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Why was the best album of 2018 not on any of the year end ‘best of’ lists?
01.23.2019
11:48 am
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Jonathan Wilson by Magdalena Wosinska
 

[TL;DR: I have no idea why. It doesn’t make any sense.]

I was going to do one of those “top ten albums of 2018” listicles, but I procrastinated too much over the holidays and never got around to it. The thing was, I had dozens of albums that I loved in 2018, far more than ten, but it was like I had a clear #1 hands-down favorite and everything else was simply after it and in no particular order beyond that. However, in the past few days I’ve found myself clicking through the top 100 lists at several of the music blogs I frequent and I was a little shocked—and frankly annoyed—that what I felt was, without the slightest doubt, the single best thing released all year was not only given critical short shrift, it was hardly afforded any shrift whatsoever.

And the album I refer to, is, I can assure you, one of those affairs where you could not possibly be exposed to it—I don’t think—and not be suitably impressed, if not utterly flabbergasted by the gleaming brilliance right in front of your ears. Nothing subtle, but the kind of music, performance and production quality that is obviously next level stuff. I felt like I was seeing something that rightly should have been proclaimed an instant classic get lost in a year of tumultuous shuffle.

Not only that, I’m friends with the artist and was involved with drafting the press materials for the release. I’d interviewed him about the music and what inspired and motivated its creation, and in fact, I’ve had a copy of the album since mid-2017 making it my favorite new album of both that year and of 2018. This album was played nonstop in our house for many months. If I woke up in the middle of the night to take a piss, it was inevitably playing in my head. The second my eyes opened in the morning it was still there on a loop between my ears, often in mid song.

I refer here to the phenomenal Rare Birds by Jonathan Wilson. As I was saying above, I thought 2018 was a great year for new music, but there was for me nothing else even close to this album. Luckily for me I really don’t have to try to convince you of the resounding correctness of my opinion as you can simply press play below from the comfort of where you are reading this and have a listen for yourself. But I also know that fewer than 2% of you will bother to listen to the thing you are happily reading about. People would rather read a short description of something than to actually experience it for themselves. That seems odd to contemplate, but we all do it. Me, you, everyone does. So that’s what I’m working with here. Having said that, to those readers curious enough already to think they might just want to give it a listen, don’t wait, pause for a moment, scroll down the page a bit, hit play and come back. I’ll wait. Go on, DO IT.
 

Jonathan Wilson onstage with Roger Waters. He even sang “Money”!
 
I guess what might be in order, would be a little background: Jonathan Wilson is an American musician based in Los Angeles and the owner of a very nicely appointed recording studio housed on his hillside Echo Park compound. He is generally considered a “guitar hero.” For the past few years he was a featured part of Roger Waters’ touring band, playing lead guitar and taking the vocal duties over for the Dave Gilmour numbers. You might also know him as the creative partner/producer of Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, on Tillman’s first three FJM albums. He’s collaborated with the likes of Dawes, Chris Robinson, Bob Weir, Erykah Badu, Robbie Robertson, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Roy Harper, Will Oldham, Elvis Costello, Conor Oberst, Karen Elson, and Wilco’s Patrick Sansone. He’s toured the US with Tame Impala (a fantastic double bill, I can assure you) and in Europe he’s opened for Neil Young and toured with Tom Petty.

In England, where Wilson records for Bella Union, his first album, Gentle Spirit, was (appropriately) given rave reviews and prominent spots in several year end lists (#4 in MOJO, #16 in Uncut, #28 in The Guardian) while Jonathan Wilson himself was named Uncut magazine’s 2011 “New Artist of the Year.” Back home, the album was known to hardcore music heads, and the more clued-in Father John Misty fans, but that was about it. I did, and do, find that a ridiculous state of affairs. I watched a truly classic debut—one that should have been a bestseller and multiple Grammy nominee—fall through the cracks in real time. The astonishing follow-up, Fanfare, which I found to be equally as good as its near perfect predecessor suffered a similar fate. Not for any lack in the music, but from a baffling lack of listeners. (I’ve said it above, but will repeat: I cannot imagine having halfway decent taste in music, being exposed to Wilson’s output and not recognize that you’ve just had gold poured into your ears.)

Rare Birds, Wilson’s third album—I won’t say it’s “his best” because they are all the best—is by far his most complex offering. It is an album which demands to be paid attention to. It’s something that’s meant to be listened to all the way through, from start to finish, stoned, alone, and in the dark. A work of art, in other words, not something to stream in the background on Spotify. His first two albums were compared a lot to CSNY and Pink Floyd—a bit too much if you ask me, even if I am guilty of it myself—but it is true to say that his guitar playing on those records occupies the exact midpoint between the styles of Stephen Stills and David Gilmour. (If you won’t take my word for it, perhaps you’ll take Roger Waters’ opinion seriously?) With Rare Birds no one would make those same comparisons. Here Wilson does a full tilt 1980s Kate Bush or Peter Gabriel thing, using as many as 155 tracks on a given song. Everything is recorded to 2” analog tape through an audio board that was once used at Pye Studios in London (The Kinks, Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull, and many others have recorded with it) and taken into ProTools from there before being laid off again to 2” tape for mastering. He’s the type of maniac who will use eight mics for a single drum and told me that he perceived the process of making Rare Birds as if he’d assigned himself a puzzle—a 155 multi-tracked musical Rubik’s Cube—which he then had to solve.

The overall sonic signature of Rare Birds, not heard before on one of Wilson’s albums, is the sound of multiple synthesizers and drum machines that will remind many listeners of Talk Talk’s lush Spirit of Eden (although that album, which was largely improvised, utilized the exact opposite of Wilson’s meticulously planned-by-schematic—included in the vinyl release—working methods.) Inspired by watching Roger Waters working in his studio, layers of sound effects have also been added to the mix. And did I mention that he’s also playing and singing almost everything heard on the album? There are some notable guests—Laraaji, the new age musician and Brian Eno collaborator whose otherworldly vocal contribution to “Loving You” opens the album’s third eye; Father John Misty, the vocal duo Lucius, and Lana Del Rey (instantly recognizable, her minimalist whispered vocal contribution to “Living With Myself” accomplishes so much with so little)—but by and large he’s Todd Rundgrening it here. As far as self-produced solo albums go, this one’s pretty damned solo.
 

 
Thematically, Rare Birds is a break-up album—like Blood on the Tracks, and I can assure you that I am not bringing up that masterpiece for no particular reason here. As the album begins, he’s seeing his ex everywhere. She’s driving on the 405 listening to Zappa, or walking across Trafalgar Square whistling a tune with Little Jimmy Dickens. The point is that he’s seeing her everywhere and the album as it progresses is a diary of how he processed what happened to that relationship. During the meet/cute moment she enters her name “just as ‘tight blue jeans’ in my phone, I guess you do this kind of thing…” It’s specifically about one relationship, but anyone going through a break-up and trying to heal afterward could easily project themselves onto the lyrics. It’s songs about love lost, but in the end everyone is going to be fine.

The audiophile-level sound quality of the entire affair is nothing less than remarkable. When I first got it I listened to it, for months, via speakers. Then one night I had just gotten a new pair of headphones and I decided to listen to Rare Birds with them which revealed layer upon layer and subtle details galore that I had never noticed before, despite hundreds of listens. It was astounding to me and exactly the sort of experience that I crave and seek out as a listener. Two months ago I considerably upgraded my stereo system and one of the very first things I thought to play was Rare Birds and once again, I could hear far deeper into the mix. Layer upon layer deeper. This is a much, much higher fidelity than we typically get from any artist. And it is noticeably so.*

Last year, writing about Britpop’s acerbic uncle Luke Haines, I called him the very best British songwriter of his generation—that he is—and remarked that comparing what he did to what most other pop musicians do was like comparing a master mason to someone good at putting up sheds. I feel similarly about Jonathan Wilson and have been on record for some time touting him as, in my opinion, the single best American musician working today, but Wilson can also make a guitar by hand (his axes fetch five figures), as well as build and wire an entire recording studio from the ground up. He isn’t merely a master mason, he’s handcarved all of the very elaborate furniture in the house and done the inspired landscaping. He’s a musician’s musician, with an almost unfathomable talent and breathtaking prowess on so many instruments—he’s the most complete musician that I have ever met—but the notion that he’s someone’s sideman—even to greats like Father John Misty and Roger-fucking-Waters—well that’s just not right.

But what would it take to convince you of that? A classic 10/10 gleaming audiophile masterpiece? The man’s put out three of ‘em so far. It’s time for the listening public to catch up to Jonathan Wilson in 2019.

Jonathan Wilson and his band will be touring selected American cities next month. More information and tickets here.
 

 
Much more after the jump…

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Posted by Richard Metzger
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01.23.2019
11:48 am
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Discussion
Keychains and Snowstorms: The Soft Cell Story
09.28.2018
04:38 pm
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I’m a huge Soft Cell/Marc Almond fan and I have been ever since “Tainted Love” was a hit and their memorable 1982 Solid Gold TV appearance—where Marc beat the stage with a leather belt and generally camped it up bigtime—caused my father to become visibly agitated and angry. It was an incredibly subversive thing to see on such a goofy middle-of-the-road disco hits program—one that usually followed The Lawrence Welk Show or Hee-Haw on Saturday evenings, depending on where you lived—and I wholeheartedly approved.

From that point on, I had every Soft Cell album, EP, 12” remix, book, VHS, fan club issue, bootleg, you name it. I still have them all along with practically every Marc-related release, Dave Ball’s solo album, everything by The Grid and many things produced or remixed by Dave Ball. I even own the entire discography of Vicious Pink Phenomena. In short, I am not only qualified to properly evaluate their new career-summing box set Keychains and Snowstorms: The Soft Cell Story, I am squarely within the fanboy Venn diagram that this exhaustive compilation is meant to appeal to. Truly I am the target audience for this product by any metric.

Admittedly after the above preamble, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone who has read this far to find that I’m absolutely unashamedly nuts about this compilation. If you’ve only ever heard “Tainted Love” and are intrigued enough to still be reading, this box set might be for you. I’m admittedly biased but I think it’s the best thing I’ve heard all year. Let me count the ways…
 

 
Soft Cell were—and still are—practically unknown in America. However true that statement might be, everyone in this entire country aged nine to 99 knows “Tainted Love” as it’s still played on oldies radio and in drugstores, shopping malls and supermarkets nationwide on a daily, even hourly basis. It’s playing in a CVS or a Walgreens location somewhere in America—if not several of them—right this very second. “Tainted Love” has never left the outer periphery of popular awareness since it first hit the American top ten in 1982. That song has a uniquely ubiquitous pop culture persistence, a staying power rivaled only by the likes of something by Fleetwood Mac or the Beach Boys, even if virtually no one on this side of the Atlantic has ever heard a second song by the duo who recorded it or could name the group themselves. (The more culturally savvy might have noticed the heartbreaking use of quite a long swatch of “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” in the big final scene of series two of Master of None.) Anyway, think of that as an opportunity. If you are looking for something “new” to listen to, look no further.

It’s TEN discs. Freaking TEN discs from a band who have only released four proper albums in their career and if you already own those albums—and every Soft Cell fan does—almost nothing from those albums is repeated here. (The exception is that their 2001 reunion album, the annoyingly overlooked Cruelty Without Beauty—one of the finest “comeback” albums I can think of—is excerpted heavily here with the strongest tracks present plus three great numbers left off the album that would have made it an even better release. As few heard this album, I agree with this approach. Those songs are worthy and should be heard.)

There is very little (none really) overlap with last year’s similarly packaged Marc Almond career box. Speaking of, the packaging is glossy, sturdy and first rate. The design, by Philip Marshall, is elegant and slick. The extended essay by Simon Price is terrific, even someone who has followed the duo from the start will find much new information and insight into the creation of their music and the insanity of being shoved to the forefront of the global music industry the way these two were. It’s a great story, well told and a thoroughly good read.
 

 
Here’s a rundown of what’s on each disc.

Disc #1 has each of the 12” extended versions of their Phonogram singles. With most acts, this sort of thing holds no interest for me, however with Soft Cell the opposite is true. Their extended mixes had additional verses, and new instrumentation. Ball didn’t merely slice and dice their music like everyone else, he resculpted it and redid it in a radically different fashion from the 7” and album versions. I tend to hate remixes and find them generally speaking pretty useless as a listener, but not here.

Disc #2 has the B-sides from these 12” singles. They might have only released three albums during their first incarnation, but they actually did release a fair amount of material during their brief run, issuing several extended EPs and their B-sides were never throwaways… (“Tainted Dub/Where Did Our Love Go?” which leads off this disc is included in the Spotify playlist below selected by yours truly, along with several more tracks from this disc. Note the two John Barry compositions—“You Only Live Twice” and “007 Theme”—and Barry’s obvious influence on Dave Ball and the Soft Cell sound.)

Disc #3 consists of new extended mixes of less obvious tracks by Ball that utilize, with rare exception, solely the original master tapes from the era. I didn’t expect to like this disc as much as I did, but I did like it, very much. It also made a lot of sense in the overall sequencing of the set. It might seem like a daft comparison but the way the music is broken down into its component parts and reassembled throughout this entire set reminds me of Yabby You’s Conquering Lion album in the way that the constant repetition of certain themes and phrases start to sound almost like a symphony of sorts. The mixes here sounds “analog” and not like something some smartass did on a laptop.
 

 
Disc #4 is the “curios” collection and includes the early classic “The Girl With the Patent Leather Face” along with things like their incredible “Hendrix Medley” (“Hey Joe”/“Purple Haze”/“Voodoo Chile” done ala Soft Cell will fry your mind) and the harrowing “Martin” based on the George Romero creepy loner vampire film. All of these, and the 7” edit of “Numbers”—AS IF a song based on a John Rechy novel was going to get played on the radio!!!—are included in the playlist below.

Disc #5 collects demos, early punky DIY experiments, some things recorded with MUTE’s Daniel Miller and their first release the Mutant Moments EP.

Disc #6 collects various radio sessions and the strongest tracks from their 2001 reunion album Cruelty Without Beauty. Also included are three additional tracks from those sessions that were not selected for the album, but perhaps should have been. “God Shaped Hole” is one of the best Soft Cell songs, period, so why was it left to languish on an obscure Some Bizarre compilation? (Listen for yourself as it’s included, along with their excellent cover of Frankie Valli’s “The Night,” in the playlist below.)
 

 
Much more after the jump…

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Posted by Richard Metzger
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09.28.2018
04:38 pm
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Discussion
For an unbelievable trove of indie/punk bootlegs from the 1980s, the McKenzie Tapes has you covered
06.19.2018
08:55 am
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Any music fan from the New York City area knows what an important part of the city’s music scene Maxwell’s was, until recently located in Hoboken, New Jersey, directly across the Hudson River from the West Village. Yo La Tengo, the Feelies, and Sonic Youth are three frequently cited bands in connection with Maxwell’s but it was so much more than a regular venue for great local bands. I became familiar with the venue well after its true heyday of the 1980s but I still saw a ton of incredible bands there—the Wrens, Archers of Loaf, the Frames, Bobby Conn, Future of the Left, Os Mutantes, the Unicorns, etc. etc. For decades now, Hoboken has been on an implacable course of gentrification, of course, to the point that scruffy and legendary music venues can’t hack it there anymore. Sadly, Maxwell’s closed its doors for good in 2013.

One of the Maxwell’s employees back in the day was a fellow named David McKenzie, who cleverly recorded a huge number of gigs at the venue (and elsewhere). Recently he entrusted his buddy Tom to get them online in a responsible fashion, and the result is The McKenzie Tapes, a charming blog that features high-quality uploads of McKenzie’s, er, tapes. Every post includes a modest amount of context (just right, a couple of key facts but it’s generally just a paragraph) as well as pictures of the cassette, the ticket, and the show’s listing in the Village Voice, where available. It’s this last bit that has me so fascinated:
 




 
I learned via those listings something I didn’t know, which is that Maxwell’s used to show movies like Fritz the Cat and Los Olvidados and Rumble Fish.

The McKenzie Files covers approximately 1985 through to the early 2000s, and while most of the shows took place at Maxwell’s, you also get a nice cross-section of Manhattan venues of the period such as Brownie’s, Bowery Ballroom, CBGB’s, Irving Plaza, Coney Island High, and so forth. (City Gardens in Trenton also gets represented.) Once in a while you get a true outlier like a show from The Hague in the Netherlands but Dag Nasty at Maxwell’s (1988) is what the blog was constructed to provide.

The mid-1980s was an interesting period during which the grassroots fandom of indie rock had reached a groundswell of sorts (cf. Huskers jumping to Warner Bros.), with some of the no-fi champs from earlier in the decade showing impressive maturation (Sonic Youth). The blog features some incredible documents, such as SY playing a big chunk of Daydream Nation before the album’s release, the Feelies filming a set for a Japanese documentary crew, Frenz Experiment-era Fall, and Pixies right after releasing Surfer Rosa.

I mentioned much of this stuff happened before I was going to shows, so I was dubious I would find any gigs I’d been to, but damn if the blog didn’t deliver. I was present at this Rollins Band show at CBGB’s in early 1990, I positioned myself right at the main monitor and Hard Hank sweated on me for the whole show. To this day I don’t think the Rollins Band ever came close to topping Life Time, which is mostly what they played that night.
 
After the jump, listen to the Butthole Surfers play the Marquee in 1991…....
 

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Posted by Martin Schneider
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06.19.2018
08:55 am
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Discussion
Meet Ensign Broderick: The secret glam rock star who was obscured and unheard—until now
05.31.2018
08:11 am
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Beauty nor Ashes
 
It’s taken a long time, but Jason Sniderman has finally let the world hear glam rocker Ensign Broderick. The Toronto musician created the Broderick persona in the early ‘70s, around the time he started writing songs. He recorded these compositions in his bedroom, rarely playing them for anyone. Sniderman has been in bands—including punky new wave outfit, Blue Peter—and worked as a session musician, all the while leaving his Ensign Broderick recordings to gather dust.

But that’s all changed. Six Shooter Records released Ensign Broderick’s debut, Feast of Panthers, a few months ago, and two new albums, Beauty nor Ashes and Ranger, just came out. His next one, Only Love Remains, is due out on June 15th. There’s an abundance of strong material on the records, which feature glam tracks, new romantic-style synth-pop, string-enriched ballads, and straight-up rockers. His baritone is reminiscent of David Bowie, Scott Walker, Nick Cave, and, notably, Bryan Ferry, but has its own distinct flavor.
 
Ensign Broderick 1
 
The Ensign Broderick albums largely consist of recent recordings, though elements from the original tapes were used. Take the funky glam-soul number, “True Shame,” in which his ‘70s vocal, sax, and guitar parts were all incorporated into the mix.
 

 
Dangerous Minds recently interviewed Ensign Broderick via email.

When did you start writing songs?

Ensign Broderick: I started writing songs when I was ten or eleven. I had been taking classical piano lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music when I was three (tagging along with my brother), but I did not enjoy many aspects of what I was being taught. I really wanted to be a drummer, so to encourage me to practice piano my parents appeased me by buying me a drum kit, piece by piece. E.g. snare drum at Christmas, a cymbal for my next birthday, a bass drum for my next birthday etc. By the time I was seven I had acquired a full kit (which I still have). I practiced drums a lot. Three to four hours per day. Playing along to full sides of the first Jimi Hendrix record, Led Zeppelin, the Who’s Live at Leeds and Who’s Next, and stuff like that. Along the line (at nine or ten), I discovered Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. And then Nicky Hopkins and Leon Russell and Elton John, and realized that piano playing and players were ok too. I also started to play Chopin at piano lessons, and I recognized harmonic structures in serious music, which I could relate to rock and roll. Listening to those players, and having a better understanding of classical music, gave me the inspiration to write songs.

What sort of recording equipment did you use, back in the day?

Ensign Broderick: A cassette deck and sometimes a reel-to-reel. I would bounce tracks so that some of the bedroom recordings would have close to twelve tracks, but really reduced fidelity. All vocals were done through either a Fender Quad or a Tapco mixer.
 
Ensign Broderick 2
 
How did you come to share your archival material with Six Shooter?

Ensign Broderick: I was far too shy to share my stuff with anyone. Very few people had heard it. Even the people who played on it rarely heard finished versions.

I had my stuff on a Soundcloud that I was keeping to myself and Shauna de Cartier (Six Shooter Records) discovered it on her own.

Much more after the jump…

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Posted by Bart Bealmear
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05.31.2018
08:11 am
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Discussion
Tiger Lily Records: The wild story of the tax scam label run by the notorious Morris Levy (Part II)
04.16.2018
11:43 am
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Morris Levy and Tiger Lily
 
Recently, Dangerous Minds shined a light on the shady Tiger Lily Records, the tax shelter label owned and operated by the infamous Morris Levy. We explained that the albums released by the company were meant to lose money, resulting in higher tax breaks for investors. We also told readers about some of the musicians who willingly signed deals with the label. Part two of our Tiger Lily exposé will focus on the artists who were wholly unaware—for decades—that an album of their material was released by the company. In each instance, just a few known copies of each LP are known to exist. Why so few? Well, that’s one of the mysteries surrounding the label, but it’s believed Levy shipped the majority of the Tiger Lily stock to the local landfill.

In record collecting circles, one of the biggest stories in recent years was the eBay listing for one of the rarest and coveted of all the Tiger Lily LPs. The 2014 auction of the album, credited to a little-known group by the name of Stonewall, ended with the winning bid of $14,100 (no, that’s not a typo). Incidentally, the seller found the record at a Goodwill store in New Hampshire; the purchase price there was $1.
 
Stonewall cover
 
Stonewall were a heavy rock quartet from New York City. The band members were Bruce Rapp (lead vocals/harmonica), Bob Dimonte (guitar), Ray Dieneman (bass), and Anthony Assalti (drums). Assalti recently did an in-depth interview with the magazine, It’s Psychedelic Baby, in which many of the unknowns surrounding the band were revealed. As Assalti tells it, in 1972, Stonewall were put in touch with Jimmy Goldstein, the proprietor of a Manhattan recording studio. Goldstein offered the group free studio time, if they’d be willing to record after normal business hours. Before the evening sessions, the Stonewall guys would smoke a ton of hashish, then show up to the studio, where they’d smoke even more with Goldstein. Then, with Goldstein on keyboards, they’d start recording.

Stonewall and Goldstein would jam for hours, then use the best sections as the basis for songs. After half a year of experimenting and recording, Goldstein and the band’s manager took hold of the tapes, telling the group they would shop them around to prospective record companies. Eventually, Goldstein told them there were no takers. The band would soldier on for a period before breaking up.

Years later, after Assalti had relocated to Florida and started a family, he received a phone call from a European collector who had questions about the Stonewall album—which Assalti hadn’t known existed. He was stunned. “It’s kind of sad,” Assalti confessed during the magazine interview last year. “We were four young guys that were ripped off and never got the recognition I believe we deserved.”

Jimmy Goldstein is credited as the copyright holder of the tapes—a strong indicator he was Tiger Lily’s source. The Stonewall LP came out in 1976, the only year the label issued records.
 
Stonewall Side One
 
So, what does a $14,000 record sound like?
 
Find out, after the jump…

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Posted by Bart Bealmear
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04.16.2018
11:43 am
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Discussion
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