Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Exultation of Despair

Roscoe Holcomb is a sonic memento mori. A skull on the desk. Switching between banjo and guitar and employing a style on each that evokes the other, Holcomb sounds like Dock Boggs superimposed on a Skip James jam. It’s bluesy, but it’s also high lonesome, deep holler, mountain madness – stretching back to hermit monks in beehive caves, the rocky coast of some desolate fringe of Ireland or Scotland, waiting for the invaders to wipe away history. And he looked like William S. Burroughs leading a scouting troupe. This version of “Moonshiner” makes me think of Cormac McCarthy, both because of the bug-juice theme, the backwoods spookiness, the revenue coming to get you, stilling up all his corn, etc, but also for the bone-dry aesthetic, the compressed-into-dust austerity. Cat Powers, Uncle Tupelo and Dylan (all of whom have done versions of the song) need to take it home and work on it for a while longer. Someone once referred to Holcomb’s “exultation of despair” and I think that’s about right. You can see footage of Holcomb on YouTube -- and there's a movie, The Lonesome Sound, which features him as well. I love the thought of Holcomb sitting alone on his front porch in Daisy, Kentucky, not far from the lumber camp, singing Old Regular Baptist hymns. I’m not sure what the physical-physiological factors are, but this one of those performances that always sets up sympathetic vocal harmonies in my head whenever I hear it. I’ve seen others express the sentiment about Holcomb’s music and I share it: it’s what you want played at your funeral. But even more, it practically makes me want to hop on a pyre and light a match.

“Moonshiner” – Roscoe Holcomb

“The Wandering Boy” – Roscoe Holcomb

Monday, May 11, 2009


Here's a tale that readers of The Driftwood Singers may find familiar: a curious writer takes a trip into the sub-basement of heavy metal and lives to tell about it. A look at Boris and Sunn O))) in this week's New York magazine.

Meanwhile, Dewey Dell and I saw the Japanese psych rockers Ghost over the weekend. We're too old to be standing on our feet for that long, but I have to say, they were really sensational. They had the cello player/singer from freak-folkers Espers with them, a woman who looks like a hollow-eyed Gilda Radner in an Edward Gorey skit. They played all manner of Japanese wood instruments and also clarinet and saxophone to build these expansive psychedelic suites that sounded like Fairport Convention and Jefferson Airplane and Can, but all of it off by whatever subtle number of degrees that Eastern culture is off from Western. The singer/shaman, Masaki Batoh, was a quiet force of mysticism, swinging what looked like a wooden lantern on the end of a rope and producing a ghostly drone, swaying about like he was in a trance. And when guitarist Michio Kurihara, who I discovered through his work with doom metallurgical stars Boris, went into his off-the-chain solos, it was like you were driving through an electrical storm at night, except later you realize you're in that submarine in Fantastic Voyage and you're actually inside the nerve center of a wizard's brain. Here's some hazy pictures I took using my new iPhone (click through for larger versions).

Ghost - Hazy Paradise

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Curious Case of Scott Walker

     My dear wife and I saw the Scott Walker documentary 30 Century Man recently, and it left me befuddled and bemused.  Many of you may be familiar with the Walker Brothers, thanks to oldies radio (I heard the song included below the other day whilst perusing the used clothing and records at Goodwill).  They weren't brothers, and none of them were named Walker.  But that was swinging London in the '60s, I guess.  Scott was born Noel Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio, and found pretty major success and fame in England as part of the aforementioned group.  Scott was clearly the auteur, the artistic one, and couldn't stand the strictures of pretty-boy pop stardom for long.  Before you could say "Jaques Brel", he was off on his own, recording album after album with only his first name and a number as the title.  Pretentious?  You betcha.  Here's a sample song title, from Scott 4: "The Old Man's Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime"). And dig these lyrics from "It's Raining Today", off of Scott 3: "It's raining today/And I watch the cellophane streets/No hang-ups for me".  It's like the Carpenters for denizens of the Left Bank.
     The Walker Brothers eventually reunited and put out a few albums in the latter half of the Seventies; one of them is called Nite Flights (David Bowie, one of the famous or semi-famous Scott fans featured in the documentary, included a song entitled "African Night Flight" on his album Lodger, which I suspect is a tribute).  The stuff from Nite Flights that they put in the doc sounded pretty good to me, but the album is out of print and prohibitively expensive so I probably won't own it anytime soon (unless I happen to stumble upon it in the crazy cat lady's store).   In the last twenty-five years or so Scott has only recorded sporadically--he's the Thomas Pynchon of pop, occasionally surfacing to lob another musical missive at a largely unresponsive public (which doesn't seem to bother him very much).
     I was struck by a few thoughts while watching 30 Century Man: it's probably not a very good idea to have people listen to music and film them while they're doing it (does anyone really want to watch Radiohead listen to the music of Scott Walker? Not me!); a side of beef makes an intriguing visual statement in the recording studio, but it's not the best percussion instrument (take a listen to "Jolson and Jones", from the 2006 album The Drift, and you be the judge); and is it possible to get around that vibrato of his?  It's pretty off-putting to me, disturbingly so.   "Jolson and Jones" is nightmarish, there's no other word for it.  (It also features the braying of a donkey).  It's like one of the people featured in the documentary said--he finds a chord, and then finds the dischord.  (You gotta love the line "As the grossness of spring lolls its head against the window", though).  This is music for a bad, bad trip--a far cry from the perfect pop 
of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore", which I prefer. I know he's considered to be a brilliant artiste by some, but still.  He comes across as a thoughtful, intense guy in the film, and his music is definitely unusual, but I find it borderline unlistenable, and therein lies a problem--it all but screams, "Listen to this!  This is difficult, brilliant music, and you should listen to it simply for that reason!"  It's kind of hard to believe these two songs were done by the same person.  Maybe it's persons.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Got a Bag of Red Man and a Bottle of Beaujolais

Being ahead of your time in 1989 could mean any number of things. It could have meant that you were making the kind of bad rap-rock garbage that became prevalent 10 years later in the 90s. It could have meant you were a testosterone-spewing proto-nu-metal meat head. But in the case of Urge Overkill, I think it meant something about understanding the fundamental silliness of all the established big-rock gestures while at the same time realizing the transformative power of the bombast. Instead of signing on for the punk-grunge Dogma-style refutation of stagecraft and riffage, UO came up with some noms de rock, put on medallions and jumpsuits and pretty much fused arena preening and hooks with the sonic sneer of Chicago noise rock. These guys were rocking ascots and cummerbunds, smoking cigars and hoisting snifters, long before anyone thought that was okay. I’m feeling nostalgic, I guess, and so I’ve got to share – these tunes are fist-pumpers and booze-swilling anthems. If Polvo warned their fans that they’d “just got a sitar, so be prepared” on Celebrate the Next Dark Age, Urge Overkill went practically as far, maybe further, by rocking the fake-sitar-sound guitar solo on “Positive Bleeding.” I still find myself thinking of the Darkness and the Hold Steady when listening to these. A weird midpoint.

“A Ticket to L.A.” –Urge Overkill

“Out on the Airstrip”- Urge Overkill

“(Now that’s) the Barclords” – Urge Overkill

“Positive Bleeding”- Urge Overkill

Friday, May 01, 2009

Exit Reality

Hearing Rodriguez’s debut record when it was re-issued last year served to rekindle the idea that not everything had been dredged up and pawed over yet – there’s still gold in the hills, you just got to dig. The people at Light in the Attic are sonic saints in my book. Selflessly preaching to the barnyard animals, mortifying the flesh to fortify the ear holes. Light in the Attic is releasing Rodriguez’s sophomore record from 1971, Coming From Reality (out next week), a genius title, I think you have to agree for its ambiguity. (Is the music rooted in reality, or are we entering a realm outside of reality?) And title of this track – “Heikki’s Suburbia Bus Tour Ride” – sounds like something from the coffee and bongwater-caked scrapbook of Robert Pollard. Rodriguez still sounds a lot like Donovan here, but the folkie troubadourisms of Cold Fact (his first record) have given way to a more softened soft-rock pantheism. He sounds like Dion. At the rate he’s going, his third record will likely just sound like Don, which will be cool, too.

“Heikki’s Suburbia Bus Tour Ride” -- Rodriguez