I love cheap music. I don't mean $9 CDs on sale at Borders after Christmas (though I like those, too); I mean music cheap enough that I can buy as many CDs as I can carry, and if one out of ten turns out well, I'm ahead of where I'd be if I'd bought the good ones for full price. It's not just getting a bargain on a good CD that I like; it's being able to find music I'd never have known about if I'd had to pay retail for it. I also like the hunt, both looking for the good stuff in a box full of crap, and listening to completely unknown albums to see if there's anything special in them. Some of the best albums I own I bought for less than it would have cost to download one hit song off of the on-line music services. Cheapskates of the world unite!
Anyway, that's the "why" of this page. The "what" is reviews of the better finds I've made in the past. In addition, I'm compiling a list of sources of dirt-cheap music, with a focus on Southeast Michigan (basically Ann Arbor through Detroit and up to Utica) so you can go take advantage of the cheapness yourself. Any places I find I'll post below, even if it's only a sale for a limited time; if you run across good sources, even if they're outside my area, go ahead and e-mail me at dspitzle AT davidaspitzley DOT org, and I'll add it to the list. Finally, since a lot of the albums I've found are really very good, and not everybody will have the good luck to find them dirt cheap (or want to spend the time to dig through a discount table to find them), I've added links to purchase the albums through Amazon when they carry them. Of course, I'll get a cut, but you'll happily overlook that, of course :) Either way, Amazon also provides audio clips from a lot of the albums, so you can try before you buy.
Here are the goodies I've found out in the wild. While it's a little lame, I've included a quick rating scale. Since I'm not reviewing the crap, I'll limit myself to a three-to-five point rating system, scored in catfish:
Let me state up front that, since acquiring this album, I've become a foaming-at-the-mouth fan of the Red Elvises. I rate this album five catfish on its own merits, but it isn't even their best work. So, with that in mind, I'll say that this album is a hoot. The songs run from word- and culture-play in Happy That I'm Straight to the smooth pick-up song Tell Me Who's Your Daddy, and a recurring country element pops up solidly in I Will Come Back. While this album steps away from the band's signature Russian surf guitar (yes, take that literally), it's still an absolute blast.
Standout Tracks: In a just world San Antone would be a honky-tonk classic, with an infectiously peppy hook, and I Will Come Back is notable for it's moody country stylings, and for its use of the pet name "sugar booger" in the chorus.
Brainwasher is a solid rock album with a country twang, in the tradition of Cracker's self-titled debut, which shares much with this album both instrumentally and attitudinally. The band has a very strong beat, using both drums and bass guitar to drive the songs ahead at a brisk pace, which is kind of amusing given the somewhat languid vocal style of front man Bobby Bare Jr. The songs alternate between humorous self-pity and transparently sleazy attempts at manipulation; you can almost hear Coyote, the Signifying Monkey, and Loki doing backing vocals. These guys should really hook up with Kid Creole; the end results would probably be quite a trip.
Standout Tracks: The album starts out strong with the title track, a pick-up attempt which is simultaneously musically engaging and lyrically creepy. Kiss Me (Or I Will Cry) is an energetic love song (or more accurately, an energetic plea for pity sex), and Why Do I Need a Job would have served extremely well as an anthem for the prototypical slacker of the nineties, though the album came just a few years too late. Finally, Gasoline Listerine, due to the use of fuzzed guitars, is an oddly haunting bit of complete nonsense.
There really isn't all that much to say about this album, aside from that it is a terrific string of honky-tonk numbers. The band sounds like they're having a ball, and the songs have a great beat and lyrics which are alternately quirkily amusing and sweetly sentimental. The songs are consistenly enjoyable, and the whole album is a lot of fun.
Standout Tracks: Album opener I Wouldn't Tell You No Lie sounds like something Pinnochio might come up with after one too many shots of Wild Turkey, and bonus track Hale-Bopp Boogie is a hotstepping ode to everybody's favorite bit of cosmic debris.
I consider myself lucky to have picked up this disk. A little research has turned up that this album was originally recorded in 2000 for distribution by an online music start-up, during a period when the band had broken up. The start-up tanked around the time the album was finished, and the album itself wound up only selling about 25,000 copies due to the resulting unfavorable marketing situation.
It's a damn shame, as this album kicks serious ass, picks it up, and kicks it again.
About half the songs would qualify for my notional "Music to Speed By" collection, and the lyrics are alternately silly and witty. The instrumentation is the Presidents' usual frenetic mix guitars and keyboard work, and the lyrics vary between witty and silly depending on the song. I keep finding myself putting this CD on multiple times a day, which isn't normal for me, and I've been listening to it for many, many months without getting tired of it. Do yourself a favor and find yourself a copy of this thing.
Standout Tracks: This is a hard choice. I have to say that my emotional favorite is Death Star, a paen to everybody's favorite non-moon. Aside from that, though, take your pick: Tiny Explosions, Jazz Guy, Meanwhile Back in the City, Nuthing But Luv... Damn, time to pop this disk in for the second time in under three hours. I need help...
First, yes, the Swiss can apparently rock very hard; typical songs on this album clock in at around 135-140 beats per second, and you'll find your butt bouncing right along with every one. The lyrics range from typical rock to raging cynicism, with a healthy scattering of profanity, but the vocals seem to convey a real sense of enjoyment on the part of singer Hasu.
Standout Tracks: The high speed Sombody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight is a Fleetwood Mac cover (which surprised me to no end when I read it in the liner notes), and Letter to the Censors is a silly "up yours" to those who attempt to suppress the Impulse to Rock. Ultimately, though, the opening number You're Not Better, a rockabilly number reminiscent of the Reverend Horton Heat, starts off the album with a bang, and the next 14 tracks fly out the barrel right after it.
As you listen to this album, you can almost smell the pungent combination of cigarette smoke and bootleg gin. The performances are all very evocative of the clubs which were their home, even when the vocalists are modern artists like Iggy Pop and Debby Harry. While this album doesn't get my blood pumping the way many of the other albums on this page do, I enjoy listening to it for the simple reason that jazz standards are fun.
Standout Tracks: Angélique Kidjo's cover of Summertime is refreshingly exotic for a show tune, while Dee Dee Bridgewater's rendition of Watermelon Man is extremely energetic, and sounds like she had a lot of fun recording it. On a different side, I had trouble believing that the male vocal on I'll Be Seeing You was really Iggy Pop and not Mark Knopfler; it was surprisingly smooth and intimate.
I probably like this album more than it deserves, but it's my website, so I get to rate stuff however I want, so there.
Ok, sorry about that... Anyway, the FESR is just three guys, singing odd songs over drums, guitar and bass. Oddly enough, the percussion is probably the strongest part of the instrumentation, but the guitar work is functional and much more enjoyable than it should be. The vocals fall into that range of slightly whiney nerd voices which sound much better on an independent album like this they ever could in a pre-packaged corporate album. Overall the songs are simple and alternately quirky and angsty, but the tempo of the songs makes even the slightly depressing ones engaging.
Standout Tracks: The first three songs on the album, From a Documentary on Allen Ginsberg, Good Times (which was made into a student film cum video), and You Were Wrong are three of the best songs on the album; they are, respectively, a manic biographical sketch of Allen Ginsberg set to music, a peppy song about nothing in particular, and a succinct bit of teen angst. Samanatha's Anthem is another peppy one, and between its strong melody and call-and-response chorus, Tired of Being Alone is probably the neatest of the angsty numbers.
First, I'll note that this album is a bit pricier than my normal selection, but it was good enough, and honestly unexpected enough, that it lands square in the middle of this webpage's purpose. Anyway, it's almost superfluous to describe this album, for the simple reason that it is pretty much exactly what you'd expect: Tom Jones unloading his amazing baritone on a passel of recent songs, with the help of a variety of newer artists. The amazing thing is the breadth of material he covers on this album, running from gospel/blues classic Motherless Child to the Talking Heads and Iggy Pop. He's obviously having a ball with these songs, and it's really nice seeing his ability to stay current without sounding like Frank Sinatra trying to appeal to flower children. Overall the music, being mostly Vegas-tinged rock arrangements with strong doses of synthesizer and horn, is overshadowed by the vocals, but it actually complements the slightly surreality of the album pretty nicely. I've lent this to several people, and they've all enjoyed it.
Standout Tracks: The opening track, Burning Down the House, had me giggling with giddyness right out the gate, while the Temptations cover You Need Love Like I Do (Don't You?) retains the deep funkiness of the original beautifully. Probably the weirdest choice, though, was Lust for Life, if only for the fact that you can actually understand the lyrics with Tom and The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde singing it.
Hesher's Self-Titled Debut is a pretty solid album. While the packaging made comparisons with Beck, overall Hesher (aka Chip Lowe) is solidly in the alternative rock tradition, with fuzzy guitars and growly vocals. However, there are a lot of other fun elements mixed into the basic style. First, there's a recurring thread of playfulness in the songs, including a reworking of the Who's My Generation, occasional sampling, and frequent style transitions both between and within the songs. In addition, the vocals have a cadence a bit closer to rapping than singing, though again that tends to vary between the songs, with Out My Window featuring Hesher singing wistfully over a sparse piano melody. Overall this album really deserved a better reception than it appears to have received.
Standout Tracks: While it isn't the best song on the album, Crazy American Cheese Sandwiches has the best title. Lighter Thief is the most manic number on the album, and Somethings Always... has an infectious hook reminiscent of Scandal's "Goodbye to You". Overall, though, every one of the songs is a strong piece of work.
This album represents my favorite kind of find: a multi-genre compilation album. You'll see these available occasionally, where a label includes tracks from a bunch of their artists on a single disk as brand-wide advertising, and as a result you'll get an album that includes songs by Britney Spears, Devo and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Anyway, this one is like that. The album is split pretty evenly into two halves, with original songs in the first section and covers in the second. The original songs are all high quality rock numbers, but the odd thing is that two of the zippiest are quite clearly Christian rock numbers; they just happen not to suck.
The covers are an even odder bunch, running from Convoy to Eyes Without a Face. The whole album is topped off by Don Ho singing Give a Little Laughter; God only knows how they got the rights to that one. Finally, inbetween a lot of the songs they have audio samples drawn from a combination of 45 rpm records from the old Spiderman and Star Trek read-along books. Yeah, it's as weird as it sounds. This album is not a musical triumph, but it really is a lot of fun.
Standout Tracks: The two Christian rock numbers, Aleixa's Makes Me Wanna... and One 21's J.I.S. (translation: Jehovah Is Strength) are surprisingly good; I actually get goosebumps listening Aleixa's work (and keep in mind, I'm an agnostic). It could easily have fit on the airwaves with Seether during the alternative era. Of the other original songs, Phantasmic's Out of My Head and the Huntington's I Really Don't Like It are both pretty good, while Stratochief's Motorcycle Daddy is a strong dose of riot grrrl energy.
Moving on to the covers, my personal favorite is Seven Foot Politic's cover of the Sesame Street classic "J" Friends, which opens with a two minute ska vamp before kicking into high. However, probably of more general interest is Sixpence None the Richer's cover of Christmas favorite You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch (Flying Tart, which issued this album, was Sixpence's original label).
This two-disc set is one of the earliest fruits of my bottom feeding (ick, I just realized how that sounds...). Anyway, the album is part of a series by George Gimarc, a DJ at KDGE radio in Irving, Texas until a couple of years after the series of CDs was released, when they unceremoniously dumped him. The discs cover different time periods and material; volume 5 is a compilation of Texas bands which were being played when the album was released in the early 90s, while volume 6 is a set of recordings from the late 70s and early 80s, when there was a thriving punk and new wave movement in north Texas. Of the two I like volume 6 the best, as they display quite well the raw enthusiasm, anarchical sense of humor, and real talent present in the bands playing during the six or seven years covered by the album. The songs run from social satire to straight-out musical assaults, and the performances are energetic, if sometimes unpolished. Volume 5 is less distinctive, composed of the sorts of music one might expect from a post-MTV, pre-Clear Channel FM station before the advent of grunge; there's surprisingly little country, which I consider neither a good nor bad thing, but there are a number of very good songs covering rock, funk, and "singer-songwriter" style music. Overall this is a really good collection, and the history of the north Texas New Wave scene included in the liner notes just improves ones appreciation for the music captured in this set.
Standout Tracks: On volume 5, a lot of the songs are really memorable, but some of my favorites are disc-opener the Ballad of Jerry Godzilla, a commentary on the stupidity and corruption of the music industry, the Hugh Beaumont Experience's Money Means So Much To Me, which is more or less what it sounds like, and the Judy's All the Pretty Girls (In High School), a geeky song of protest about the girls who made life hell. Volume 6 has its own highlights, but none as high (so to speak) as Whitey's Thunderbird, an ass-spanking blast of funk celebrating the king of wines ("What's the Word? THUNDERBIRD! What's the Word? THUNDERBIRD!").
This album isn't the best thing I've ever picked up, but it's a nice effort. The vocal harmonies are very enjoyable, and the lyrics are full of the type of slacker wit that they were known for in songs like Little Miss Can't Be Wrong. It's kind of surprising that the album didn't get more airplay, as it's very clean and smooth pop.
Standout Tracks: I like Cleopatra's Cat, which is about how Cleopatra's cat got Caesar whacked; it's almost a talking blues number. Biscuit Head is a funky little nonsense song ("...Biscuit Head, a noteworthy biscuit head...").
White Trash is noteworthy mainly because it is a hair band done right. First, there's no hair or goofy costumes. Secondly, the music is actually high grade, with creative instrumentation that includes a full horn section, and witty (if at times lewd) lyrics. The opening song, Apple Pie, which reputedly garnered a brief period of heavy exposure on MTV, opens with wakka-chicka guitar, segues into a tight horn riff, and then rolls into lyricist/vocalist Dave Alvin's Axle Rose-esque singing. Overall the album was like some bastard lovechild of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Guns & Roses, as midwifed by Bruce Willis. Yeah, a bit weird, but very compelling. The only reason the rating isn't higher is that aside from the tracks below, much of the album is simply competent but otherwise unexceptional. If you like bands like Poison and Motley Crue, you really should track down this album.
Standout Tracks: Apple Pie gets the album off to a powerful start, Take My Soul is a tale of an accident in a bar involving a contract and a guy with horns, Backstage Pass is a paen to the female anatomy which probably couldn't safely be aired on radio due to excessive innuendo, and S.D.A.S.E. is a catalog of psychological problems.
Lava Love has a very nice sound, with a standard guitar, drum and vocals combo, and some Hammond organ work as well. The main comparison I've come up with is a slightly less polished version of the Bangles, but they've got a pretty respectable range on this album. (Can't You) Be Mine? sounds a little bit like an early sixties girl group ballad, and the instrumental work covers a lot of ground, ranging from Summer of Love bohemia to proto-alternative rock. Overall this is a fun little album, and it's unfortunate that none of the singles got any national airplay.
Standout Tracks: The opening track Perfect Gurl gets the album off to a very zippy start with some Housemartins-esque guitar work, while Last Rights For Mr. Wrong is a whimsical song about whacking ones' significant other.
All That is one of a small number of bands which have taken the thread of rap and hip-hop, spliced it with Dixieland jazz, and generated some of the funkiest music I've ever heard. While my first experience with this genre was Coolbone's Brass-Hop (which I purchased at full price based on a review in the Christian Science Monitor, of all places), I'd have to say that All That turns up the heat on the concept, adding a subversive sense of humor to some exceptionally funky brass work.
Standout Tracks: Every single song on this album is a blast, but my favorites are Fiasco, a catalog of the complete disarray surrounding the band, and Shut It Off, a pounding anthem of defiance. Also notable is their N'awlins-flavored cover of Led Zeppelin's Moby Dick, which is just about as cool as you would expect.
World of Fireworks was a surprising little album. The cover suggests something in the metal genre, or maybe punk or ska. The back cover, on the other hand, shows a group of guys in college professor jackets making silly faces. The music inside, however, is a different kettle of tweed. My mind keeps coming back to "eastern European", but as you can see above, I decided to go with Mediterranean, even though that's still a bit off. The closest solid description I can come up with is klezmer music, and while I wouldn't really call it klezmer, it's got the right tonalities. My wife pointed me in the direction of "cabaret", and that seems a good fit for about half the album, too. The music varies from zippy to mournful, and the clarinet work is quite nice, with gentle but sly vocals.
Standout Tracks: J'ai faim toujours, or "I am hungry always" is a peppy but sad number that conjures the image of a small cafe in Prague, while the band's cover of West Side Story's America is pretty amusing, though it's odd hearing both halves of the lyrics sung by men. Probably my favorite number on the album, though, is Buccaneer Days, a weirdly cool cabaret number about piracy.