Bogota, and while the Cali and Medellin cartels are dead, the gunmen and the carbombs used during the '80's to carry out over 3500 brutal assassinations of political foes and uncorrupt police remain as their chief legacy.

My sixteen-year old self was thrilled by the mention of Acapulco Gold, but the cynical 43-year old version is unfortunately first reminded of the thousands of headless corpses that were found in Mexico last year, all victims of the country's notoriously savage drug cartels, who have for the most part declared war on the country's elected government.

And while I can't seem to read
The fragrance of Afghanistan
Rewards a long day's toil
without cracking up anymore, I remain sobered by the known and established connection between the Taliban and drug smuggling.

Be careful now with what you take from what I write. I'm not necessarily being critical of Rush for writing the song back in the naive '70's, or even for continuing to perform the song these days. I'm not even finding fault with those who have chosen to smoke marijuana regularly--although I might there proffer the advice I give in other problematic arenas: Buy American, dude.

No, what I'm lashing out at is this tenet I've learned all too well as I've grown older: Nothing is simple, nothing is easy. Everything carries strings, I've been sad to learn, and though a naive teenager just wants to be left alone with his preferred high volume music to craft his personal buzz in peace, the real world in fact never leaves you alone, and never will.

So much so, in fact, that it will steadfastly and ruthlessly erode the ramparts of your youth when you're not even looking. Take "A Passage To Bangkok." It's a song about partying, and it takes itself so seriously that it employs the Asian riff not once, but twice. It's a clever song, a fun song, but the years have done their work on me such that I can't even listen to the fucking thing--a totem of my Rock 'n' Roll Number One, Disco Sucks adolescence, mind you--without becoming all preachy and prescriptive about it.

It's enough to make one sick of oneself, it is.

Rush - 2112 - 2 - A Passage To Bangkok.mp3

This file was removed March 31, 2009. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

File under: Canada Rock

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Cal Tjader - "The Fakir" from the Album Several Shades of Jade and
Papa M - "Drunken Spree" from the CD Live From A Shark Cage

Cal Tjader Several Shades of Jade Album coverPapa M Live From a Shark Cage CD cover

Once he had been exposed to Afro-Cuban jazz while playing with George Shearing in the early '50's, vibraphonist and percussionist Cal Tjader made only two departures from that path the rest of his long career, and they both came in 1963.

With a style that might equally well be described in spots as either post-exotica or proto-ambient, and with inflection that abandoned Havana in favor of Borneo and Kyoto, neither Several Shades of Jade, nor its sequel and perhaps less-accomplished conceptual twin Breeze from the East garnered positive reviews for Tjader. Jazz critics of the time simply saw the two records as relics of an Exotica fad that had come and gone five or six years earlier.

Cal TjaderAnd rightfully so, I guess; certainly, current fans of the exotica groove count both recordings--but especially Shades--as among the holy grails of the style and the fashion.David Pajo
Cal Tjader  David Pajo

But why fault Tjader for what amounts to nothing more than poor timing?

"The Fakir"--written by Tjader's collaborator throughout the SSOJ sessions, Lalo Schifrin--is about as potent a brew as any musicologist unafraid of mixing styles could possibly want. It certainly plies in the legacies of Exotica linchpins Les Baxter and Martin Denny. And keeping with Schifrin's destiny in Hollywood, it plays as hypnotic adventure-film music, too, soundtrack to a film that fades in on old Delhi, but soon heads out for more exotic environs, The Vibraphonist Who Would be King perhaps.

But 45 years later, it sounds equally entrancing to ears familiar with styles unknown and perhaps unimaginable to Tjader and Schifrin, reminding these ears also of the ambience of Eno and Fripp, and of the postrock of The Mercury Program.

Aside from a somewhat clumsy entrance when Tjader begins his vibe solo at about 1:12, "The Fakir" is a swirling, busy and ultimately intoxicating piece of music, dripping with antecedents and with portents.

If the lesson of Several Shades of Jade is that Exotica is (when and) where you find it, then you'd have no choice but to believe that David Pajo has learned that lesson well.

Some few years after Tjader's death, Pajo cut his teeth in Slint, who, though hugely influential in postrock circles, didn't really have much to say on the Exotica front.

Ah, well, that's what solo albums are for, I suppose.

Recording under the name Papa M six years after Slint dissolved, Pajo has whipped up an impressionistic brew in "Drunken Spree" every bit as intoxicating as the one Tjader had mixed, despite Pajo's much more minimal approach. You might even say that "Drunken Spree" is a bit of a misnomer. With the Papa M tune, it is not just the locale suggested that is exotic; it is the drugs, as well. Postrock Exotica, then, don't you think? Different in that the lush arrangements and the novelty instrumentation* are missing, but true to the original model with its openness to nonstandard tunings and with the heavy atmospherics.

On reflection, there's a touch of opium to "The Fakir," as well, but the dungeon vibe, this Black Hole of Calcutta-type ambience, apparent in "Drunken Spree" just isn't evident in Tjader's piece.

Chalk it up to our nowaday more extreme lifestyles, I suppose: where listeners to Martin Denny and Cal Tjader back in the day were content to be taken along as tourists, modern day samplers of the Exotica sound insist that the experience be a little more authentic. . . .

Cal Tjader - Several Shades of Jade - 01 The Fakir.mp3

This file was removed March 31, 2009. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

File Under: Exotica

Papa M - Live From A Shark Cage - 05 Drunken Spree.mp3

This file was removed March 31, 2009. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

File under: The Downbeat Exotica

*Essay for another day, but speaking of novelty instrumentation, how about a consideration of Tom Waits' '80's output including swordfishtrombones as a species of postrock exoticism? For sure, Waits was the original postrocker, using rock 'n' roll instruments in a non-rock context long before Tortoise or 90 Day Men got the idea. And if "Shore Leave" ain't Exotica, what is? (back)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Steve Miller Band - "Key to the Highway" from the Album Children of the Future

Steve Miller Band - Children of the Future album coverRemembered these days--if he's remembered at all--for his mid-70's streak of Top 40 hits, Steve Miller nonetheless cuts a much larger swath through la historia de la musica rock for the records he made before he made those hits: seven albums* that with only one exception superbly expound upon the San Francisco psychedelic blues sound of the late sixties and early seventies.

Even those familiar only with Miller's Top 40 phase know that he was never shy with the bragadoccio and the self-promotion. I remember reading an interview wherein Miller boldly claims that his band was the best live band in the San Francisco scene of the time simply because they were the least drug-addled, and therefore put on the most professional shows.

I don't know about that.

One, I wasn't there, and two, at the very least, the first Miller album, Children of the Future, shows ample evidence of drug use itself.

But I do know that of all the bands that hailed from the whole Haight-Ashbury thing, the Steve Miller Band are my by far my favorite. I think that's because as All Music Guide says, they were "influenced but not overpowered by psychedelia."

Maybe what AMG writes gets back to what Miller himself was saying, or maybe it simply means that if you're gonna do the psychedelic thing, it'll serve you well to have a grounding rod, something to keep the whole thing from floating away on wispy, incorporeal waves of etherea. And Miller, unlike Jerry Garcia or Paul Kantner or most of the rest of them, had himself an education in the blues to do this, having been taught aspects of blues guitar by T-Bone Walker, and having played it with Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Paul Butterfield.

Miller played the blues in Texas and in Chicago before he ever even got to 'Frisco, and perhaps that's why albums like Children of the Future and Sailor feel so solid: they are amalgams of the styles of more than one place, rather than relying exclusively on the hippie dream.

For its part, "Key to the Highway" is solidly Chicago, and is in all respects a stunning cover of the Big Bill Broonzy standard. In it, Miller proves to have an uncanny knack for the slow blues, both through his sorrowful vocals that seemingly bleed tragedy, and through the spacious harmonica solo that begins at 3:00. That solo is a sort of a microcosm of the whole song: it is as remarkable for the introspection shown in what it doesn't try to do as for what it does. And you can say the same thing about Jim Peterman's gorgeous Hammond organ work.

Not that I don't love the busy, jam-heavy interpretations of the blues exemplified by Cream's version of "I'm So Glad," but the Steve Miller Band shows us with "Key to the Highway" that there's more than one way to play the blues for a rock audience, one that loses nothing in immediacy for all its authenticity.

Miller would do it again on 1969's Your Saving Grace, with the traditional "Motherless Children." Like with "Key to the Highway," "Motherless Children" would, after being recorded by Miller, end up getting redone by Eric Clapton. For those unsure about Miller's place in the rock pantheon, it is interesting to note that in both cases, Miller's versions are one-third as slow as Clapton's, and about twice as good.

Steve Miller Band - Children of the Future - 11 - Key to the Highway.mp3

This file was removed March 17, 2009. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

File under:San Francisco Blues

*Children of the Future, Sailor, Brave New World, Your Saving Grace, Number 5, Rock Love, and Recall the Beginning . . . A Journey from Eden. Rock Love is the one that's not worth bothering with. It's not on CD, and neither is Recall the Beginning . . . (Back)