Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Road to Wiggin

It’s hard to believe – shocking really – that here we are, having been drifting out in the ether, spinning in a foamy digital eddy all our own, lulled by the circularity of it all, for near two years now (check the archives, mate!), and, according to my records, we’ve not once thrown out the questionable sonic lifeline that is the Shaggs. I mean we’ve double- and triple-dipped on Bob Welch, Melanie, the Bee Gees and more, but not even a single transmission on the Wiggin sisters. That’s whack. So, let’s set some shit aright. Very aright. Let’s take out -- oh, I don’t know – say, three birds with one stone. Call the game warden. We’re poaching, big time. With "It’s Halloween," a seriously magical piece of deep-outside outsider art, we’re bowing in humble awe to the unfathomable familial weirdness of the Shaggs. We’re also checking the little box that says "holiday theme post" off our list for the week. And let’s allow this to be the first of many (like three, maybe) festive posts celebrating the dubious milestone of two-years of Driftwood-ism.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Whalers

Let’s start with just the barest facts. The potential transgressions. This clocks in at 6 minutes. It’s a cover of a Dylan tune. There’s, um, ample semi-dramatic overblown flute, done in a sort of wannabe Rahsaan Roland Kirk style. And, most egregious of all, the conga player throws in an awful lot of these little lick-your-index-finger-and-slide-it-across-the-drumhead-to-produce-a-moaning-whale-song-sound things. You’d think that would add up to a perfect storm of suckiliciousness, but no. Somehow the "flavor profile" goes through some kind of alternate-universe hydrogen-bonding ionizing valence switch – everything that should create lameness actually adds awesomeness. Some singers know how to "ooh" or interject "baby!" or grunt to fill out a line, or add an accent. Melanie is a master of the "da da-da," flicked off as an afterthought, adding a strange French cabaret flourish to her bohemian hippie bleating. What Bonnie Prince Billie and Joanna Newsom know, you, too, should try to take into your heart. Melanie communes with the spirits. The eagle and the albatross are her friends.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Separated At Birth: Thom Yorke Is Robin Thicke with A Mood Disorder

To all the dear folks who ponied up hard-earned cash for the new Radiohead album, don't go taking this as a knock. On the contrary! But here's the deal: Thom Yorke sounds exactly like Robin Thicke, the LA-based, Miami-inspired white R&B crooner whose real-life father is sitcom dad Alan Thicke. True! That combo of tasty beats and sensitive white-man falsetto? That's Thicke working his groovy magic -- or is it Yorke?

15 Step - Radiohead

Lost Without U - Robin Thicke

Here are a some proposed theorems:

Robin Thicke + foul weather - sex = Radiohead


Thom Yorke + Miami - 50 IQ points = Robin Thicke


Thom Yorke + a little bit better = Robin Thicke

Consider their respective world views:

Thicke: "My greatest desire with this album was to write songs that were completely honest and sing them with the emotion I was feeling when I wrote them, so that whoever listens to my music is brought as close to my experiences and life."

Yorke: "Noam Chomsky is a hero of mine, just because I can’t believe that anyone has a brain that size and can lift his head up."

It just goes to show. Remember how Arcade Fire ripped John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band for their hit single "Keep the Car Running"? These things happen. Don't take it so hard.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Gemini Smackdown

So, some ass-bag broke into my car last night. They were kind enough to just break one of those little triangular windows, but then they went ahead and took my nice leather bag, which had, among other things, my cell phone, the 6-CD Complete Miles Davis On The Corner set, the excellent new Vashti Bunyon collection of early demos and singles, the Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival DVD, the new Robert Plant and Allison Krauss disc, something new from the Numero Group that I didn’t even get to crack into, a great disc of West African percussion, my tape recorder, note books, lots of odd scraps, and an excellent collection of wigged-out dub-soul doo-wop from Nathaniel Mayer called (I Want) Love and Affection (Not the House of Corrections). I’d been stewing on it for a while, meditating on the way that in a recording, over-focusing on certain details (the hand percussion in this case) can cause a peculiar kind of distortion, sort of the sonic equivalent of a fish-eye-lens effect. There’s a point of fixation, around which everything else becomes misshapen or out-of-proportion. It was also clear, after having recently watched a documentary on Stax Records highlighting the ways that Memphis soul was much more raw than Motown, their big competition. Mayer, too, was from Detroit, and while you wouldn’t mistake this for southern soul, his music had a strange raw, almost outsider art, quality to it. The disc is well worth tracking down if see it. And if you find some questionable character trying to sell you a used copy in or around Hartford, CT, let me know. They probably have lots of my other shit, too. (The mo-fos took my book-on-tape of Robinson Crusoe and my portable CD player, which had the righteous mix that Lefty had made for me for our aural travels in the Drift-o-tron this summer, too.) Lucky for me, I didn’t have much faith or hope in humanity left, so I don’t feel too terribly let down.
I just spent like 20 minutes on my knees, looking for a (should I say it?) Tower of Power record that I was gonna inflict on you all. Songs about crime and depleted oil reserves, from a record called Urban Renewal, sort of tying into Frankie Lee’s recent theme. But no luck. Couldn’t find it. There must be some sort of Gemini smackdown taking place, astrologically, these days, some moon in some planet’s house where it don’t belong.
As a fitting reflection of my dual nature, I’m posting some more John Phillips, someone about whom I have very conflicted feelings. These are from the completely mixed-bag collection of his solo outtakes and demos called Jack of Diamonds. Phillips makes me think of a sort of sexual predator version of Jim Croce - creepy right? - and there’s definitely objectionable strains of Don McLean in there, too. The list goes on – bad sax, bad scatting, bad congas, bad sentiments. But sometimes the taste transgressions get you somewhere.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

     I know, I know--this is a questionable conceit.  It all started when I discovered that there was once a band called Compost.  They existed for a few seconds in the early '70s, and there's really no reason to learn anything about them or listen to their music.  But you could if you really wanted to, I suppose.  (The record sleeve says they have an "organic" sound, dig?)  I like the song because A, it's called "Country Song" (and it sure ain't country!), and 2, it sorta reminds me of Sesame Street--you can imagine one of those short films of kids running around in a field and then watching a farmer milk a cow or something, with the song playing in the background.
        I can't remember ever listening to Garbage until recently, when my slightly better half revealed that she "loved" them.  "What th'...?"  I asked myself silently.  "Oh really?  I'll have to give 'em a listen,"  I said out loud.
After doing so,  I came to the conclusion that they had one pretty good song.  You can really hear a Chrissie Hynde influence in Shirley Manson's vocal stylings, and you'll notice that she name-checks "Talk of the Town" towards the end, in case you didn't pick up on the obvious.  Nothing to write home about, but it's still an enjoyable few minutes of pop-rock.  (Now that I think about it, I probably never listened to them because I kept confusing Marilyn Manson with Shirley Manson.  Hey, it was the '90s, man).
     Of course, I had to include the Trashmen.  (Yeah, there's Edgar Winter's White Trash and Trashcan Sinatras and others I'm sure, but you gotta draw the line somewhere).  Before Prince, before the Replacements (but after the Andrews Sisters), this is what Minneapolis gave the world, musically speaking.  For some reason, it never seemed to bother anyone that this "surf" band's turf was about a thousand miles from the nearest ocean (or that the Rivingtons were eventually credited with composing their biggest hit).  It's really more amusing than anything else, I guess.  Let's face it, though, "Surfin' Bird" is great, raw fun.  The vocal break is just brilliant--profound gibberish.  If I was forced to make a top ten list of the greatest rock 'n roll songs of all time, it would probably be number 7.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Is There Anybody Alive Out There?

I've been feeling guilty about something I wrote a while back about Bruce Springsteen. It's not that what I wrote was untrue exactly, but it just wasn't complete. It was based on faulty intelligence. I gave a light backhand to We Shall Overcome, the Seeger covers album. But then I saw the Seeger Sessions tour that same summer and was (ahem) weeping by the end of it. Seriously--devastated. It was essentially an old-school religious revival and anti-war rally rolled up into a big sweaty fuck you to modern times. To wit:

Jacob's Latter (Live in Dublin) - Bruce S.

So I saw him at Madison Square Garden last night and it was once again transcendent, the best possible kind of rock'n roll spectacle there is. The New York Times agrees. When you find yourself left in mystified fervor every single time -- that was No. 7 for me -- you either conclude you've got a peculiar need, a special gene, a weakness, or there's something objectively magical happening. I hereby assert the latter, with a sprinkle of the former. For me, he single-handedly redeems the idea of being an American nowadays. Again, I was ready to dismiss the new hit single, "Radio Nowhere," until I heard it live and heard the question in the chorus, posed in shout-along anthem, a plea to our ravaged times, 60,000 fists in the air: "Is there anybody alive out there?" You can imagine the response.

One of Bruce's security detail saw my 70-year-old mother-in-law and her cane-toting 80-year-old boyfriend in the back stands (they're ambitious for their age) and gave them both front row seats. My mother-in-law said "she could have reached out and touched him." At the end, Bruce's people had a wheelchair brought out for her tuckered-out boyfriend and escorted them both out of a private exit to avoid the crowds. They didn't know any of the songs, but they couldn't stop talking about the show this morning. She had that in common with a lot of people, I imagine. Like the dude standing near the mic at Bruce's recent jam with Arcade Fire.

You know the guy's onto something when not even our tawdry, shallow, right-wing, supremely lame and bottom-feeding culture can destroy his essential integrity, as much as it tries. Here's what Bruce said on 60 Minutes last week when CBS's in-house Bush family suck-up Scott Pelley questioned his patriotism: "There's a part of the singer going way back in American history that is, of course, the canary in the coal mine. When it gets dark, you're supposed to be singing. It's dark right now. The American idea is a beautiful idea. It needs to be preserved, served, protected and sung out. Sung out."

He closed with an extended version of this song last night, inspiring jigs in the aisles:

American Land (Live in Dublin) - Bruce (Lyrics here.)

If you don't listen to anything else, listen to this:

Blinded By the Light (Live in Dublin) - Bruce

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Key Horse on the Highway

Trying to explain to someone why Ween is great is probably an exercise in futility. It's like trying to tell why a joke works or analyzing why a Zen kōan makes perfect sense. They're geniuses at making songs that give you the precise feeling of hearing a song stoned, that special frisson of laughter and epiphany. Their latest record, La Cucaracha, is a catalog of brilliant cosmic weirdness, from Tijuana Brass trumpet music to mystical psych-rock to a reggae dub song about a "Black Man" and a "Chinaman" fighting over whether some fish is fresh or frozen ("The Fruit Man"). As usual, they're not just politically incorrect, they're politically incoherent, like life itself. They sort of make irrelevant Sacha Frere-Jones' fretful article on why white rock groups don't borrow from black music anymore. They exploit everybody and anybody, shamelessly and without heed. The only way to get to the marrow of great music, they seem to have realized, is to explicitly do it in character and then take it way too far.

Like I said, futile.

Anyway, I just had to shake my head listening to "Learnin to Love," a Dada take on Roger Miller that romps along until it descends into an oddly inevitable Broadway/prog breakdown with brittle White Man harmonies. The lyrics are cutup racetrack slang like something from Basement Tapes-era Bob Dylan. It's amazing, funny and perfect.

"Learnin to Love" - Ween

"The Fruit Man" - Ween

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Jane Morgan Delivers the Goods

     This is from a record called Fresh Flavor, on which Jane croons the hits of the day ("Sounds of Silence",  "Monday, Monday" &c.).  It's so much better than the original, it's not even funny.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Songs About the Southland

As many of you probably know, the 2007 Oxford American music issue is out and on the stands, and it’s a good’n. With excellent write-ups about Van Dyke Parks, Betty Davis, Betty Harris, Fred Neil and Mayo Thompson, it’s really worth getting. The accompanying CD is excellent, almost uniformly. There’s also a deep-inside account of the recording of Blonde on Blonde in Nashville by Sean Wilentz. One interesting tidbit: turns out that Joe South, who we’ve celebrated here at the Driftwood Singers Present, played bass on much of Blonde on Blonde.
And fiction writer and former drummer for the Red Crayola, Frederick Barthelme, offers the most entertaining and in-depth retelling of that mysterious band’s curious life.

Ok, so I don't want to do anything that would deter you from going out and getting the thing yourself, so I'll just drop a little "amuse" for the ear. This is Fred Neil's "Little Bit of Rain." I've been obsessed with Neil ever since I heard his song about dolphins on The Sopranos (at the close of the episode with Christopher nodding out during the church festival). I actually remember reading his obit in the NYT back in 2000 or so. He was the writer of "Everybody's Talkin," made famous by Harry Nilsson on the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy. It's a ubiquitous song, one of those actually great songs -- like "Fly Like an Eagle" or "Brown-Eyed Girl" - that you can in fact start to hate after having heard it so many times for so long. Anyway, Neil hated us (humanity) back, evidently, but he loved dolphins. Neil has one of those crazy expressive baritones, he's like a super-charged Lee Hazlewood.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Making the Fizz

Listen, I know that it’s not about some much-maligned nugget of questionable music or an overlooked pop oddity normally found on a moldy piece of vinyl, so, technically, it’s not really a fair and appropriate topic for discussion in this forum, but, at the same time, I also know that, most likely, our dozen or so regular readers, and those who drift here, are - I can just tell - fans of fizzy water, so it’s with that in mind that I recommend reading this great article about some bad-ass characters who are pioneering in the world of DIY seltzer production.
You heard right. Make your own fizz. Naturally, if I had my whole situation in proper order I’d be posting "Tiny Bubbles" or some song about seltzer or just general effervescence, or maybe I’d just put up a suitably bubbly Cole Porter tune, but I’m all doped up on cold medicine, so I’m going without. Maybe Lefty can rock some Don Ho for us.

[LEFTY SEZ: This is the best I could come up with -- but it's pretty good!]

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

If I Was a Carpenter

It’s pretty much accepted that there’s some sort of magical vocal alchemy, some deep genetic harmonizing, some filial vocal cord synergy, that occurs when brothers sing together. The Stanley Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmores, the Louvins, the Kinks, the Proclaimers, the Osmonds, ... Nelson. And I think we can all agree that sisters pack a comparable mojo – the Boswells, the Andrews, Tegan and Sara. But the sibling dynamic proves more mysterious when it’s brothers and sisters. Who knows what kind of chromosomal, yin/yang, Freudian business is at work. Dark struggles work their way out in the music. This came to mind when listening to the newest from the Fiery Furnaces, which is, I guess, genius, but in a thorny, get-out-your-abacus kind of way, that isn’t really, you know, actually enjoyable. And is there anything scarier than the music of brothers-sister group the Free Design? When the over-achieving kids from the choral society and the Montessori school decide that the square world of mom and dad and work and society and conformity is all a big soul-sucking plastic sham, that’s what you get, in fine multi-part harmonies and whipped-cream production, complete with thematic burlap wallhangings decorated with felt cut-out letters spelling out some deep message about togetherness. Or, all you have to do is listen to the Carpenters, like Frankie Lee says. Funny that he posted their extra-terrestrial jamboree, because I’d brought this one back from my most recent trip to the homestead, found among a stack of long neglected CDs in the basement. This is one of those songs that you don’t really want to give away its title, because some of the magic, that sure-fire Carpenters magic, is in realizing what famous song that they’re actually singing, because you surely won’t guess by the quasi-baroque piano intro. So let’s just call it "Track 7."

"Track 7" - The Carpenters

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Contact, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Carpenters

     So much has been written, said, sung, thought, and acted out using Barbie dolls about Karen Carpenter that I'm hesitant to add anything to the blather.  I just have to say that she'll always be cool for three reasons: 1) She played the drums. 2) That voice.  3)  Actually, I can't think of a third reason, so the first two will have to suffice.  
     It's a little depressing to get into what eventually happened to Karen, so I'll just relate the fascinating story of how I came to recognize the greatness of the Carpenters (even though I still think Richard may be kin to the Devil).  Back in the mid-'90s, someone had the idea to put together a Carpenters tribute album...done by the "alternative" stars of the moment!  Whatta concept!  There were a few good moments on it--I remember liking the Shonen Knife cover of "Top of the World" and Sonic Youth's take on "Superstar" (though I've never really been a fan o' them).  I think Mr. Poncho sent me a mixed tape with a Carpenters song on it at around the same time, so those two things taken together made me more hesitant to dismiss them out of hand, which I had done without really ever listening to them very much.  Of course, some of their songs are sickening--there's no other word for it.  But even those are fascinating in their own way.  
     The song that made me want to write this post is "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft".  Now, I don't know how deeply Richard and Karen were into the idea of there being aliens tootling around in the heavens, and I really don't care that much.  Judging by this song they must've had some sort of fascination with it.  It was written by an obscure Canadian band called Klaatu, which had people thinking they were the Beatles reunited when they released their first album with minimal info on it in 1976.  (The name Klaatu comes from the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, and oddly enough the character takes on the alias Carpenter at one point).   From the disturbingly corny radio dj intro to 160-musician-strong orchestration to the fuzztone guitar to the long fade, it's seven appallingly great minutes of pop music.  You should probably only listen to it once a year--on World Contact Day, of course.

Friday, October 05, 2007

There's Something About Gordon

As we approach the second anniversary of The Driftwood Singers Present (!), I've started to suspect that this site will ultimately evolve to become a decades-long referendum on the power, glory and lyrical vision of Gordon Lightfoot. At the end of the day, a whole helluva lot may in fact come down to Gordon.

Why is that?

It's hard to articulate exactly, which is why it could take decades. He's the one folk/rock 60s/70s Hippie Enlightenment Era figure the modern hipster class have been unwilling to unearth and grapple with, the one figure none have attempted to reference for some boutique indie amalgam. That's because The Foot can't be co-opted. A folk purist, purely Canadian, vaguely Native American, aloof and prideful yet almost haughty in his humility, vocally monolithic and monotonous at the same time, there's something about Gordon that simply can't be replicated. He's sui generis. Also, his cyclical folk style makes him so lyrically verbose, he's almost a pure creation of vinyl LP's, a man whose image- and metaphor-crammed songs require a 12" inner sleeve for printed lyrics and at least an hour of free listening time (not to mention a lifetime to comprehend), a man who doesn't really emerge properly in the small-world CD-liner-note universe we've come to know, let alone in the digital age. He's Vinyl-American.

This all gelled for me while sitting down and listening to Summertime Dream, his 1976 album on Warner Bros. On the surface, this was very radio-friendly, a big, sleek production with Moog synthesizers and crystaline steel guitars, every knob fussed over by Lenny Waronker. It sounds exquisite. But here's the deal: it's one of the best folk-rock albums ever made. First off, I shouldn't have to sell you on "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." Mr. Poncho will gladly set you straight in some future series of posts, as I believe he's got a fan fiction novella based on it sitting in a drawer somewhere. But there's also "I'll Do It Again," a proto-rap-rock number that predates the Aerosmith/Run-DMC collision by more than a decade.

"I'll Do It Again" - Gordon Lightfoot

What finally knocked me out is the last song on the record: "Too Many Clues in This Room." The lyrics are almost bizarrely prophetic, cryptic and mystical, so much so that I suspect William Butler Yeats, John Ashbery, Dennis Kucinich, Jesus and every participant of the Burning Man festival from 1997 to present would agree that something truly visionary is happening in this song. That's why I've included the lyrics exactly as they appear in the liner notes of the original vinyl LP, from which this mp3 is recorded. Gordon Lightfoot, we hardly know ye.

"Too Many Clues In This Room"
by Gordon Lightfoot

The space shuttle ends where the subway begins
there's a tear on the face of the moon
from dusk until dawn they have searched all day long
but there's too many clues in this room
At best it is said we've bin [sic] locked deep inside
of an old seaman's chest full of charts
where maps are contained and what's left of his brains
when his crew threw his balls to the sharks

And around the looking glass
dancing to a tune
Sweeping out the house with a fine tooth comb
which history's shown
leads to ruin

In a word it is said that at times we must fall
but the worst of it all was the lies
We died for the cause just like regular outlaws
in the dust of an old lawman's eyes
In times best forgot there was peace, there was not
in her pains mother earth came to bloom
Her children were born in the eye of the storm
and there's too many clues in this room

The pow'er that is stored in this no-man's land of chance
is there Someone who knows what they're doin'?
The old soldiers say in their own crusty way
We've got too many troops in this room
All around the looking glass
dancing to a tune
Sweeping out the house with a fine tooth comb
which history's shown
leads to ruin

The space shuttle ends where the subway begins
praise the Lord there's a train leavin' soon
From dusk until dawn they have searched all day long
but there's too many clues in this room

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

That Tinkling Sound

Is there an instrument less "rockin’" than the harpsichord? Maybe the flute or the accordion. That’s partly why I love the Left Banke. They were not only unafraid to dabble with a little harpsichord here and there -- like lots of late ‘60s acts -- but these guys pretty much embraced the instrument, clearly made for powered inbred funny-pants-wearing monarchs, as the essence of their sound. There’s a reason they got labeled "baroque and roll" (big points to whoever coined that one). I love the way they would do this thing of adding absurd chamber orchestra bridges, and then, rather than working their way back to the verse, they’d simply pause, maybe throw in a drum break and then start back over. The Left Banke also had a high degree of intra-band hatred going on, almost Dinosaur Jr. levels, the main songwriter had a huge crush on one of the other guy’s girlfriend, and penned some of their best songs ("Just Walk Away Renee") were basically veiled hints that she should switch boyfriends. "Barterers and Their Wives" is totally renaissance faire material. I mean, you can’t really write a song that uses the word "barterers" without having it conjure the plague.
As an added bonus, here’s "Session Man" from the Kinks’ Face to Face. You’ll be interested to know that it’s an ode to pianist Nicky Hopkins, he of those chords on "Sympathy for the Devil" as well as countless other classic Stones tunes, and the session man on this track. I worship the line: "He’s a session man, a chord progress-ian."