Friday, February 11, 2005

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: EEE Wow, eMUSIC

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 11, 2005


It seems like only yesterday that a major question haunting the music industry was whether people would actually spend good American money to download music from the Internet. After all, stodgy old members of My Generation had barely gotten used to the idea of buying their Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt albums on compact discs instead of vinyl, while the Napster generation had become used to getting anything they wanted for free.

But in 2003, Apple’s iTunes proved that the public indeed would pay for music from the Internet. The service has sold gazillions of music downloads for 99 cents a pop. It’s also spawned a whole line of imitators -- Musicmatch and RealRhapsody, prominent among them.

Even Wal-Mart has gotten into the act. For a mere 88 cents you can even buy Sheryl Crow’s “Love is a Good Thing” -- a song that initially got Crow’s 1996 self-titled album banned at Wal-Mart for talking about kids buying guns at the giant chain.

And of course the outlaw Napster, deflated, dismantled and basically destroyed by the music industry and the courts, has been reborn with a new corporate face. It’s all legal now, but good luck finding bizarre gems like Alfred E. Newman’s “It’s a Gas” like you could in the good old days.

Though iTunes remains the most popular, my favorite source of music downloads these days is a fun little service that specializes in independent labels -- eMusic.

eMusic is not as well known as it ought to be, even though it made history in 1999 when it released the very first Internet-only by a well-known musical act -- They Might Be Giants‘, Long Tall Weekend. (Yes, it’s still available.)

One major thing eMusic has going for it is its prices. You can find eMusic faves like Frank Zappa and even a smattering of The Fall at some of the bigger services, but they will cost you three or four times more.

It was the 50-free-downloads trial membership that first attracted me (that offer is still going on). I initially subscribed to the cheap plan -- $9.99 for 40 downloads, though I later switched to the $14.99 for 65 downloads plan. That’s less than a quarter a song. (There’s a more expensive plan -- 90 downloads for $19.99. I’m not there yet.)

In the last 10 months or so, I’ve found a wide array of music here -- from nasty blues songs to emotional and very musical sermons from the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Aretha’s dad); from Steeleye Span to Bollywood extravaganzas; from Bootsy Collins to Billy Joe Shaver; from Keely Smith to Queen Ida.

I've looked, and eMusic is the only place you can download the breathtaking, jazzy funk workout that is the Isaac Hayes At Wattstax album or the alien horror-shocker, proto-electronic music classic Forbidden Planet soundtrack, which might be described as "blip-blop music.

Some of the albums I’ve reviewed in this paper recently -- Frank Black Francis, for instance. and Lynn Anderson’s The Bluegrass Sessions, I downloaded from eMusic.

I’ve also found stuff from rockabilly bizarro Tav Falco, Charles Mingus, country forefather Uncle Dave Macon, The Kinks, Louis Jordan, acoustic maniac Eugene Chadbourne and 16 Horsepower.

Some of my favorite eMusic finds are old blues and hillbilly compilations. The Yazoo/Shanachie label as well as the more obscure Birdman label are well represented on eMusic.

There’s Please Warm My Weiner, a collection of blues tunes dealing with sex, drinking and gambling, featuring the likes of Butterbeans & Susie, Memphis Minnie and Bo Carter; The Roots of Rap, a strange collection of early blues and country in which much of the vocals are spoken rather than sung; and Jim Dickinson’s Field Recordings, AXPCV3, which features rare tracks by blues greats like Sleepy John Estes, Otha Turner and Furry Lewis.

Among my eMusic haul from recent months are several live albums on eMusic’s own label, eMusic Live. There’s fine shows by alternative country stalwarts like Robbie Fulks (which features several tunes that haven’t made it on his “real” albums), The Gourds and The Handsome family. And an exciting 2003 performance by rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson called Alive and Still Kickin'.

eMusic apparently is licensing some of its live album to iTunes. You can find the Gourds, Fulks and Wanda concerts there.

But exclusive to eMusic are a high-energy June 2004 concert album by garage band marvels The Fleshtones and a delightfully reprehensible romp of a 2003 Mojo Nixon show, where his verbal victims include the late Princess Diana and the Bush twins.

So far the only slightly disappointing live set I’ve downloaded from eMusic is Live at Maxwell’s, a show by British garage princess Holly Golightly. Recorded in late November, it just has a flat monotonous sound that doesn’t do her justice. (There’s actually two Golightly live albums available. I haven’t heard Live at the Casbah, recorded about a month earlier.)

My chief complaint about eMusic is that on some concert albums, a few seconds of concert patter counts as a “download.” True, you can skip downloading all these. But for lazy clickers like me it’s far less convenient to have to go through and weed these out instead of just clicking the “Download All” button.

But on the other hand, there are several examples of extremely lengthy tracks that only count as one download. Therefore the 16-minute “Ain’t No Sunshine” from Isaac Hayes At Wattstax or even a 40-minute sermon from Rev. Franklin counts the same as a 16-second wisecrack by The Handsome Family, so I guess it all comes out in the wash.

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