The Rolling Stone Record Guide

It wasn’t the beginning of it all, but it was the catalyst.  Music for me began with The Beatles and John Denver, played in our living room by my sister.  She was 11 years old than me and when she left the house, so did the music.  Fast forward to seventh grade, when I listened to whatever was on the radio sitting in the back of a neighbor’s Toyota Corolla on the way to school.  “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Silly Love Songs,”  “A Fifth of Beethoven,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, “Shout it Out Loud,” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” “Love is Alive”… not everything was great, but it became a regular diet.  Then came my first stereo, which was quickly fed Wing’s “Greatest Hits,” Beach Boy’s “Endless Summer,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” and the Star Wars soundtrack.  Add a bit of radio, and you can fill a year with that stuff.

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In 1979, “The Rolling Stone” magazine/publisher released their Record Guide.  The timing was perfect.  I was interested in the magazine by the point, but I was already a generation of readers beyond their cultural relevance.  It was a monthly source of album reviews.  I didn’t care who authored the magazine’s or the book’s reviews (largely Dave Marsh and John Swenson in the latter’s case), but they were informative, shaping my musical interests and preferences.  And, when the reviews weren’t so informative, they were humorous:

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Please note: Ratings varied from one star (poor) to five stars (indispensable), but, where deserved, they also offered the square blocks you see here, indicating “Worthless: a record that need never (or should never) have been created.  Reserved for the most bathetic bathwater.”  While many have taken exception to the ratings assigned to many albums, usually at the cost of their favorites or with the benefit of hindsight as to more recent artists (at the time) that rated well shortly became irrelevant, the Record Guide, as evidenced by its wear, remains one of my favorite books in the house.

The depth of reviews varied between a few helpful words, a commentary on several key albums by an artist, or a lengthier narrative, for Dylan and the Stones, for example, that charted the artist’s growth.   Aside from introducing new artists to me and connecting the dots for artists I grew to like, the Record Guide essentially started me on “collecting,” albeit tempting me to waste money on bands that didn’t suit me or, worse, pushing me towards completionist tendencies for those that I did.  In any case, I’d put dashes by the albums I thought I might like, then crossed them off as I found them.  And find them, I did.

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And that particular joy didn’t come from amazon.com.  It came from a lot of visits to record stores, department stores, “head shops,” or anywhere else that sold new and used records.  There was joy in musical discoveries, but just as much for the search itself.  There were many, many unplanned stops from my accommodating mom plus road trips with friends to cities with more and better stores just to find records.  Those shops are mostly gone today, and where music sellers remain, reading through a trough of CD spines doesn’t compare with walking one’s fingers through a rack of vinyl.  That particular joy has returned for some with the resurgence of interest in vinyl, but I’ll stick with the clear sounding, no maintenance CDs (which is itself old-fashioned for those who prefer their digital files absent a physical media).  In any case, during a recent visit to the L.A. area, I made time for Amoeba Music.  I won’t say it’s the last great record store, but.. they’re a dying breed (a smartly provisioned shoebox sized store named Decatur CD is the best Atlanta can muster).  This isn’t Amoeba’s first or only location, but it’s the largest.  Anyway, here’s their beacon in the Hollywood night:

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They have free parking underneath the store, which is helpful.  You enter a stairwell or elevator to go to the main floor, and you already get the gist of the place:

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This isn’t the entire store, there’s a third of that to the front of the store and another third beyond the wall, where the easy listening, jazz, and other genres are located.  And, there’s a balcony area, where Blu-rays, DVDs, etc. are located.

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This row includes used CDs from the mid-R’s through the S  artists, for a sense of scale. Note the additional CDs at floor level.  Another section has new CDs.

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As this was a visit to L.A., I did find a more than respectable offering of Frank Sinatra CDs, separated by recording label even, and crossed two recordings off my cell phone’s “CDs to buy” list.  Darn handy, that.  I tacked on a Procol Harum CD as well, something I don’t typically come across anywhere other than Amazon, and, buying from a remaining music bastion is a right thing to do, even if they’re a buck or two more expensive.  If you’re not familiar with Procol Harum, you don’t have to run out to buy the Record Guide on eBay.  You can go to allmusic.com.  I wonder if kids today can imagine life without the world at their fingertips.

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Music stores don’t stay in business selling music anymore, though.  So, the walls are covered with posters, most of which are for sale, such as these original concert flyers.  If you click on the picture to make it bigger, you’ll see they’re rather pricey.

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Elsewhere, posters are placed for effect, such as Johnny Cash saying hello above the register area (and lunch boxes from my era are now antiques, I suppose):

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Oh, movie posters, too, mostly reprints.

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Sadly, some albums are so bad or are in such poor condition that they might be thrown out.  Well, not in California.  It’s environmentally friendly, I suppose, to cut up the covers and sell them as postcards.  I mailed one to my wife.

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They sell about anything music related, like T-shirts, but also these pretty cool lamps:

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Upstairs, I couldn’t help but note and laugh at the bargains available for VHS tapes.

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Due to traffic, I made it a late night trek, arriving at the store at 9:30 (they closed at 11:00).  I wasn’t disappointed with the sights.

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Now, if I can just make it to the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis…

The Aristocrats – Live at Aisle 5

This was my second time seeing The Aristocrats, and I was looking forward to a more suitable venue as compared to the awkward “Purgatory” at the Masquerade a couplIMG_6100e of years ago.  Alas, Aisle 5 is a retooled “The Five Spot,” slightly more spacious than its previous incarnation but just as much a hell hole.  Sure, they have bright and shiny air conditioning ducts, but they seem to coax a little cool air of them about once every 30 minutes.  If it sounds like I’m whining, I am.  They at least removed a row of booths and now offer a pretty spectacular (bottled) craft beer selection.

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The show began with The Travis Larson Band, who are an instrumental trio featuring the leader’s rock/jazz fusion guitar.  To hear one of their songs is nice, but as the set moves deeper you find different shades of sameness.  They get bonus points for carrying a great attitude for a journeyman band, with an optimistic Californian “right on!” attitude.

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The Aristocrats arrived with a fresh energy, eager to play and entertain with their wit – sometimes this is musical, and it’s guaranteed for song introductions.  They led with two songs from their recent release, Tres Caballeros, “Stupid 7” and “Jack’s Back.”   They played a good variety off all three of their albums, but not necessarily the ones I would have chosen.  For anyone bored of this review already, you should check out the story behind the name of one of their new songs, “The Kentucky Meat Shower.”  When you’re making instrumental music without a particular melody, you can name your song whatever you want.  This band opts for humor. Their music isn’t for everyone, and it was apparent that the audience had a lot of musicians.  I’m not one of those.  The band almost always has “complicated” music – odd time signatures with lots changes in pace and style, both soft and aggressive. 

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To watch three virtuosos is great entertainment.  I’d have to imagine that understanding it would make it all the better.  In other words, despite the frenzied percussion and guitar licks, I’d like just a little more frequent reminder of melodies, something to hold it together.  That’s my main rub with improvisational jazz – it’s hugely entertaining to watch, but the music is somewhat inaccessible.  I generally like this band’s music, but I can’t love it.

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It’s so quirky that when they played “Smuggler’s Corridor,” which may have been lifted from a Sergio Leone western, has a humor to it to begin with, but when heard with their other music,  it’s like they’re making fun of their own work.  In any case, watching guitarist Guthrie Govan is more than worse the price of admission, and I have to love any drummer (Marco Minnerman) who literally rises from his seat because he’s that into pounding his kit.  Bassist Brian Belcher adds muscle to the show, but… the other two command the attention of most people.

The Aristocrats keeping growing their audience.  Maybe next time they’ll make it to a larger venue, one where they can afford the A/C and that isn’t as challenging to see over people’s heads or to take (better) pictures. 

Noble Ale Works, Anaheim, CA

The last of the breweries visited during my week was Noble Ale Works, the one that I was most interested in visiting due to their large selection of IPAs.  I was prepared for what I found… a crowd.  This part due to brewery, but just as much as the Anaheim Angels baseball game, which was starting just about the time of my arrival.  By the beginning of the second inning, about half the crowd had left for the short walk to the stadium.  Not to get too sidetracked, but I arrived hungry, and the food truck on duty for the day was awesome, with a BBQ sandwich that was as good as I’ve had anywhere. 

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I did compliment the owner, but I couldn’t help but ask if they’d sold any sodas.  “Just a few, for the walk to the stadium.” Truly “ice cold.”

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So, when you order a flight of IPAs, it’s hard to tell one from the next.  But here they are, five different varieties.    Baby Gaga Session IPA was as appealing as it’s name, which is to say, not so much.  The Breakaway Pale Ale actually lagged in the pack.  The Big Whig IPA was better, with a little citrus and a nice enough finish.  The Tongue Tickles Double IPA didn’t tickle at all, but it was a fine entry.   Finally, the Mosaic Yum Yum Triple IPA was big on the hops and flavor and was my favorite of the batch.  And sadly, with 2-3 ounces per sample, I had to hit the road, safely, of course.

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All of the aforementioned IPAs were on draught board, conveniently in a column titled “Hoppy-ish.”  There were another five in “Light-ish,” three in “Dark-ish,” and another four in “Unique-ish.”  

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In hindsight, I should have selected the two heavier hitters (by ABV) and checked out The Londoner (a brown porter) and the Naughty Sauce (a stout with oats, milk, sugar, coffee instead of roasted grain, with nitrogen).  I don’t know if I’d like it, but… I should have ventured further, like the cask option.  On the other hand, and without having sampled it, I’ll go ahead and say I wisely avoided the Soda Jerk, a Vanilla Cream Soda beer.  They’re obviously very open to novel ideas…

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The brewery had plenty of tables, but a very small bar area to order drinks.  I’d have preferred a bar seat to get a little bit of the story from the staff. It was a worthwhile stop, but not the highlight I had expected.  That said, they had several highly rated IPAs (Royalty, Citra Showers and Citra Yum Yum) when I was doing the research that either weren’t available or retired.  I’d definitely come back for a baseball game and that food truck.

Bottle Logic, Anaheim, CA

My research for breweries in the area that I might visit landed on Bottle Logic, which was further validated by others I had mentioned it to while visiting the area. 

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It’s yet another brewery with a growing reputation for quality and experimentation, already firmly on the map despite being open for little over a year.  Aside from a good logo, their choice of holders for beer flights was inspired.  It’s amazing how much thought has to go into building both a brewery and a tasting room – and getting it right the first time.

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Here I tried Ocularity (truly excelent),  Double Actuator Double IPA (excellent), Hoverboard Session IPA (uninspired) and Starquake Porter (okay).  It was a case of diminishing returns, but they really have the DIPAs down.  The brewer has experience both at Sam Adams and Stone, so whether a mainstream or adventurous offering, he’s probably up to the task.

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It’s still early in the company’s history, but aside from the beer, the best thing they have going that the other breweries I visited during the week did not is this lady, who manages their social networking and… I don’t know what else.  But in addition to serving the beers, she’s sociable, even while applying labels to mini-growlers.

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The beer makes a difference, but the people who represent the brewery matter as much as the vibe of the tasting room.  She knew about all the upcoming beers and cask aged projects (tequila and rum barrels) and was happy to share the news.  They scored aces  with her, and I wish staff at the other breweries were as personable.  That said, most of the others were too busy to chat.  In any case, all the breweries I visited would do well to offer planned brewery tours more frequently, where their origins and vision could be better shared than on spiffy looking but staid text websites.

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It made for an enjoyable outing, and I really, really liked their retro designs for several of their beers.

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The Bruery, Placentia, CA

After having met two other guys traveling on business, we planned on meeting here a couple of nights later.  One couldn’t make it, but the other did, who happened to live in the Atlanta area like me. 

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The Bruery is known for being fairly adventurous with a wide variety of styles, barrel aged variations and further explorations within each, as a craft brewery should… if they at least have a stable of beers to pay the bills.  It’s also a popular spot, one that is known to have lines out the door.  We happened to miss that type of rush.  It’s not a big place, but has a fairly big reputation, having been, in relative terms, an elder brewery, on the scene since 2008.

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Below are the Loakal Red (very good, some hops but creamy), Mischief Hoppy Belgian Golden Strong (okay, I had hoped for better), Trade Winds Tripel Belgian (better than good, short of excellent), Ride That Pony Imperial Brown (very good), and BBA Smoking Wood porter (excellent, curious that they are retiring this one).

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So, Paul, my beer acquaintance invited another guy to join us, a local that he had met on other visits.  They bring bombers to trade whenever they meet.  His friend is a member of the Reserve Society, a stratagem that is apparently popular among some of the area breweries.  Beyond that is a Hoarders level, but, whatever.  Essentially, become a paying club member, and you’ll receive some special beers they hold back from the general public.  In other words, if you’re not a local, you’re out of luck.  Unless, that is, you make friends with a member.

So it was that I was able to sample the Melange #12, a blend of various other barrel aged beers that they let hang around, which was bold, boozy and fairly sweet.  I should have taken a picture, but  p00f! it was gone.

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I can understand the attraction to additional revenue and collecting a subset of people who are likely to give a lot of repeat business.  Still, I hope it doesn’t catch on.  One of the attractions to visiting breweries is to sample things you can’t get elsewhere, and not from just geographic accessibility.  I’d hate to visit breweries and be teased with stuff in stock and told, “Sorry.  Members only.”   To be fair, nine of 15 beers on tap were “Tasting Room Only” releases.

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In any case, it’s a great craft brewery, and it was well worth the time.

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Barley Forge Brewing

Next up on my L.A. brewery expedition was Barley Forge.  This one wasn’t on my radar until one of the two guys I met at Beachwood recommended it.  And… it was mere minutes from my motel after a tiring day.  It’s funny how they refer to themselves as Costa Mesa’s “first production brewery.”  Looking around all of L.A. and Orange County, an overhead observer might conclude that it was one one large concrete tract, occasionally broken up with unsightly brown hills and otherwise decorated with occasional tree planters in the inhabited area.  I guess many many years ago there were little towns, but it all blends together with clogged arteries.  In any case, their move here reflects a growing trend that every community ought to have its own brewery.  For metro cities, a brewery in the next town over doesn’t count.  They’re located in a quaint light industrial area, where only those who go looking will find them.

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Barley Forge doesn’t rate on Beer Advocate.  They have only 13 beers and only four have received three or more reviews.  They advertise Belgian, West Coast and German style beers.  I tried four (but technically five).  Left to right we have The Patsy, a Coconut Rye Stout which had been recommended but wasn’t to my taste, The Black Dahlia, a 11% ABV dark Belgian, which surprised with a little spice in a medium body, Future Tripping Double IPA which I would have bet would have been my favorite (and won), and two versions of the Orange Curtain, a orange and grapefruit tasting pale ale, one version straight and the other supplemented with nitrogen (not shown), neither of which worked for me. 

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Don’t worry, folks, I drank these from right to left.  You never start with the dark ones if you want to taste the light ones.  The brewery is fairly new and already reaching for a variety of styles and, I’d say, are quickly following through with good substance as well. I was disappointed that their One Louder IPA wasn’t on tap that night.  But, as you can see below, big dreams start small.  Surprisingly, they also have a limited food menu, which I discovered… after dinner.

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I didn’t sample the Don Perfecto, but I’m a sucker for robots.  In any case, it’s a great brewery for Costa Mesa.  At roughly one year old, they’re doing well.  We’ll see if their creativity continues to compete with some very tough general area competition.

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Beachwood Brewing (and BBQ)

Before my visit to L.A., I did my research.  Given the opportunity to visit some West Coast breweries, which should I choose?  Thus, Beer Advocate to the rescue, with related grades for breweries and their beers.  Located somewhat between where I was and where I was going, was Beachwood Brewing, located in a very commercial area of Long Beach.  It rates a very impressive 99%.  Please note the fresh California rain, a rarity in July.

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And… this also where I note that I failed to actually take any pictures of the sampled beers.  For one, beer “flights” aren’t necessarily photogenic.  Secondly, I had been at the beach and was thirsty, so it didn’t occur to me until later.  And, thirdly, there was good company at the bar.  Oh, and many options.

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This is also a restaurant, and I’m pleased to say that the BBQ, while a pale imitation of southern BBQ, was suitable, and on relative scales, their beer was even better.

The lineup included the LBC IPA (drinkable, but ordinary), Amalgamator American IPA (an improvement – 93 rating), Hop Jitsu American IPA (a step up in the right direction), Hop Ninja Double IPA (yet another step forward – 91 rating), Denver Jackhammer Double IPA (a leap in the right direction) and Beer of the Dragon Double Red Ale (the surprise of the bunch).  The ones listed without ratings are apparently rather new and with limited availability, exactly the type of experience for which a craft beer lover hopes.  All of this means little to non-beer drinkers, but for each of the styles, these were overall an excellent set.  The Red Ale surprised as it had the hops I liked but also balanced with malts.  For a 9.6% ABV drink, it’s surprisingly easy to enjoy.  It’s a good thing I was doing samples, as all of these were 7% and higher.

Behind the bar was this contraption, which they’ve apparently sold to other breweries.  It allows them to individually pressurize kegs remotely.  Patent pending, I’d guess.

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Otherwise, the visit was notable for two other guys, one from Utah and one from Lilburn, GA, another suburb of Atlanta.  Both were in town on business and were no strangers to craft beer.  We made plans to meet later in the week at another brewery, which is another post!  I managed to bring home a bottle of their Hopernicus IPA, as yet untasted (and unrated).  Given the opportunity and even with other breweries to try, I’d revisit Beachwood happily.  They have other less hoppy beers left untried.