Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Unhinged Vibrato


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/cafĂ© 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.

1 comment:

Lefty said...

Glad to see yr dropping the Buffy/Mel science on the unsuspecting peeps--as a double-barrelled Y-chrom bomb, no less. Before long, J.P. will have to join in and bust out the Great Blue Heron, i.e. Joni M., whom I've really come around to lately. The revivalists can't muster those weird capo'd Canadian folk-jazz chops, even if they tried.