Saturday, December 31, 2005
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Good god. At the request of Lefty, I broke out my copy of Ice Cream For Crow to present "Ink Mathematics" to the peoples. The Captain and his Magic Band do angular, they do free, they do poetic, they do crazy. They do advanced calculus and abacus action. Quantum. I remember being in junior high school, driving around "partying," and making requests to one of the local college stations to play "Tropical Hot Dog Night" off of Bat-Chain Puller, which was recently re-issued on disc. This is another one that was once difficult to find on disc, though I think that problem has been remedied of late. I know it rarely makes anyone’s list of favorites by the Captain, but if I had to pick, I think Ice Cream For Crow, his last (after which he packed it in, big time, retiring to the Mojave desert to paint), is the Beefheart record I like best. I remember the Captain making an appearance on the David Letterman show at about this time. He sipped from a bottle of Perrier that he held in a crumpled paper bag. Letterman asked about his name and Beefheart said something about the fact that they clip the beaks off of penguins at the San Diego Zoo. "I’m beefing my heart to the people," he told Dave. They showed a clip from the video ( !) for "Ice Cream For Crow." Moris Tepper, who went on to play with Frank Black and Tom Waits, plays on this record, as does one-time Red Hot Chili Pepper drummer and film scorer Cliff Martinez. Gary Lucas plays on it as well. Lucas still plays Beefheart music in tribute form. I saw Lucas in Hartford a few years back performing duets with Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen, who I first heard on WFMU years ago. The two did Chinese pop songs from the 1930s (check out "Please Allow Me to Look at You Again" from The Edge of Heaven). If you’ve never heard Min Xiao-Fen play from the classical pipa repertory, "Ambush From All Sides" is a blistering Jimmy Page-esque conjuring of the flying arrows of battle.
One of my favorite lyrics is from the Rogers and Hart song, "Mountain Greenery." Bing Crosby does a beautiful version. Here are the lyrics:
On the first of May
This is moving day
Spring is here, so blow your job-
throw your job away
Now's the time to trust
To your wanderlust
In the city's dust you wait
Must you wait?
Just you wait ...
I can't wait! But ... wait for what? What happens next?
Well, think of it: You've thrown your job away. You've headed to the Mountain Greenery. Now you're wandering. You're getting fresh air, clearing your head, breathing deep, examining the flora and fauna. Then maybe one day you're alone in the woods, miles and hours and many leaf-trodding foot-steps from the CNN-addled world. As Bob Marley sang, There’s a natural mystic blowing through the air; If you listen carefully now you will hear.
And then you hear it.
Little Wings, aka Kyle Field, heard it. And now he's singing it. His is the music of one man gone off the reservation for good: a rustic surfer poet -- three-quarters Walt Whitman, one quarter Jeff Spicoli -- who is tapping the mystic American folkways piped to us through Harry Smith's 78's.
"So What?" from the album Magic Wand, is a rambling piano meditation on the fatalism inherent in the mountain greenery lifestyle. It's gorgeous, lush and tricky. Tricky? In this ironic/post-ironic see-saw world, nothing is as it appears, just as it never was.
Like Charlie Poole and Bascom Lamar before him, Little Wings is both a weird folk specimen found like a rare and exquisite sea shell on the beach -- and a self-mythologizing artist with a Barnum & Bailey wink. On the one hand, Kyle Fields can, with the help of a game reporter for Arthur magazine, construct a fake hippie persona and language, pretend to live in a paper tee-pee on a beach near Malibu and sport fake Indian clothing for photographers. (This he did. His surf-mystic greeting to the reporter upon meeting him: "Grow.") On the other hand, he's also a true visionary artist with real-life visions.
His flip lyricism -- these lines that seem tossed off as part of a quasi-homeless jibber-jabber -- is, upon examination, careful, deft, deep. It's poetry: Before the land came, after an ice age, favorite songs grew from smokey young rock caves.
He knows what you're thinking. Is this bullshit? And in a single all-encompassing and somehow weirdly life-affirming reply, he answers every possible question you may have about his meaning, motive, authenticity and origin: So what?
Okay, I quit.
Sunday, December 25, 2005
I promise I’m not going to talk about the genius of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. I’ll try not to talk about their great body of work and their personal drama. I’m not going to talk too much about the Pet Sounds/Smile era, or the fun-loving early hits. Because really, those things have been held up to the light quite a bit lately.
Instead I just want to talk about one song called “Lonely Sea.” I first found this song on Mrs. West’s vinyl copy of the “Surfin’ USA” LP. I remember being shocked it wasn’t included on the otherwise fine “Good Vibrations: 30 Years of the Beach Boys” box set. I was shocked because it’s such a great song, and it seemed so ahead of its time. It has to be the very first really sad B. Wilson song.
It was written by Wilson and Gary Usher and recorded in June of 1962 for the 2nd Beach Boys album. If you just casually put on the LP you might miss it, because it’s surrounded by the more upbeat surf and car numbers. When you first hear “Lonely Sea” you might pick up on the Elvis Presley style talk-singing in the middle of the song. You may then notice Phil Spector’s influence on the composers. But once you listen again and really get it, you’ll hear all the emotional weight and beauty Brian would carry through Pet Sounds and beyond.
I promise you this is the perfect song to listen to if ever you find yourself somewhere near Hawthorne, CA, in the middle of the night, and you can’t sleep because something has gone wrong in your life. You might get in your car and drive down the coast a bit. You park in a beach parking lot overlooking the water, but you can’t really see the ocean on this moonless night. You just hear the hush of the surf, smell the salty air, and listen as the first slow guitar arpeggios of the song roll out from your car stereo, out into the blackness.
Friday, December 23, 2005
If forced to issue a decision on whether humor in music is a good thing, I’d probably have to rule against it, as a general principle. My immediate funny-music association is with Frank Zappa, Spike Jones and Weird Al, all of whom I like a little, but none of whom I want to listen to at length. Gag fatigue sets in. Maybe it's just easier to believe someone whose apparent motivation is to bring you into the psychic hole that they're in, to drag you down, to make you miserable, than it is someone who's working to elicit a laugh. (When I really think about it, I find some of my favorite music to be funny – Bob Dylan, Sun Ra, Raymond Scott, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Joanna Newsom, George Jones, James Brown, the Louvin Brothers and Biz Markie. I chuckle now and again when listening to all of them.)
But Swamp Dogg forces me to reconsider my hardline position. This shit is definitely funny. But he's got the un-P.C. cantankerousness of Merle Haggard. There's an apocalyptic Gil Scott Heron edge, too. And Swamp Dogg has a voice that sounds a little like Cher’s. This is absurdist southern soul (he's from Virginia). The Oxford American featured Swamp Dogg in one of the greatest of their usually very good music issues (2003, it included the definitive, if a little indulgent, meditation on My Morning Jacket by William Bowers and an excellent piece on Esther Phillips [who actually joins Swamp Dogg on one of the other tunes off of this record]). Granted, there's a whiff of beach music to "It's Just a Little Time Left." And after about minute two of the five-minute song, things do go down hill. The "Revely" vamp could be pared down at length. And, yes, that is a Clarence Clemons-esque horn solo you'll have to wade through. You may even suffer from visions of G. E. Smith. Still, I think you'll be glad. Swamp Dogg's gonna tackle race relations, drug abuse, bad baby formula, crime, the welfare state, nuclear waste, and El Salvador -- all before the poopy ending.
Monday, December 19, 2005
"I Want to Be With You," I can easily imagine I wore a powder-blue tuxedo to my prom in Cleveland in 1972, driving a car that was about 17 feet long.
Oh what a night!
The fact is, however, I was only one year old at the time and they didn't make tuxedoes that small. But it speaks to the power of the Raspberries--so lofty and lush with pop aspiration and divinely naive about how uncool it was to sound like 1963 in 1972. Chalk it up to Cleveland, city of outdated dreams.
Listening to Fresh Raspberries, the first album, you can hear the unstable seeds of a breakup right away--three different band members taking turns singing, each giddy with the belief that they're going to, um, go all the way, with the unlikely pairing of Wally Bryson's Zep power chords and Eric Carmen's Frankie Vallie vocals ever threatening to spin out of control. But the center held, if only for a berry, berry brief moment. And Eric Carmen put up with his less talented cohorts just long enough to make the best music he would ever make.
As is mandated by Rock History, they were eventually torn assunder by ego battles, with Carmen going on to make the Top 40 cheese for which he was destined ("Almost Paradise" from Footloose comes to mind). The rest drifted off into obscurity. But before some record company convinced them to streamline their sound and format exclusively for hawd rawk, they lighted the way to a future full of the ahistorical pop hybrids, from The Romantics to The New Pornographers. Only the Raspberries didn't call it ahistorical pop hybrid-ism, they called it Cleveland.
Friday, December 16, 2005
I don’t want to offend any Blondie fans out here in Blogland. I love Blondie. However, the definitive version of “Hanging On The Telephone” was originally done by an LA band called the Nerves in 1976. Listen now as the stalker-level desperation in the vocals, the nervous 1/8th notes on bass, the hooky, trebly lead guitar and the demo-quality snap of drums all come together in biting pre-low-fi brilliance. They sound like a band struggling mightily with both their recording budget and their girlfriends. This is reaching-the-end-of-your-rope music.
Clad in powder-colored 3-piece suits, the Nerves were an edgy, raw new spin on well-dressed pop. “Telephone” was written and sung by Jack Lee, who was the emotional standout, the Lennon if you will, of this trio of songwriters. He would later put out a debut album called “Jack Lee’s Greatest Hits, Vol. I.” Damn right! In the McCartney slot is Peter Case, showcased here with the moody “When You Find Out.” It's as if Beatles For Sale were a 70's release. Case would later lead the equally brilliant Plimsouls and go solo. Third place goes to Paul Collins, who also had a band (called the Beat) and a solo career too.
Even in the bitter end, the Nerves were defined by struggle, as Case explains in the book We Got The Neutron Bomb: “Right before the Nerves broke up, we got these really stupid matching suits. I was drunk out of my mind and we got into a big fight in the dressing room at the Masque and we just told each other to fuck off and basically that was it for the Nerves.”
Thursday, December 15, 2005
Credit and thanks goes to my knowledgeable colleague and friend Alan Bisbort, who got me interested in the Beau Brummels after he wrote a piece about great underappreciated albums a few years back, in which he bathed the BBs in praise. Recently he dropped a stack of rare vinyl on my desk, including several Lindesfarne records, Beau Brummels, Pearls Before Swine and other musty gems. In a recent issue of Mojo, the Beau Brummels' Nashville record, Bradley’s Barn, was singled out as a lost classic and compared to all kinds of great things. As it happened, the write-up started me on the lookout for an Everly Brothers record called "Roots," described as something of a return to their country heritage. I picked up a copy of "Roots" in Amherst recently on a vinyl binge with Lefty and Dewey Dell. When I got home and listened to it, in addition to their excellent version of Merle Haggard’s wonderful deathrow nostalgia lament "Sing Me Back Home,"a track called "Turn Around" immediately won me over. When I pop on Bisbort’s copy of Bradley’s Barn, what’s the first song? "Turn Around," which is an original BB number penned by Ron Elliot. For evaluation, here are both the Everly’s and the BB’s verion of "Turn Around."
The Beau Brummels are credited with a lot of pioneering moves and near firsts. In 1964, they were ahead of the curve in emulating the Beatles and Brit invasion bands. Their high harmonies and harpsichord-heavy production pointed the way toward San Fran psychedelia. And the BBs got all country-rock before it was the thing to do.
The Beau Brummels record Triangle got me thinking. I spelled out a dictate -- a rock and roll fatwa -- in the Iron Butterfly posting, namely that more bands should have their own theme songs. Here’s another pronouncement: more songwriters should be writing tunes about geometry. And specifically about two-dimensional shapes. As evidence of the good that comes of it, here’s Linda Perhacs’ "Parallelograms," from the 70s record of that name. And also the BB’s "Triangle." I’m pretty sure someone’s written a tune called "Octagon," but I’m not gonna look into it at the moment because I feel inspired to go pen a song called "Rhombus."
Monday, December 12, 2005
I love this guy.
Without hyperbole or undue overstatement, it can be safely said that Roy Wood is a mistunderstood genius. Yes. You can argue the merits of The Move or Electric Light Orchestra, the two bands Wood cofounded with Jeff Lynne--I happen to love both. Theirs was a dream of 1950s rock & roll in baroque, the ornate and leafy Corinthian column period. Decadent, yes, but never willing to fully abandon pop for prog, choosing instead to interpret progress as a kind of classical classicism--Beethoven rolling over for Chuck Berry rolling over for Beethoven rolling over for Chuck Berry, ad infinitum.
Ulysses Adrian Wood is a weirdo I can stand behind. The true joy of the man is his endlessly naive ambition, a high romantic belief that rock and roll can somehow leap the heathrows of history and touch the hem of Ludwig and Lord Byron by finding the circuitous route from Memphis to a foggy British pastoral. What's wonderful is he's like a backwoods outsider artist, a visionary willing to sauter on everything from heavy metal to banjo to Rio de Janeiro party rhythms to get where he's going. "You Can Dance Your Rock and Roll," from 1973's Wizzard Brew, is a great example of his overweening sonic pride: he plays every single instrument and overproduces the song so heavily, it nearly implodes under the weight of the multitracks that eventually bleed into one big amorphous rock and roll super-blob. I love it!
But he's tender too. Listen to "Song of Praise," the opener from his finest effort, 1973's Boulders. There's nothing quite like high gospel praise to Jesus than that which is literally sung high--in this case, with backup singers singing in the helium soprano of Alvin & the Chipmunks. Sings Wood and his chipmunks, As long as you believe (I do believe)/You must believe./Capture every word I say.
And I believe Roy believes. And therefore, I believe in Roy.
Saturday, December 10, 2005
Smell that? That’s Ron Wood soup cooking. Go ahead, taste it. Let me check the kitchen timer. Yes, it’s 1974 and it’s just about done. I’ll have some too. You like the chunks of Rod Stewart in there? Mmm and dig the Ian McLagan flavor. Yeah, there’s some Keith Richards and Mick Jagger chunks too. Is that the exotic spice of some Jeff Beck prog fusion in there too? I like those funky effects pedal flavorings. Yes, that is a bit of George Harrison mysticism and compassion you taste. Mmm, I can still taste a hint of the Creation seasoning. Wait, don’t eat it too fast. Enjoy the slow masterful tempos. There are simply great songs in here. Bands like Son Volt will reheat some of this in about 20 years. J. Mascis will say it’s one of his favorite meals. But for now try not to think about how this big hearty bowl of Ron Wood soup was just a side dish earlier in the Faces, or later just a side dish in the Stones, because for the moment it’s 1974 and it’s the main course. Delicious.
Thursday, December 08, 2005
The odd thing is that there's an Iron Butterfly's Greatest Hits disc out there. How many Iron Butterfly hits can you name? One. You don't often hear very many Iron Butterfly "rock blocks" or even "two-fers" on classic rock radio, and that's because the only Iron Butterfly song that ever gets played on the radio is -- you know. So the creation of a greatest hits disc seems a little unrealistic. But what really smarts is the fact that of the 21 tracks on there, "Lonely Boy" (off of the record called, simply, Ball) didn't make the cut. This song is like Olduvai Gorge and Lucy for a certain branch of rock and roll DNA. Listen to the weird affected palpitating man-flutter of the vocals. It's as if singer Doug Ingle is trying to sing through a whirring fan, emitting little chopped-up bits of the phrase. The stop-action sound is like the vocal equivalent of a strobe effect. There's that, which reminds me most of all of Aaron Neville or Otis Redding. It's acid-damaged blue-eyed soul. But then there's the fake-gruff, tuck-your-chin-into-your-neck-curl-the-lips-and-sing-from-your-gums technique. Draw a line from "Lonely Boy" to Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and from there extrapolate to Creed's Scott Stapp and a million other moaning and groaning head shakers. "In the Time of Our Lives," also off of Ball, did make it onto the greatest hits collection.
Iron Butterfly evidently hung out in the same L.A. scene as Love and Buffalo Springfield. You get the feeling that Kahlil Gibran, Charles Manson and J.S. Bach were equally influential on the sound. Other things to love about Iron Butterfly: the bone-headed stoner oxymoron; and the fact that they have a song called "Iron Butterfly Theme" - way more bands need theme songs. And then there’s the conspiracy theories about the vanishing of their bass player.
In 1999 Maxim magazine ran a really long story about the 1995 disappearance and suspicious death of Philip Taylor Kramer, who played bass in a mid-70s incarnation of IB. There are some fantastic paranoid conspiracy theories involving travel at light speed, aliens, nuclear missiles and the Defense Department.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Help me get in touch with the man who can make me dream again. You know who she is talking about. Silver and shining. It seemed only a matter of time here before the son of God dropped by the Driftwoods. This beauty, was recorded in 1975 on Joan Armatrading’s phenomenal Back to the Night album.
Born in the West Indies but raised in gritty Birmingham, England, Armatrading works the opposites. She’s been backed by Little Feat, Fairport Convention, XTC and the E Street Band. Roars met by whispers as in No Love For Free, the story of the prostitute who doesn’t want to be saved. Every passing hello how are you, you want to know his name. But just because you were there when I needed a shoulder you think I’ll take your name? I love for money. Armatrading has plenty of bigger, brassier numbers, some even reggae inflected but I am a sucker for the sad, slow ones where she wears her soul on her sleeve.
Thursday, December 01, 2005
It’s been noted that some of the main culinary markers of civilization - cheese, wine and bread - are all the result of controlled spoilage. You know, yeast, curdling, all that. Well, with respect to the music of David Gates and Bread, there’s definitely plenty of evidence of both too much control and too much spoilage. Bread was probably the softest of soft rock. Way more soft than rock. Staff of life, emphasis on staff. All the connotations of half-baked yeastiness, sponginess and crustiness apply. Most definitely made from dough. I can’t really figure out how to get around offering up two tracks. “London Bridge” has some surprising Moog eruptions toward the end, and “Look What You Done” is just all pillowy and powdered. Bread makes the Eagles sound raw. But then. But then. There’s simply something subversive about music this neutered (the fact that the guys from Ween have gone on record as being big Bread fans sort of speaks to the transgressive nature, compare the Ween bros.’ very loaf-like “Chocolate Town”).
Trying to meditate on the sound of Bread and what it means, what it points to, spurred this disturbing Borgesian simile: Bread is like a mustache and the opposite of a mustache.
I seem to remember reading that Glen Campbell in his autobiography mentioned that he worked with Gates early on their careers, maybe before they both got to the West Coast. The key to understanding David Gates, it seems to me - the same key to understanding the Flaming Lips and the Five Americans - is Oklahoma. (Campbell is from Arkansas, but you get the idea)
You may be familiar with the Five Americans and their 1967 hit “Western Union,” with its clever little Morse-code riff. They sort of decided that “communication” would be their gimmick and theme, I think. They went on to do a track called “Zip Code” and one called “No Communication.” People had more ideas and feelings to express to one another back then. This one’s called “Reality.” For all you reality-based readers. There’s something very problematic about the Five Americans. For one, the wobbly harmonies make you realize just how much they were not Buffalo Springfield. And the band’s look qualifies as disturbing, I think. There’s a lot of blondness, unfortunate hip-huggers and blank, blank stares. The guys remind me of the kind of master-race labotomized humanoids you’d see on a dystopian episode of Star Trek. Beautiful, but horribly empty. Maybe violent. I believe I’ve mentioned my Melanie-hating office mate. He cannot tolerate the Five Americans either. You be the judge.
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
The group, usually known simply as Hawk, featured a white guy named Dave Ornellas, who started out as a typical 60s-style hirsute folk-rocker but came under the influence of black South African jazz group Malombo. He hooked up with a black African drummer named Braam Malherbe and they were off the races, so to speak. From what I can make out from this convoluted history of the South African record industry in the early 70s, a bunch of caucasian rockers like Ornellas started mixing it up with black African musicians, formed all manner of fusion acts, but found themselves internationally isolated during the rock rennaissance because of Apartheid. Clive Calder, the multi-zillionaire record kingpin who brought us Britney Spears and N'Sync, tried to make a go of these bands as a scout for EMI (he's from Jo'burg), but I guess they didn't have the Magic Kingdom dance moves. Leave it to The Famous Charisma Label to throw Hawk a bone on a late '70s compilation LP.
The album African Day, excerpts of which can be heard here, is a concept album about a rogue elephant on a stampede. Apparently it's a traditional African folk tale told in prog rock, an idea so bad I may have to order if from eBay immediately. Jo'Burg Hawk were avant-earnest, but I guess the racist government situation required some visionary thinking. In an interview, Ornellas says, "We were listening to a lot of Hugh Tracey tapes – the expert Afro-musicologist who had travelled Africa placing sounds and music on tape for posterity...We went to Swaziland and came back with our own sounds, drums and a burning desire to make our own brand of African music. From all of this came African Day."
The guy also beat Dylan to the punch by wearing whiteface. Check it out.
The big kahuna of the So-Af rock scene was a dude named Ramsay MacKay, who many apparently consider "the tortured genius of South African rock" and the father of something called "Bushrock." Mackay, who fronted bands called Freedom's Children and Wildebeest (!), actually wrote the song "Orang Outang," which fans seem to spare no amount of hot air in calling "the finest anthem to Africa ever written." I don't know if that's true, but the pre-Rock-the-Casbah safari-rock look these guys are sporting is compelling evidence of some sort of genius.
I'm kind of proud of these guys for being simultaneously progressive, fashion-forward and weirdly inappropriate. "Orang Outang"? Write what you know, I guess. Also: One suspects that Jo'Burg Hawk & co. are to blame for the Putumayo World Music/Johnny Clegg-and-Savuko onslaught that oppressed white people in the 1990s. Please discuss.
Monday, November 28, 2005
Then nothing like the pure soprano of Joan Baez to divorce the capitalism from Christmas. This one is a Yuletide miracle. On Noël (1966), she steps away from the folk world momentarily, lining her medieval manse with cello, recorder, viola, lute, flute and harpsichord accompaniments. This is a land far, far away from any meat packing district. Plus she sings in both French and German! The whole album is a gem as she makes some unusual choices: Coventry Carol, Down in Yon Forest and the Catalan Carol of the Birds.
Heading back towards town (sometime selling out can sound so good as evidenced by Barbra Streisand’s O Little Town of Bethlehem on The Many Moods of Christmas, a disc produced by CBS for the Goodyear Tire company in 1973) I enjoy Glen Campbell’s There’s No Place Like Home — part of a compilation called the odd, simple, nearly stupid title Christmas America, a gift from the other tire company Firestone. It’s a schmaltzy tune that reminds me of pecking out The Impossible Dream on my grandmother’s See It and Play It electric organ but Glen’s vocals are as studio smooth as ever. Curiously enough (or perhaps not so) according to allmusic.com the majority of GC’s re-releases since 1991 have been Christmas samplers.
Sunday, November 27, 2005
And this next one may not even be available on CD. Not sure. Originally released on a record called "Africa - Music of the Princes of Dahomey" on the Counterpoint/Esoteric branch of Everest Records, this track features the brothers Alberic and Frederic Glele singing out the components of the rhythm, "Niegpadoudou," which is performed as part of a festival to honor the ancient kings of Dahomey. This is, as they say, "strictly for demonstration purposes." The brothers are singing out the patterns of the rhythm; it’s not a performance, but rather more of a teaching example. Still pretty funky. Something like the solkattu of South Indian music.
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
With the music press going all foam-mouthed about the long-lost psychedelic folksters coming out of country cabin seclusion to revive forgotten careers 30 years after the first go-round, it must suck a little to be someone like Donovan (although by all accounts the guy, in his new memoir, is still capable of taking credit for everything from introducing jazz and Indian music to rock, and teaching the Beatles how to play guitar). If you haven’t been invisible for a generation, then no one really wants to hear from you. I never did listen to the copy of the recent Donovan record that sat on my desk for a few months. Though Donovan does get mentioned a lot with respect to the start-a-commune vibe of Devendra Banhart and the tea-sipping sounds of Belle and Sebastian.
But what of the likes of Melanie and Buffy St. Marie? They both employ a frantic vibrato, a quivering diaphragm that borders on the hysterical (is that wrong?). But it’s the unhinged quality of their singing that makes the two ripe for reconsideration. I’ve been preaching the spotty gospel of Mel and Buffy for a while, and I apologize if you’ve already had these shoved down your throat.
I’m pretty sure that Melanie’s train is about to come back into the station. She just released a record recently (the first in quite a while). I think she’s living in the Woodstock area, playing with her son (there was a biggish profile on her in Relix). I remember hearing a sloppy cover of “Lay Down Candles” by the Strapping Field Hands years back, and I’ve read that Will Oldham (and maybe Tortoise) is working on a cover of one of her tunes. And now that Biff Rose is all of a sudden being deemed acceptable, Melanie (a labelmate, I believe) is bound to get hers. Melanie was rocking that weird keening eastern European polytonality long before the Bulgarian Women’s Choir became standard listening at every feminist bookstore/café in the 90s. I know that a lot of people simply can’t tolerate this stuff. I have a fairly open-eared office mate who draws the line at Melanie, though he’s recently come around to Joanna Newsom. My mother-in-law, who used to listen to the Fuggs when she was in school in the late 60s, always wrinkles her nose at Melanie, saying that it was square. A bubblegumster hippie wannabe. The “Roller Skate Song” is pretty much what cemented the case against Melanie. But I present “Steppin’” to you in her defense. The lines “I’m glad to be laughin’/It’s a good way to die” leaves me puzzled and amazed every time.
And as a bonus, check out “Some Say (I Got Devil),” which reminds me of the fake Mexican cantina/gypsy strains of “One More Cup of Coffee.” But to continue the semiotic indie rock antecedents thread, I say that Perry Farrell sounds most like Melanie.
A few things need to be said about Buffy St. Marie. She was married to arranger/producer and Neil Young Brian Wilson collaborator Jack Nitzche. She wrote “Universal Soldier,” one of the greatest protest songs ever, but not her greatest. For that, listen to “Moratorium,” from She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina, on which she’s backed by Crazy Horse. Buffy is Canadian, which brings with it special powers and dispensations. What’s more, she’s like part Cree Indian. She was a regular on Sesame St. She wrote “Up Where We Belong” (don’t blame her). The thing is. There’s a lot of bad Buffy to sort through, there’s over folkified BSM and there’s even Nashville BSM (don’t do it - it’s not what you think and hope). The only disc I can recommend is She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina, which also includes a noteworthy version of Neil’s “Helpless” along with a Leonard Cohen tune, Buffy originals and more. I'm fond of the ragged edge of the title track.
Monday, November 21, 2005
A voice this pure demands that we surrender our cold, ironic hearts to beauty, to boogie shadows in the moonlight, to mama now it’s all right. Love has found it’s earthly embodiment in Murray’s rich alto. This one here might be my all time favorite.
Springhill, Nova Scotia, a town known primarily for a series of grisly mining disasters, is now proud home to the Anne Murray Cultural Center. The first diorama contains a number of the singing snowbird’s track suits, remnants of an early, abandoned career in Physical Education! These outfits alone were well worth the 22-hour drive Lefty and I took there in pilgrimage two summers ago.
P.S. Lefty has a theory that this Glen Campbell/Anne Murray duet is the very first mash-up.
This won't be the last post on Lefty's favorite obscure genius Bill Fox, so let's get started. The Mice were a great late-80s power-pop group from Cleveland, propelled by Fox's firey earnestness and Reagan-era bitterness, and elevated to melodic nirvana by giddy pop hooks and interesting left-turn chord changes. At the heart of it is the yearning, heart-on-sleeve voice and the insular naivite that would make his later lo-fi folk approach so haunting. He made two brilliant solo albums on the SpinArt label and then dropped off the map after '98, much to my sadness.
Start with "Not Proud of the USA" to get a raw taste. Then this: The Mice were probably the only band in history to produce a rousing rock anthem about PBS. It's called "Public Television," and it's quite timely:
The White House calls it a communist threat
But they ain't seen the last of it yet
Cuz i got this goddamned cerebral contraction
And i can't get no satisfaction, I need ... PUBLIC TELEVISION!
Let it rock, people. In the above photo, Fox is the guy in the chapeau and that's his brother Tommy (the drummer) with the Love and Rockets hair cut. P.S.: Go ahead and buy Bill Fox's solo albums. You'll be doing yourself a big favor. Tragic high-lonesome gems, straight outa Ohio, yo.
Update: Here's a sample from Bill Fox's second solo outing, Transit Byzantium. "My Baby Crying" is one of my faves: A lilting folk melody sung in a voice that sounds like it was recorded on reel-to-reel in a horribly lonely motel room in the dead of February. Don't miss the exquisite harmonic filigree when Fox sings, I'm in despair, I hear it like a trumpet everywhere...
All props to Mrs. Lefty for turning Lefty on to Bill Fox.
Saturday, November 19, 2005
Anytime a rock band with high-art ambitions (and/or fruitfully delusion-inducing drug problems) gets the chance to pen a horn chart or a string arrangement, the chances increase of lucky clutter, outsider art dissonant weirdness and unintentional brilliance. Writing for violas and clarinets can be tricky business. All those confounding clefs and key signatures. Here are what you might call two late-60s failed attempts at adding horns and/or strings to things. Except that there’s no success like failure.
The 13th Floor Elevators are often credited with pioneering psychedelic music. Janis Joplin wanted to join up. When asked by Dick Clark who was the head of the group, frontman Roky Erickson allegedly said “We’re all heads.” Some fans of the jug-tooting proto-psychos from Texas seem to look with scorn on Bull of the Woods as being one of the band’s weaker efforts. Maybe because of the absence of the DIY-oscillating burble of the jug-tooter. I'm especially fond of it because of the burlap background on the cover. On "Dr. Doom" the wrong things go very right. If play-four-Beethoven-sonatas-at-once composer Henry Brandt was a beard-monger this is what he’d have come up with.
And then there's the Left Banke, one of many bands billed as "America’s answer to the Beatles." Before the advent of the term chamber pop, this was called "baroque and roll." Taxonomy is a dangerous business. You may be familiar with LB’s "Just Walk Away Renee" or the spooky "Pretty Ballerina." I don’t think you’ll stumble on any of their other tunes on oldies radio. Evidently there was some deep Mick-Keith-Marianne -like inter-band romance angst, with one of songwriters penning love songs to one of the other guy’s girlfriends. Not cool.
On "Ivy,Ivy" what's even more troubling than the horn arrangement is the strangled, fighting-for-air, accidentally shamanic, high vocal harmony.
I wanted to try and get the head out of the history books breifly and point toward the now.
Here's a link to a tune by Mazarin; it's great, very Eno-ish, with just enough fake Britishisms.
Also, wanted to recommend Colleen. Click on "sounds" and you can listen to both of her records. She's French, ambient but not cold.
It's 3 AM and I can't tell if I've seen the "Clear White Light" or gone completely bonkers. But I think I just fell madly in love with '70s folk group Lindisfarne.
On the one hand, this particular song fits cleanly into Mr. Poncho's '70s indie-rock reference system: this is proto-Animal Collective. On the other hand (whichever hand is left over after all the other hands are used up trying to justify a night spent downloading Lindisfarne songs and bidding for LPs on eBay), this could also be a booby-trap that leads to contra dancing or an interest in bag-pipes (or - gulp - Jethro Tull). It's very hard to tell. Listen to the maddeningly catchy "Fog on the Tyne" and you'll hear the dilemma. Limey-ville is calling. And I must now go.
Apparently, Allmusic Guide got pretty excited about Lindisfarne too because they spill lots of ink on a band with almost no impact on rock history.
P.S. The Famous Charisma Label strikes again!
Friday, November 18, 2005
Listening to this song this morning, I had an entire false memory unfold in my head, very warm and real. I was meeting Meathead (a.k.a. Rob Reiner) from "All in the Family" on a street corner in Greenwhich Village in 1971. It was just a flash vision, but everything felt very warm and 16-millimeter, that whole okra-and-mustard 70s atmosphere. Obviously this is before Meathead met Sally Struthers, otherwise he wouldn't be needing a woman. We were both wearing bell bottoms and Army jackets, of course. There was a kind of nostalgic relief in the whole watery audio-memory: the mellowed Brubeck-ian piano riff, the hand-claps and nasal Fender riffs, some dude named Leroy-boy.
Consider Todd Rundgren's voice. It's very Carole King. There's something so completely unrevealing about it emotionally, but also as comforting as a homemade multi-color knit blanket on a rainy day, especially when he sings, that empty feeling's just about to end.
This is off the first album, 1971's "Runt," which was the "band" name that he used as a front early on, before becoming a full-time production wizard, twiddling knobs and spinning rip-curl guitar solos for Kiss and Hall & Oates, among others.
P.S. The song "I Saw the Light," pictured above, is from the album Something/Anything? from 1972, which is considered the masterpiece, apparently.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
It’s always the Rhodes Scholars who come through in a pinch. Where else would you go for some whiskery minimalist funereal grit-poet gospel? Special K does crease-faced hangover daze with class. It’s not like Kristofferson’s reputation needs any rehabilitation; he’s practically a Marlboro Man godhead bard, as anyone who’s ever seen Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid knows. It’s a shame that his style of mythic leathery dissipation and tracheotomy chic has lost fans (hasn’t it?). This track, "Epitaph: Black and Blue," is at the end of The Silver-Tongued Devil and I, a record worth having for the weird mariachi tinge of "The Taker" and "Loving Her Was Easier."
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
It's only with the benefit of hindsight that we realize that certain band names would prove virtually unsearchable on Google. Audience, a British art-rock band from the late 60s, probably added to their own obscurity by making a Spanish guitar and saxophone combo their defining characteristic. But "Indian Summer," a track included on a compilation LP produced by their record company, The Famous Charisma Label, deserves exposure. Apparently this was something of a hit in London in the early 70s, and it's clear why. After the folk-pastoral intro, the horn-powered pop chorus comes as a nice surprise. Those horns, by the way, sound lifted from the inimitable Roy Wood , founding member of The Move and Electric Light Orchestra. It's the British obsession with American rock and roll of the 1950s, threaded into fake-classical prog-rock, a combination that didn't really get off the ground here in the States. Me, I appreciate the lyrical wisdom of our forlorn narrator. One wife will make you happy/Two will make you dead.
Stay tuned for more nuggets culled from the compilation that contained this song. The Famous Charisma Label was evidently a fount of pasty prog-rock in the 70s. Fair warning: Genesis and Monty Python were on the roster...
P.S. Seeing as there are no Indians in England, it might seem inherently suspect for Brits to co-op a season native to the Americas. But they do have such a season in the U.K., and it's apparently called Old Wive's Summer. Seems more thematically fitting, no? Sing along now: That was my Old Wive's Sum-mer!...
Sunday, November 13, 2005
Ok. Environmental, Mormon, metal boyband complete with soul horn blasts and vision-quest-worthy ecstatic scream-emulating guitar effects. Never say that Joseph Smith, the Angel Moroni and the state of Utah never did anything for you. If it’s old hat for you, just dust it off and realize that its rumples have gained dignity. I played in a band that covered this tune, "Crazy Horses." I think KMFDM did a version. I’m sure others have, too. There's a tune on this record about "going back to Utah," which always seems like a good idea. They beat Sufjan Stevens to the punch on that one. There's also a track that directly rips off the thundering Nordic battle-axe riff from the "Immigrant Song." Evidently someone's selling this one (a bootleg CD, I think) for $500 on Amazon.
Saturday, November 12, 2005
SPECIAL REPORT FROM MRS. LEFTY:
Thirteen years ago a fourteen year old boy onboard a green double decker bus, making his way home from a Guns‘n Roses show, lost his liquor. As the jake-braking bus had its way with the contents of his stomach, the other Dubliners onboard, all too casually familiar with rolling bus puke, lifted their feet to allow for the flow. The bus stopped outside St. Mar ’s, the Catholic school that had lost its “y” while a 75-year-old man stumbled out of a pub, fell down to his hands and knees, and began to grope the filthy sidewalk for his eyeglasses. The bus moved on without the old man. Dublin can be coarser than 40-grit sandpaper but it’s a grit that makes the tender, livid, bruised spots all the more delightfully painful. As I was going over, one voice pierced the acrid air. The G’nR fans on board required little more prodding. The bus erupted into a chorus of national heroes Thin Lizzy’s version of "Whiskey in the Jar." Even the puker piped in.
Phil Lynott is one of Dublin’s tender, bruised spots. He was an impossible combination: black and Irish. At the same time. Before his metal solidified Lynott wrote the song "Buffalo Gal" (on the early, rarely appreciated record, Shades of a Blue Orphanage — named with a nod to Lynott’s earlier band Orphanage). The song supercedes even Springsteen’s nostalgia for the lost world of adolescence. They’re closing down the old dancehall. Making love from memory, as Lynott would later say. But something stranger happens here. Buffalo Gal / You’ve had your fun / You’re button’s undone / and the time’s right for slaughter. In a dirty world, this song, with its strange chanted sections and odd rhythms, actually hurts me.
Friday, November 11, 2005
Don't be a hater.
For a few years I've been waiting patiently for an indie-rock version of Hall & Oates to come along, some genius duo from Montreal who could mine the pre-"Private Eyes" years and unleash a blue-eyed soul revival. But what I'm talking about requires something very special of two apsiring fellas: a willingness to co-opt both gayness and blackness in a doo-wop fusion format.
I know, right?
Back in the day, H&O would basically fuse doo-wop harmonies with anything that moved: folk, prog, New Wave, the kitchen sink. It's a needle that so few were born to thread. When he discovered them in 1972, Tommy Mattola saw the future and it was transgender racial crossover with a Village People moustache and Euro-gay scoop-neck t-shirts. Could Mariah Carey be far behind?
"I'm Sorry" is from 1972's Whole Oats, back before H&O ditched the folk guitars for keyboards. Please note Daryl Hall's shoes.
FYI: The indie-rock white soul revival that I am calling for has already been set in motion by Jamie Lidell. He's a British electronic music wizard who apparently had a serious karaoke epiphany when he realized his pipes could channel Prince and Otis Redding. Despite Pitchfork's playa hating on his record, I say he's got something special happening. Lefty recommends.
No more shampoo. No more tears.
In "Riverside," the anti-call-to-arms on the debut album (America, 1972), the "river" is clearly the Red State-Blue State divide that makes distinct the longhairs from the shorts. America, God bless'em, take a laissez faire attitude about the whole affair.
You stay on your side and I'll stay on mine/You take what you want and I'll take the sunshine...I said the world don't owe me no livin'...
It's the hidden libertarian in the hippie. The idea of cashing it in for a sunshine-based economy is pretty appealing, with soaring three-part harmonies to ease the pain of reality-based burdens like jobs and health insurance. Thinking of Mr. Poncho's soft-rock semiotics, it's the touchstone for the Devendra Banhart people, a spiritual reference that wends its way to Wilco (A Ghost Is Born, etc.) and others.
On a side note, these guys often get pegged as a second-rate CSN&Y, but that's unfair. They're more pure, without the Laurel Canyon decadence. These are the dudes who hung out in the smoking section at high school--kinda greasy, into reefer and Henry David Thoreau, love a good distended dorm-room acoustic jam, ever ready with a weathered copy of the Mel Bay chord book.
Thursday, November 10, 2005
This is true. When I was in 2nd or 3rd grade I had an 8-track of Bob Welch’s French Kiss. In my little world, BW and that 12-string, or whatever, the high creepy fake-tender singing, were equal with the Beatles and Elvis Costello, the other reigning lords of my musical universe. Is there a better first line than "You are here and warm," from "Sentimental Lady"? As I understand it, BW has gone on to become a producer in Nashville. As you know, BW was a member of Fleetwood Mac before Stevie and Lindsey brought the Wicca and the wacko to the group. BW was also in a band called Paris, which I’ve never heard, but hold out unrealistic hope for.
I’ve got this whole system of soft-rock equivalencies for contemporary indie acts. It works like this Cat Stevens = Devendra Banhart (just watch the Cat Stevens DVD [complete with mime shit] and you can see the unhinged core beneath the quasi-mystic ecstatic action). James Tayor = Iron and Wine (Lefty pointed that one out). As mentioned, Stealers Wheel = Teenage Fanclub. Bread = either Wilco or Ween (you pick). You get the idea. Well, the flow chart with Bob Welch is pretty bifurcated and complex. I can hear real traces of BW in the too-high vocals and dystopianism of Grandaddy. There’s also a touch of him in the Flaming Lips. And I swear that, maybe by some accident of constitutional robotic stiffness and a general lack of emotion, BW beat Neil Young to the classic-rock android Kraftwerkian rip-off of Trans. But here’s the real imaginary decoder’s delight: Bob was an early exponent of the Chronic style, with the ultra low bass and the synth squiggles. The Ghost of Flight 401 has got it all. Give a listen. A transportation distaster ghost story.
In my zeal to convert new fans to the Bob I was once gratified when an old friend special ordered a then Japanese-only import of French Kiss because he was so filled with the spirit.
Beware. Once you get past Two Hearts things get really difficult to justify.
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
Always a big fan of Gerry Rafferty - more for the Glaswegian reggae of "Right Down the Line" than for "Baker Street" - I was bound for Stealers Wheel. Rafferty is part of a world of music I think of as being heard over crappy speakers at "the rec park." It includes the great and gross cigar-smoker Bob Welch, a post on him is surely just around the bend. Long before Scotland became famous for Gang of Four emulators and crumpet crumblers, there was Stealers Wheel and the mighty Nazareth (don't get me started). As I got to the end of Ken Emerson's Brill Building book Always Magic In the Air, I was taken aback when I read that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, after abandoning the fallow field of teen pop, took on the big project of producing Stealers Wheel's first two records. "Stuck in the Middle With You" may have had all of its charm rubbed off by repeated handling, but "Inside Me" shows genetic fragments of what would go on to be heard in Teenage Fanclub. Like "Love Train," this one can make you feel a little unclean, too. "You put something better inside me."
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Just let it sink in for a moment.
You're feeling a little bit uncomfortable right now, and that's natural. But consider some revisionist data: Eddie Rabbitt wrote the song “Kentucky Rain," which Elvis Presley took to the moon in 1969's From Elvis to Memphis. (In the Elvis version, make sure to note the Brian Wilson-inspired glockenspeil breakdown.)
Also, Mr. Rabbitt is from Brooklyn.
It's also worth recalling the experimental poetry that Eddie wrote on the back of Sammi Smith's 1976 album Help Me Make It Through the Night. Here's an excerpt, with punctuation liberties and all:
trying to paint a verbal picture of sammi smith
with only a pen, and paper, and words,
is just about as easy as trying to paint a rainbow,
with a piece of charcoal.....
what color is beautiful?
what color is gentle?
how do you color lonely?
and most important.....
what is the color of love?
[It continues this way for a while, until...]
laughing at the worst joke in the world.....
just 'cuz.....it's the worst joke
whose warm, wide eyes say...
"i love you"....."be my friend".....
The record label, MEGA, has dutifully identified the poet as Eddie Rabbitt, well-known songwriter. Give a listen to what inspired Rabbit here.
Anyway, we love a rainy night.
P.S. The image above is from the 45 r.p.m. recording of "The Bed" and "Holding On" from 1968. Very rare apparently.
It serves as something of a palate cleanser or a pate cleanser. This is Dellie Norton, of Sodom, NC. A town you all know well. Recorded by John Cohen in 1965 and heard on High Atmosphere, on Rounder. Plenty croak, yip and rasp for everyone. The aim is to not prove false hearted. It's harder than you think. It's among the most raw tracks on the record, which I rarely listen to without skipping to Lloyd Cramer's weird "A Conversation With Death."
Another bit of pious throat-blasting comes from Children of the Heav'nly King, a record recorded by southern musical folklorist and Louvin Brothers biographer Charles K. Wolfe. This is Elder and Mrs. Jess B. Higgins recorded in Galax, Virginia in the late 70s. The three-LP Library of Congress set of field recordings of southern mountain religious music was released in 1981. No death denial here.
And finally, a mystery. A minor one. I got this on a cheap-o anthology of country hits from 1974. No mention of who it is. I'm thinking Mrs. Lefty might have an answer. Put where you put all of your other great train songs. Blackfoot. "Death's Black Train," "Wabash Cannonball," "Good Morning American How Are You." It makes you feel dirty.
Which brings us to Ronnie Milsap.
Not far from Planet Glen, somewhere in the whiter whirls of the Ray Charles solar system, is "Traces," from Love Will Never Pass Us By, an early outing on Buckboard Records. Buckboard is long out of business and this album is long out of print. It's not even listed on Allmusic Guide for some reason. I think we can safely assume early '70s, although there's no date listed. Of course, when you're dealing with Freudian death-denial and AM sunsets, are dates really relevant? I think not.
P.S. "Traces" is a cover of the hit by one-hit wonders Classic IV. You can see an astonishing video of them performing it here.
Sunday, November 06, 2005
Simply following through on a couple of themes here. One being the Limey factor - watched the 21 and Up edition of the 7 and Up series last night. Further proof that being 14 is miserable no matter what. Also proof that being happy and content at 14 probably means you'll be miserable, homeless and border-line schizophrenic when you're 21. The wife and I are pretty into As Time Goes By and the totally romanticed portrayal of Britain, what James Walcott likens to "wearing a tea cozy on your head" in the new Vanity Fair. Guilty as charged. Sly Stone always looked good in a tea cozy. And this Marian Segal and Silver Jade is one more for the maritime chapter. And there's more much-needed oceanography here. I read that this record had been reissued a few years back in Mojo, then, oddly enough, I stumbled on a cheap vinyl copy at a nostalgia/junk shop in Middletown, CT, with Lefty, I believe. You can bet that the Sandy Denny police are hot on Segal's trail, ready to issue her a citation for impersonating a folk rocker. The band gets points for mixing Swinging London with Puritan Father. Cravats are in place.
Marian Segal and Silver Jade
"Amongst Anemonies" from Fly on Strangewings
I bought this record about 10 years ago, at a thrift store in Charleston, SC, I think. No doubt the artist's rendering on the cover caught my eye, but I'm pretty sure that the Lee Hazelwood production credit clinched it. Let me say that I'm not certain this is good music, but it's definitely of interest, especially to everyone in the thick of the quiet music, acoustic psych, freak folk fairie people surge. This one sits nicely, or aptly, near your Vashti Bunyan, your Linda Perhacs and whatever else. The obeo requirement is fulfilled. Creeping flute, maybe some harpsichord, if you needed it. Someone assured me that this has been issued on CD, but I've not seen it.
Here's what Lee Hazelwood says of Arthur on the back of the record:
"Arthur ... a tear looking for a thirsty eye ... a mind that listens to pictures .. a man who will someday be a child again."
Here's the big test. There're so many things going for this track. First off, there's the bogus Latin of the band name. Then there's the Big Chill factor - it feels so transgressive to champion anything by PH, it's sort of contra-contrarion. This song comes from an album with a seafaring theme (see Little River Band post). What's more, it's a disaster song, a shipwreck song. A grand tradition. This one always reminds me of Neutral Milk Hotel, as a bloated band with baroque tendencies.
Saturday, November 05, 2005
Wednesday, November 02, 2005
The Little River Band
First Under the Wire, 1979
Courtesy of Mr. Poncho. These guys make the late '70s sound like the early '80s. Australians are often futuristic in precisely that way.
The albatross and the whales, they are my brothers.
Killer. The piano-man piano and sax solo create a frisson of pure reason. There's a love here that's higher than your assessment of what their love can be. See also: Christopher Cross. The chorus actually makes me think Karl Rove's going to get fired.
For no special reason, I want to point out that before Sufjan, there was Randy.
The Beehive State
Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun, 1970
This blogging stuff is making me very moody.