Hacktone Records: Packaged Goods
There's a moment on Arthur Alexander's Lonely Just Like Me: The Final Chapter, the Hacktone label's current release, that not only captures the late country soul man's singular plaintive simplicity, but also provides an elegiac summation of his brilliant, trouble-hobbled career. It's a hotel-room demo of boozy lament, "Genie in the Jug," just Alexander and a guitar, delivering the half-doomed, half-whimsical lyric with the earnest, ingenuous and direct manner that always distinguished his work. But given the realization of his circumstance — on the verge of a potentially Orbisonesque comeback yet not far from his own premature date with the Reaper — that lends the song both a tender aesthetic delicacy and a grim psychic subtext that is tremendously affecting.
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Alexander may be the only guy, living or dead, whose songs were recorded by George Jones, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, but his music survives only within a tiny cult, and if not for the Venice-based indie Hacktone's scrupulously researched and assembled CD, the demo would never have been heard at all. That label heads David Gorman and Michael Nieves took the time and effort to dig up — and release — such a rare shard of deep-inside beauty is, in the current music-business climate, downright aberrant — almost (gasp) altruistic. "I guess, in many respects, that starting a label in 2005 wasn't the most prescient act," acknowledges Nieves. "But David and I run businesses apart from Hacktone, so we can make real money while we make a go of it here. And we feel we have a unique twist and perspective with the label, so it's a relatively unique setup — clearly, we're not in it to get rich." David Gorman is more succinct: "We don't put anything out unless it's something we're obsessed with as fans."
Lonely Just Like Me is the latest shot fired in the label's drastically improbable three-year campaign against mediocrity; Hacktone began with a far more audacious assault, reissuing outlaw country cross-dresser and ex-convict David Allan Coe's sociopathic, venal Penitentiary Blues, a bruising, hard-blues set that hasn't been for available for 30 years. It sold more than 10,000 copies.* Thus emboldened, Hacktone proceeded to curve off into a series of offbeat rarities and original sets from former Jayhawk Mark Olson, U.K. groove oddball Lewis Taylor and Los Angeles R&B crooner Sterling Harrison. It's a weird, engaging catalog, and Hacktone's appeal is hardly limited to its choice of artists.
Each release is afforded a deluxe package, artful presentations lavished with original flourishes — cut-out frame sleeves, "hardbound" with a booklike paper jacket, scrapbook snapshots, fastened with old-timey government liquor-tax seals — the Hacktone catalog is a lively stack, inside and out. "Everyone's got their own sort of gloom-and-doom scenario as to why and how the industry fucked up," explains design guru Gorman. "A big part of it is packaging, and that they've cheapened physical goods so much that it's not worth owning. If you look back, every time the business got in trouble, whether the late '70s or now, the first thing they do is cut back on packaging. With Hacktone, it's a good way to create something special, in the way we always wanted to. If someone's going to go into a store and put their money down, you want to give them that sense of wow when they crack the thing open, and we're pretty fuckin' proud of what we've done so far — haven't had to release anything for a quick buck — and we stand behind all these records."
This pair of slightly crazed cats, who both began at the reissue-visionary indie Rhino in the early '90s, are constantly expanding the Hacktone horizon. Upcoming releases defy expectations, and include a reissue of jazz crooner Billy Eckstine's long-lost Motown album and a brand-new set from Japanese pop adventurers Love Pyschedelico. Gorman and Nieves' approach is a closely held, personal one: "It was through listening to Arthur Alexander's record, and loving it, that we brought in Ben Vaughn, who originally produced it, and also had him produce the Mark Olsen album," explains Nieves. "And David was friends with Sterling Harrison, a guy right on the cusp of being as successful as the Bobby Blands or Johnnie Taylors, but it didn't go it his way for myriad reasons that weren't necessarily his fault. That's the nature of the beast, but we feel it was important he be heard."
In some ways, Hacktone seems an almost spiritual venture. "So much great music gets lost. There are all those albums that people got excited about, but ended up tanking," Gorman says, "so we give them another shot. They may have failed for a hundred reasons, but the music isn't one of them. That's our clumsy little quest. The real challenge is trying to find stores that'll still carry the stuff."
*Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that David Allan Coe's Penitentiary Blues sold 100,000 copies. it actually sold more than 10,000.
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