I finally broke down and did it, folks!
I must confess, there was one other pressie that I bought for myself after the Xmas (2016) insanity had passed by besides the book on Morris Levy (O&S #91). After much difficult deliberation over the price, I finally decided, “Wotthehell, wotthehell, as Mehitabel was wont to say”, and went for it! I’m old and cranky, and may not have another opportunity to pick up such an expensive item on sale in my lifetime*. Half off the list price is a bargain in any language!
As a rule of thumb, I have really liked past label-based album collections as an intellectual concept – some of the best packages have been so based and, as such, quite informative. This expensive purchase is way more than just another selected collection from one label. It’s an attempt to document ALL the recordings released by a certain legendary label that bestrode the vernacular music outputs of the 20s and 30s, regardless of “genre”. It must have been a major challenge attempting to gather all the sides that they issued back in the day (as many as possible at this point in time!) for these releases. It isn’t actually “compleat”, which is impossible (but it must be close to damn-it). A valiant effort… and a thankless task, of course, but of Paramount importance to an omnivorous music nerd like myself. It IS the label’s centennial this year, you know! (I’ll see myself out!)
OK, the other day two large and heavy boxes arrived here after being mis-delivered to our neighbor’s house. My son is not exactly accepting of such rare anal purchases by me, questioning the need for such quantity and foolishness, but he has also not gone running screaming for the exits with the arrival these two heavy items. He does wonder from time to time whether or not this stuff can be obtained cheaper elsewhere, and so far – yes or no – I cannot be sure, so good. Now to open up the excessively sized and incredibly well-packed collection of goodies to see what’s there that’s really necessary/neat to have, and what is merely nerdly hipster wankery gap filler. Seemingly, as these packages are the offspring of Jack White (The Red Stripes, The Dead Weather, a.o. bands) in Nashville from his Third Man Records operation, Scott Blakewood of the late John Fahey’s Revenant Records in Austin, TX, and Paramount Records maven Alex van der Tuuk of the Netherlands, it could go either way… or both… at once! Let’s take a look, shall we?
Two big boxes supposedly from The Wisconsin Chair Company (nerdy!), the original owners of Paramount Records from Grafton, WI, sit there in the middle of the floor, daring me to go ahead. The larger of the two (Vol. 1) contains a heavy wooden case that could have contained a portable phonograph in days of yore. The chair company backed into making records when they decided since they were making cabinetry for record players, they should also make records to be played on them; a certain degree of lateral logical thinking, perhaps. (It worked well for Brunswick-Balke-Collender, didn’t it: chairs. or pool tables… what’s the difference?!) Contained therein are: six microgroove LPs with a somewhat biased choice of reissue samples (heavy on the blues, then OTM and jazz) of their first decade (1917-1927) of operation; then, @ 255 pp. and 28×34 cm, a “yuge” book [Paramount – The Rise and Fall: 1917-1927] filled with both adequately detailed history, some hipster self-indulgence, and tons of publicity ephemera (a.o.) from that period of operation. A smaller 28×20 cm “Field Manual” (@ 360 pp) deals as best (and as completely) as possible with artist biographies and discographies for those artists who appeared on Paramount (or its affiliates) during that decade
The slightly lighter in weight Vol. 2, in a polished metal case, is similarly burdened with 6 LPs, the second half of The Rise and Fall: 1928-32 (also @ 255 pp) and a second “Field Manual” volume of 416 pp. to take it all up to the companies demise early in The Great Depression. Each set also has a USB “widget” that contains extreme quantities of visual material to see, and most currently recovered Paramount (and its affiliates) releases for us to hear. It’s way more ”stuff” than any sane individual might want, but it’s great to have it available, nonetheless! “One never know, do one” (to quote Thomas A. Waller) and I have always gone by the dictum that it’s better to have something and not need it than to need it and not have it. A cherry-picker’s paradise, one might say! Can I get an “Amen” to that?!?
Both the large, unwieldy hard-bound books are chock-a-block full of “stuff”, both written and visual – Scott Blakewood seems to be the main perpetrator here of the continuity pieces – that holds one’s attention and is educationally thorough. I’m not sure what kind of anorak this is aimed at… the true collectors will likely have what they want already in some form or another, and the knowledge. There are too many bits of loose ephemera floating around the two sets that sort of get in the way and could get lost. The large books are a bit unwieldy, though well- constructed – not easily read in bed! I’m not sure how often I’ll go back to them having perused to my level of normal desire.
The “Field Manuals” are both exceeding well filled, but not “compleat”… the closest one gets to completeness is the listings of all the series and affiliates that the NYRL produced material for at the end of each manual. Each series is on its own in numerical order near the end of each manual with artist name as on the label, titles paired followed by matrix number. There are a few artists not mentioned who recorded for NYRL labels, whose releases are in all the usual discographies, and who are missing in action here. There are gaps, of course, but not as many as I expected there to be from this point in time, thanks mainly to Alex van der Tuuk and crazy collectors world-wide! Basically, they do what it says on the tin in spite of the gaps.
There are six LPs per set with samples of goodies for easy listening. They are nice, heavy, and generally quiet vinyl pressings, though, with good-to-acceptable sound given the crap quality of even a mint Paramount. Their physical pressing materials (and few are from mint 78s) are cheap, rough, frangible, and noisy, plus they tended to use notoriously old-fashioned recording facilities – their period of using Gennett’s studios probably produced the best results! The six LPs enclosed in each are not labelled as to contents or sequence; you get marbled vinyl with the first half dozen, and lily white vinyl (of course!) with the second. One needs to go into the ends of the “Field Manuals” to find out what goodies are attached thereon. Both sets are numbered by side sequence (1-12) with gold labels; not all that easily read, but readable.
The first set of LPs has sort of an old fashioned wooden record “album” to hold them (that looks home-made), but they do not go in and out easily and it is poorly constructed. There are plastic “sleeves” in the second set, but they are difficult to use in its “accordion” arrangement of slots to contain them. In fact, I’m not sure the holders are meant to be “used” at all, but merely meant to sit there holding the discs and looking hip. Said packaging is cute, but extremely awkward to use in real life (as opposed to still life)! The LPs are also strangely placed in the containers and I’m still attempting to organize them logically and safely away from the Grammy-winning packaging in card sleeves. Awkward.
The choices for inclusion on the LPs are very African American centric, especially with the blues referred to today as “delta”, and especially in the second set. There is an occasional OTM recording present (usually one per LP), and what is there of that ilk is excellent, but blues and jazz are the bulk of the selections, with some black sacred material spread about. That narrows the focus on the label’s history, although that is no doubt the point of entry for the compilers. It’s not what one might call “balanced” – it IS good to hear other than the usual blues suspects, though, if only in small doses.
It does seem that the African American materials are what kept the Paramount alive for as long as it lasted. Those folks in WI really hadn’t a clue (who did!) and took many chances, and lucking out enough times to stay in business. The Great Depression put the kibosh on it all, though. The sound quality is generally decent and the LPs are made from seriously heavy-duty vinyl (Jack White’s pressing plant?), but an inevitable but occasional “click” or “pop” does crop up.
Then there are the USB sticks/“widgets” (they refer to them as a “Jobber-Luxe” as if they were Paramount salespeople aids!) that vastly open up the exploration of the musical and visual possibilities greatly. Each set has 800 (!!!) selections on their USB stick, plus large amounts of “paper work” ephemera reproduced to go along with the whole project. Mind-boggling for this aging quasi-Luddite! Hell, I could never figure how Contadina got eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can in the past!!** I just have to accept the fact that they are telling the truth.
PETER B. LOWRY Sydney 2018
*The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records: Vol.1 and Vol.2 – two books, six LPs, one “widget” each in Grammy-winning packaging from Third Man Records (Nashville)
** Stan Freberg advertising in my youth.