All the Albums of 2019

It’s been an annual tradition here on Underdog of Perfection: Around the end of November, I post a list of all of the albums I’ve purchased that year, and then a couple weeks later, I rank my top 5.

Well… I skipped it altogether last year, because I hadn’t been paying much attention to new music. The trend has only accelerated this year. It’s partly because I’ve been delving deeply into jazz from the ’60s and ’70s, but it’s more because… man, pop music really sucks these days, and I just haven’t been too interested in the more obscure new stuff either.

And of course, who “buys albums” anymore?

So, here then is my complete list of all the new albums I purchased in 2019. Ones I think are especially good are in bold.

Christopher Willits — Sunset
The Claypool Lennon Delirium — South of Reality
Com Truise — Persuasion System
John Coltrane — Blue World*
JV’s Boogaloo Squad — Going to Market
Lizzo — Cuz I Love You
Mario Alberto Silva — Pan-American Sonata
Steve Hauschildt — Nonlin
The Bad Plus – Activate Infinity
The Bird and the Bee — Interpreting the Masters, Volume 2: A Tribute to Van Halen
TOOL — Fear Inoculum
32nd Street Jazz — self-title**

* Technically a new release!

** OK, I didn’t buy this… I made it, along with my bandmates. But hey, it’s a real release… we even got a ton of airplay on Jazz 88 in August and September! (And yes, it is one of my favorite albums of the year.)

And while I’m at it, here’s my complete (and considerably longer, but still short) list of all the new albums I purchased in 2018, favorites in bold.

Aphex Twin — Collapse EP
The Bad Plus — Never Stop II
Brad Mehldau Trip — Seymour Reads the Constitution!
Christian McBride — Christian McBride’s New Jawn
Courtney Barnett — Tell Me How You Really Feel
The Decemberists — I’ll Be Your Girl
Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio — Live at KEXP!
Elvis Costello & The Impostors — Look Now
Geotic — Traversa
Halloween, Alaska — Le Centre
Helios — Veriditas
Joshua Redman, Ron Miles, Scott Colley & Brian Blade — Still Dreaming
Justin Timberlake — Man of the Woods
Kamasi Washington — Heaven and Earth
King Crimson — Meltdown (Live in Mexico 2017)
Myriad3 — Vera
OMEGA Danzer — FUTURA the Album
Optiganally Yours — O.Y. in Hi-Fi
Steve Hauschildt — Dissolvi
X-Altera — self-title
Yellowjackets — Raising Our Voice
Yes — Fly From Here (Return Trip)

A detailed look at my “Frankenstein” fretless Fender Jazz Bass

I got my first bass — a black Fender Standard (MIM) Jazz Bass — when I was in high school. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a great starter bass. And even though I didn’t really like the black body — I’ve always found black and sunburst to be the most boring and overused guitar finishes — I loved that bass until I could afford to buy a better one, ten years later.

But I always felt like that bass was flawed because of something that was my own fault. I was a curious kid, and one night I decided to take the bass apart. I mean, absolutely as far apart as I could. I removed the strings, the neck, the pickguard, the control plate, the pickups, the bridge… I think I even removed the tuning machines and bridge saddles. And then I put it all back together again.

But I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know that the pickup height should be adjusted for optimal volume balance, so I just cranked them all the way down. I didn’t know that the bridge saddles needed to be adjusted in two dimensions for optimal tuning and playability, so it was out of tune and had terrible action. I didn’t know that the neck tension rod should be adjusted so there was just the slightest concave curve to the neck, so I had fret buzz.

Basically, I just thought it was a mediocre instrument, when in fact I had made it that way.

The lesson I learned was that I should not make any adjustments to my instruments, and it took me decades to get over that.

Fast forward to 2019. I’ve been playing bass in a jazz quartet for a couple of years now, and I’ve been buying new basses! For the past decade I’d owned a really nice Fender Jaguar Bass (MIJ) — red with matching headstock and block inlays — and a kind-of-crappy 5-string MIM Jazz Bass. I decided since I was playing jazz, I needed a fretless, so I went for a minimal expenditure and bought a Squier Vintage Modified Jazz Bass.

I couldn’t believe how good the Squier was for the price! Better than my MIM Fender! So I decided to sell the 5-string. I was hardly playing it anyway. I was curious about short-scale basses, so I bought a MIM Fender Mustang. But I hated it. The quality was crap. I don’t know what’s going on in Fender’s Ensenada factory these days, but I’m not impressed.

For those who don’t know, Squier is Fender’s entry-level sub-brand. Originally a mid-level line made in Japan, then for many years they were very poorly made in China. These days, I’ve since learned, they’re mostly made in Indonesia, using mostly CNC robots (rather than overworked and mistreated human laborers) to keep costs low but consistency and quality much higher than their reputation would lead one to believe.

I also realized short scale was a bad choice if I was simultaneously trying to regain my feel for fretless, so I returned the Mustang and bought… a Squier Vintage Modified 5-string Jazz Bass. It’s also surprisingly great!

Then earlier this year I sold the Jaguar and upgraded to my first ever Precision Bass, an American Professional. It looks just like the bass I learned on that I borrowed from my high school, before I got that first black Jazz Bass. I love it!

But that got me thinking… now that I have a nice solid American Professional instrument, I wanted to tinker a bit with another bass.

As good as the Squier fretless was, I hated two things about it: the synthetic fingerboard material (it just didn’t give enough of a “woody” sound), and the boring sunburst finish. (See above.) By now I’m comfortable adjusting the neck tension, action, tuning, and pickup height, so the idea of doing some customizations (just not to my expensive American Professional!) is not intimidating anymore.

For 2019 Fender introduced a new “Classic Vibe” Squier series, and there I saw the bass of my dreams… a “Daphne blue” Jazz Bass. But it only came in fretted. So I decided this would become the basis for my Frankenstein monster!

Fast forward a few more months, and now the monster is complete. Pretty much the only parts of it that are still the original Squier are the blue body, the tortoise shell pickguard, and the control plate. Everything else is new, with the exception of the tuning machines, which I stole off the Squier fretless (I’ll get to that).

I just love that look of the Daphne blue body paint with the tortoise shell pickguard. That was the inspiration to make all of this happen!

Yes, there’s a bit of headstock vanity, as much as I’m ashamed to admit it… gotta have that Fender logo! But the main reason I wanted this Fender neck, instead of just sticking the Squier fretless neck I already had onto this (which I did, initially), was to get that nice rosewood fingerboard.

Funny thing… when you buy a stock neck from Fender, they really just send you the neck. It just has 4 holes in it for the tuning machines, but you have to supply those yourself. I could have bought a set, but I figured I’d just use the ones from the old Squier fretless neck that I didn’t need anymore. Of course, the screw holes didn’t line up quite right, so I had to drill new ones.

Nuts. The other thing about the stock neck is that the string grooves in the nut aren’t really there… just little pilot notches. You’re supposed to file it down yourself. But a set of nut files is like $80! I considered buying some, but then I learned that this synthetic nut material is soft enough that you can actually “file” it with a set of roundwound strings… so that’s what I did! (I play the fretless with flatwounds.) It’s not totally perfect, but it worked surprisingly well and didn’t cost a thing!

Seriously? Did I really need to swap out the neck mounting plate? Well, yes and no. No, of course I didn’t. But I kind of wanted to, to get rid of any traces of “Squier.” But there was actually a good, practical reason for this. I wasn’t 100% sure the screw holes for mounting the neck would line up properly between a Squier body and a Fender neck. I was pretty sure they would. But not positive. This was an inexpensive (about $15) way to confirm that it would work, before spending a couple hundred bucks on a neck. It worked!

A Fender hi-mass bridge. The stock Squier bridge was perfectly fine, but I didn’t care much for the changes they made to the bridge saddles with the Classic Vibe series. Initially I swapped in the saddles from the Vintage Modified fretless, but a hi-mass bridge is not a huge investment and it does improve sustain… plus it just looks better.

DiMarzio noiseless pickups. Without a doubt this was the best upgrade across the board. The stock pickups just had kind of a weak and undefined sound… it was impossible to get that classic Jazz Bass “twang” from the bridge pickup. Plus you could never really solo one pickup because the 60 Hz hum was awful! These pickups are a lot hotter than the stock ones and give a very distinctive tone. But most importantly, they’re wired as split coils so there’s absolutely zero hum with one pickup soloed!

Of course, there’s always something. These pickups are taller than the stock ones, and they couldn’t be seated low enough to have the proper distance from the strings. I needed to rout out the body cavities deeper for them. But I don’t own a router, or a drill press, or anything that you should probably have to do this job right. But I was determined to handle this the way I’ve handled everything else on this project: fast, cheap and out of control. I found the most suitable bit I had on hand for my hand drill, and set to work removing wood. The end result was pretty ugly (and honestly, still not quite deep enough), but it’s hidden, and now things look and sound great!

Top 5 Albums of 2017: The Contenders

And so it is time once again for my annual ritual, in which I engage with consistently less enthusiasm than the year before.

2017 sucked. I mean, I thought 2016 sucked. But 2017 redefined just how much a year can suck. That didn’t, directly, have anything to do with the music produced this year, but the music didn’t help much.

Anyway, despite my generally negative attitude towards everything this year represents, I have nonetheless purchased some music that I have enjoyed. Here’s the list. As usual, I’ve put the most likely contenders for the final Top 5 List in bold. (Yes, I’ve only highlighted four. I can’t decide on the fifth.)

Beck: Colors
Com Truise: Iteration
Foo Fighters: Concrete and Gold
Gizmodrome: Gizmodrome
Hampshire & Foat: Galaxies Like Grains of Sand
Kamasi Washington: Harmony of Difference
Lorde: Melodrama
Lusine: Sensorimotor
Mux Mool: Implied Lines
Phoenix: Ti Amo
St. Vincent: Masseduction*
Steven Wilson: To the Bone
Thundercat: Drunk
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross: The Vietnam War
Various Artists: The Bob’s Burgers Music Album
Vermont: II

* I haven’t actually purchased/listened to this album yet but I intend to and expect it to be good.

Stravinsky on that chord

Up to now I’ve only really been documenting it on Facebook (for some reason), but over the past 3 months I’ve been working on one of my most ambitious music projects yet, a prog/post-rock interpretation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It’s been an interesting exercise that has helped me to get very (very) familiar with the piece, and encouraged me to research more about its origins.

Today I discovered this delightful video of Stravinsky humorously recounting the early history of the piece. Specifically, demonstrating the chord at the beginning of “Augurs of Spring” to Sergei Diaghilev, the ballet producer who had commissioned the work.

I like very much this chord. It was a rather new chord, you know? An 8-note chord. But the accents were even more new. And the accents were really the foundation of the whole thing.

When I finished composing The Rite of Spring, I played it for Diaghilev, and I started to play him this chord. Fifty-nine times the same chord. Diaghilev was a little bit surprised. He didn’t want to offend me. He asked me only one thing, which was very offending. He asked me, “Will it last very long time this way?” And I said, “’Til the end, my dear.”

And he was silent. Because he understood that the answer was serious.

What is that chord? I think just to mess with us, Stravinsky notated it rather absurdly with F♭s and C♭s. From the bottom up, the notes are: F♭ A♭ C♭ F♭ G B♭ D♭ E♭. So, that’s… um… well, if it were written as E instead of F♭, with ♯s instead of ♭s, it works out to an Emaj7/♯9/♯11/13 chord. Another way to look at it is an E (F♭) major chord with an E♭7 (in first inversion) stacked on top of it. Since Stravinsky was exploring bitonality, this is the most likely explanation, but really there’s no good way to notate it. Over a hundred years later, this is still difficult to grasp.

A few rambling words about YES in honor of their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and in reaction to Rolling Stone’s funny but sloppy history of the band’s lineup changes

So… YES, one of my favorite bands of all time, are finally getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tonight.

They’re also frequently the butt of jokes for their numerous, tumultuous lineup changes. The one true real life Spinal Tap, I say. Today Rolling Stone released a short video chronicling, with good (snarky) humor but a bit of carelessness, these changes.

A friend shared this on Facebook, and of course tagged me. I enjoyed the video, but could not abide its omissions, so I went on a bit of a rant, which I share below, unedited.

I’m sorry… they glossed over some HUGE drama in the band between 1973 and 1979. Rick Wakeman left over “Tales from Topographic Oceans” which according to this video “SUCKS”. (It doesn’t suck; it’s just hard to get into an album that consists of four 20-minute songs.) Patrick Moraz came in and played on one album, then the band took a break and in 1975 each of them released a solo album (before KISS tried this stunt!), and in 1977 they came back together, but Moraz was out and Wakeman was back. They released one album which was their last really good album, followed by another that was — at the time — their worst. THEN you’re up to 1979 when the band was in the middle of recording an album that never got released, and Anderson and Wakeman left. (And that’s as far as I’ve watched so far… I’m sure I’ll have a Yes-grade epic rant about later errors and omissions too.)

And then, after I’d watched the rest…

Some more glossing over as it goes (like how the ’80s lineup got back together after Union fell apart and recorded one more album in 1994), but I am really glad they had the bit at the end about Anderson Rabin Wakeman and how they’re more Yes than the current Yes lineup, and now the guys from that hideous Union/Onion thing are coming back together (tonight!) for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. It’s all too much to take. My head used to spin over these lineup changes when I first got into the band in high school, and that was just before Union. It’s gotten so much crazier since then.

Oh, and they also didn’t even mention how Benoit David was kicked out in 2011 and replaced by ANOTHER Yes tribute band singer, Jon Davison. (Whose name always kills me… it’s like a mashup of Jon Anderson and Benoit David.)

And they ALSO didn’t mention the infamous Russian keyboardist Igor Khoroshev, who played with the band in the late ’90s until he got kicked out for molesting some fans.

And they ALSO ALSO didn’t mention Billy Sherwood, the guy who replaced Chris Squire on bass, who happened to have been one of those unnamed session musicians on Union and was for some reason added as a 6th member for a while in the late ’90s on guitar and keyboards (and yes, now he plays bass).

Then there’s Jay Schellen, who’s been playing drums with them recently because Alan White had back surgery, and Tom Breslin who briefly toured on keyboards in 2004-ish because the band didn’t have a keyboardist and had recorded an album with an orchestra.

Somewhere in the midst of those inane changes, the band recorded several albums that were worse than the one that came out in 1978, but up to that point, it was the worst.

OK, I’m done.

But I wasn’t done. One last thing was stuck in my craw. Trevor “Ray-BEEN”? That’s not how I’d ever imagined it was pronounced. I assumed it was “RAY-bin”. And, if the man himself is a trustworthy source, I’m right: