Thursday, August 31, 2006

Pink Lady

Despite having been a phenomenon in Japan (with a still loyal fanbase), Pink Lady is best known in the U.S. for the failed television show Pink Lady and Jeff. Considered one of the biggest flops in television history, it lasted only six episodes, supposedly cost Fred Silverman his job, and is blamed for being the final nail in the coffin of the variety show format. Here's the thing though--I loved it. I was only ten when the show debuted on NBC, and I thought it was about the best thing I had ever seen on television, better even than Sonny and Cher. I was pissed when the show was cancelled.

So I was pretty psyched when I came across a still-sealed copy of Pink Lady's U.S. album. I should have left the album sealed, boy is it ever bad. It's not even bad in a so-bad-it's-funny way. It's entirely competent, entirely generic, by the numbers, disco. It's not even bad so much as it is undistinguished, which by my reckoning is worse. I remember what I liked about the television show was that its stars, Kei and Mei, were outsiders. They were struggling to make sense of American mores and customs every bit as much as I was at ten-years-old. I couldn't figure out the elaborate kabuki rituals the other kids my age were practicing any better than Kei and Mei could understand comedian Jeff Altman's jokes (to be fair, most Americans had the same problem). But no trace of that outsider status comes through on the album, it's just crummy disco. I imagine their Japanese material is a lot more interesting.

I realize every person on the planet other than me says this was the worst TV show ever, but as far as I'm concerned, any show that put Larry Hagman, Teddy Pendergrass and Sid Caesar together in a hot tub with two bikini clad Japanese women could not be all bad. The show is available on DVD, so I guess I could prove that to myself was I so inclined. I'd like to see it again if for no other reason than to exercise some long dormant synapses. Saturday Night Live did a hilarious parody skit called "Pink Lady and Carl" (the Carl in question being Carl Sagan). I'd like to see that again too.

If you want more info on Pink Lady check out this incredible U.S. fansite. Nothing on the album is any good, but here's their cover of "Walk Away Renee" anyway.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Dream Syndicate

I vividly remember the first time I heard the Dream Syndicate. It was junior year in High School and a buddy and I had driven 45 minutes to visit a mall where Bert and Ernie were appearing (yeah, don't ask). My buddy bought a cassette tape of The Days of Wine and Roses and we played it on the ride back. The music blew me away. Sure it was obviously derivative, but here was a band making the kind of music I really liked in the here and now instead of in some far off time before I was born. And it beat the heck out of Starship or whatever was getting played on the radio at that point in time.

Rhino released an expanded edition of the The Days of Wine and Roses with their first EP included as a bonus. This is a live version of a song that originally appeared on the EP. It's taken from a Rough Trade 12" of "Tell Me When It's Over." It's a quieter, but no less intense, version of "Some Kinda Itch."

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Wedding Present

I'm not sure if I'm a fan of the Wedding Present or not. I know I bought a lot of their albums. I know I listened to them a lot. I know I enjoyed them. Still, to call yourself a fan of The Wedding Present it seems like you have to be willing to call them "The Weddoes," and I'm just not sure I want to go there.

I've always liked this cut, a cover of Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel's "Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)." This was one of the highlights of the 1990 Alvin Lives (In Leeds): Anti Poll Tax Trax compilation that featured covers of hits from the 1970s by UK indie favorites.

With its ambivalent expression of sexual frustration and dramatic stop/start arrangement, this certainly sounds like it could have been a Wedding Present original. The lyrics, ("Come up and see me, make me smile / Or do what you want, running wild") sound like they could have come straight from the pen of Dave Gedge. This track would have easily fit in on Seamonsters, and it would have been one of the better tracks on that terrific album. This cover is good enough to (at least temporarily) erase any memory of the "ooh laa laas," strings, and flamenco guitars of the original (whether you loved it or hated it). Gedge absolutely owns this song.

Monday, August 28, 2006


Christmas is a horrible name for a band. Try googling "christmas," and see how many hits related to the band you get. Beyond failing to anticipate the information superhighway when they formed back in the early 80s, Christmas made a number of career mistakes; signing to a major label well before they were ready, choosing the RCA distributed Big Time Records as that major label (a mistake shared by a lot of other good bands), making music no one really "got," etc. So it's not surprising that they eventually decided to chuck the whole thing and reinvent themselves as psuedo-lounge-lizards in Combustible Edison.

I was going to put up a song from Christmas' first single, but since pretty much everything by Christmas is obscure and out-of-print, I decided to put up a couple tracks from what I consider to be something of a forgotten masterpiece, their 1989 album Ultra Prophets of Thee Psykick Revolution.

All Music Guide says this album received largely negative reviews at the time of its release. I don't remember that. I do remember that it was one of my favorite albums of 1989, and I played it a lot. Listening to it again today, each of the songs is still instantly recognizable to me.

But I can understand why critics didn't "get" this album, as it is pretty hard to pigeonhole. On the surface it sounds much like the goofy, retro music that Redd Kross were doing on Third Eye around the same time, with maybe a little less bubblegum and a little more psychedelia added to the mix. But at the same time the album is shot through with extremely disturbing imagery; cannibalism, unstoppable killer viruses, penguin slaughters, domestic violence, war, apocalypse, etc. So while there is no doubt the band had a sense of humor, it certainly wasn't of the "ha, ha" funny variety, it's more in the absurdist/surrealist vein.

I interviewed the band while they were touring in support of the album and I can tell you for a fact they didn't do themselves any favors in terms of being understood. Their pose was so deeply ironic and they seemed so enamored with their own inauthenticity that it was all but impossible for an outsider to get in. For example, the album featured what I would consider a fairly serious song about the spread of AIDS called "Human Chain." But when I asked them about it they started making stupid jokes about sex and ketchup, and giving advice like "Don't have sex without a condiment!" They talked a lot about wanting to move to Vegas, which from what I remember they seemed to regard as a kind of cosmic holy place. The one thing they clearly didn't want to talk about was the music they were supposedly trying to promote. On one level this was a perfectly friendly, albiet goofy, group of people joking around and having fun, but there was a subtle kind of elitist defiance in these gestures; the implicit message seemed to be "Either you get us, or you don't, but we're not going to sully ourselves by explaining what we actually think."

Anyway, I still think it's a terrific album that holds up pretty well. Here are two of my favorite cuts. The first "Stupid Kids" is just a flat-out great pop song. The second, "Richard Nixon" pretty much gives full expression to the goofy/disturbing dichotomy in their music. While the premise, Richard Nixon as some kind of 1,000 year-old monster with supernatural powers, is goofy, the disturbing image of Whitehouse backyard baby barbeques sticks with you. And like the cover of Funkadelic's "America Eats It's Young" it speaks to a greater truth about the callousness of those in power who would send teenagers off to fight and die in wars in which they end up killing children.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Hardy Boys

I was a voracious reader as a child. I read every single Hardy Boys novel from the original series. But I had no idea that there was a Saturday morning cartoon Hardy Boys series that ran from 1969 to 1971 until I saw Here Come the Hardy Boys with its mod cover art sitting in the bins of a dusty record store in Providence, RI. From what I can gather, the series was absolutely horrible with sub-Scooby Doo animation and storylines courtesy of budget cartoon powerhouse Filmation studios.

The premise behind the series was predictably absurd; the boys used a rock band as cover to investigate mysteries. The show's producers also made the strange decision to also create a "real" band to perform the music and promote the albums. So what do you think the odds are that the music made for this cut-rate, misguided kiddie series is any good? Pretty slim right? Well, much to my surprise, the music is much more than just competent bubblegum pop--it's terrific bubblegum pop with a pronounced punk edge. Let's put it like this, if it came to a fight between the Archies and The Hardy Boys, The Archies would get their lunch handed to them.

The music was produced for RCA records by Dunwich Productions, who were responsible for bringing the music of The Shadows of Knight, HP Lovecraft, The American Breed, The Luv'd Ones, The Cryin' Shames, and others to the public. Given the Dunwich connection, perhaps it's not so surprising the music of the Hardy Boys rocked. (BTW, Dunwich eventually morphed into Wooden Nickel, which was the first label to bring the music of Styx to the world's attention.)

"Sink or Swim" and "Those Country Girls" come from the first Hardy Boys album. A lot of retro-garage bands from the 80s would have gladly traded their vintage Voxx guitars and fuzzboxes for two original songs this good. I am definitely on the lookout for the second Hardy Boys album, Wheels, which has even better cover art and a song called "I Hear The Grass Singin'." (I’m always amazed at the way blatant drug references got snuck into Saturday morning kiddie shows in the 60s and 70s, H. R. Pufnstuf being only the most blatant example.)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Hi-Fi Follies

I admit it, sometimes I buy records just for the cover. And some of the best record covers out there belong to hi-fi demonstration records from the early sixties. These are relics from a bygone era in which people actually cared if the music in their home sounded good or not, and were not willing to settle for the sound from some miniturized piece of junk they could also take to the beach with them.

Anyway, this was one of those cases where the album jacket was just too cool to pass up, whether the music on it was any good or not. The album is called Motion in Percussion and Orchestra on a label I had never heard of called "Sonic Workshop." The cover has one of those neat 3D flip card type things (think Their Satanic Majesties Request), that had the word MOTION moving back and forth depending on where you looked at it. Cool!

My first clue that the music inside might be actually good were the names of two of the percussionists, Irv Cottler and Larry Bunker. I knew Larry had spent some time drumming for Bill Evans, and Irv was a regular at Frank Sinatra's sessions. These guys were more than just session drummers, they were among the best in the biz.

The next clue to this record's coolness came when I got it home and noticed that the list of recorded "instuments" included a roller coaster. In keeping with the post-war craze for participatory entertainment, this LP promised you a sonic "ride" on a roller coaster by combining specially composed music from the Hollywood "Pops" Orchestra with the sounds of an actual roller coaster. Hang on to your hat when you listen to it, because it's actually more successful than you might expect. For your listening pleasure I also include "Dizzy Fingers" because no album like this is complete without percussion that moves from left-to-right in the least naturalistic manner imaginable.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Chills

The Chills created some of the best indie-pop music of the 80s, but they've never really gotten their due. The Chills were much more than a twee-kiwi-pop band, and far better than their recorded legacy suggests. The constant line-up changes probably stopped them from reaching their full potential on record.

I saw the band live during what I believe was their first ever U.S. tour (at least that's what I remember someone telling me at the time). It was October of 1988, and they were playing a CMJ showcase show at CBGBs. My jaw was on the floor through the whole show, the music was mind-blowingly great. When Submarine Bells came out the next year, I was disappointed because it just did not live up to the level of excellence I remembered from the live show. I don't know exactly what I heard on that night in 1988, but I remember how I felt; stunned and overwhelmed. The music was many times more intense than what I had heard on their under-produced records. The psychedelic aspect of the music seemed more pronounced, but in a way that seemed fresh and not obviously retro.

"Party In My Heart" was recorded in 1986 and was first included on the Homestead Human Music compilation, it later surfaced as a CD bonus track on Brave Words. "I Think I'd Thought I'd Nothing Else To Think About," one of the most awkward titles in the history of popular music, was released as a B-side in New Zealand, and on a flexi disc from The BOB magazine in the U.S. This version was taken from the flexi, so sorry about the sound quality.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Kendra Smith

Kendra Smith is probably best known as a founding member of the Dream Syndicate and as the voice behind Opal. In 1992, five years after the release Opal's last album, a cryptically packaged 10" EP of mysteriously beautiful songs called Kendra Smith Presents The Guild of Temporal Adventurers seemed to magically appear and quickly disappear from a select few record stores. A better distributed full length on 4AD, the appropriately titled Five Ways of Disappearing, followed in 1995. Since that release, to my knowledge, there has been no new music from Kendra Smith, and that's a shame. It's also a shame that both Opal albums and this EP are out-of-print and difficult to find.

"Wheel of the Law" is one of my favorite songs from the 1992 EP. Jonah Corey sings on this cut with Kendra.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Dean Wareham

Dean Wareham is almost as famous for his acrobatic stage presence as he is for the introspective and literate pop music he writes. Part James Brown, part Mick Jagger, part Evil Knievel; Dean Wareham redefined onstage athleticism and theatricality for a whole generation of indie rockers.

This cut was recorded after Galaxie 500's breakup but before Luna's formation as a demo for Elektra records. No. 6 Records released it on a 7" that hardly anyone (including me) noticed at the time. "Anesthesia" was re-recorded for the first Luna album, the fantastic Lunapark. The Luna version is better, but it's nice to hear this one too. According to the liner notes in the recently released Rhino Best of Luna anthology, Dean wrote this song after visiting an anesthetized ex-girlfriend in the hospital who told him he was the one who was sick and needed help.

Friday, August 18, 2006

And Greatest Song of the Sixties is...

..."God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys. At least that's what the hipsters over at Pitchfork say. I won't argue with that choice, but my favorite song from Pet Sounds is probably either "Caroline No," or "That's Not Me." Wait no, maybe it's "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times." See, this is why I don't make lists. I can't even bother to make a list before I go to the grocery store.

For all my nasty and self-righteous comments about Pitchfork, I have to admit that most of the capsules they wrote for the songs are worth reading. I think what I really object to about a project like this is the apparent desire to quantify everything, the need to put a number on something intangible and keep it in a tidy, manageable box. My mind is far too sloppy and non-linear for that kind of thing.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure my favorite Beach Boys song is "Don't Worry Baby"--sex, death, cars, hubris--the song captures the essence of 20th Century America in 2 minutes and 49 seconds. Then again, "In My Room" is pretty great too...and then there's "Good Vibrations"...forget it.

For those of you more decisive than me: What is your favorite Beach Boys song? What is your favorite song from the sixties? And if you did not give the same answer to both of those questions, please explain what is wrong with you.

The Beach Boys Love You

In my opinion, The Beach Boys Love You, Brian Wilson's 1977 "comeback" album, is every bit the masterpiece in its own understated way as Pet Sounds was eleven years earlier. I realize there are probably only four other people on planet Earth who are likely to think that statement makes me anything less than certifiably insane, but there you go.

If Smile was supposed to be a "Teenage Symphony to God" then Love You is "Childlike-Adult Chamber Music to No One In Particular." By 1977 Brian Wilson's canvas was no longer epic in scope, and the intense emotions of the teen years have been replaced by the more mundane pleasures and tribulations of adult life; appreciating the way Carson picks up the slack when guests are boring, or capturing the simple pleasure of washing a baby's hair.

One of the things that distinguishes this album from Pet Sounds, and much of the Beach Boys best work, is that Brian was also the primary lyricist on the album. For better and worse, Love You is about as pure an expression of Brian-ness as you will find, certainly more so than Pet Sounds or Smile. It's no secret that Brian was extremely "troubled" during this period in time, and it shows up on this album in a number of ways; the perfect studio craft of "Good Vibrations" is long gone, replaced by a "leave not-quite-well-enough alone" aesthetic, and some of the lyrics are bizarre. Songs like "Solar System" remind me of the "mail us your poem and we'll put it to music" creations compiled by Tom Ardolino on the Beat of the Traps LP and more recently on The American Song Poem Anthology.

I imagine that the other Beach Boys had no more of a clue what Brian was up to here than they did during the recording of Pet Sounds or Smile, but Brian's brothers loved him, and Mike Love recognized that the Beach Boys sold more with Brian than without, so they were willing to serve as his muse one last time. I don't know if it's realistic to think a record this strange could have found a mass audience in 1977, but it's a shame that it was released in the middle of a label switch and without hardly any promotion.

I realize 2007 will come and go without a Special 30th Anniversary Limited-Edition CD/DVD Reissue of Love You, and it will never have the cultural currency of Pet Sounds, but it means just as much, maybe more, to me. The most recent reissue of Love You is on a two-fer with the not as wonderful 15 Big Ones and has killer liner notes by Peter Buck of R.E.M. Frankly, that's good enough for me. I can live without the surround sound DVD and fuzzy packaging. And if you can't find a cut-out of Love You in a used record store for a couple bucks, you just aren't looking.

So in "tribute" to Brian's 1977 masterpiece, I offer you two cuts from a 1990 Brian Wilson tribute album, Smiles, Vibes and Harmony. Like all tribute albums, this one was extremely uneven, split between neo-garage rockers' takes on early Beach Boys material, and artier bands failing to capture the magic of the late sixties-era material. There were two covers of songs from Love You on the compilation, and I believe they were my first introduction to this material. They were decent enough to make me curious about the album they came from, and if they do the same for you then I will have performed a real service.

I cannot tell you much about Sharky's Machine, other than that I remember they released an album on Shimmy Disc that didn't impress me too much at the time. They did have the good taste to cover "I Wanna Pick You Up" a gem originally sung by Dennis Wilson. Dennis' vocal on the original is very touching, but it's also shocking; he clearly packed some hard living into the seven years between "Forever" and this cut, and his voice was wrecked by cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and lord knows what else. Sharky's Machine capture the charm of this song better than might reasonably be expected. Das Damen on the other hand pretty much ruin "Johnny Carson" by trying to turn it into some sort of jokey, psychedelic freak out. But they get major props for picking this song to cover in the first place, and I bet their presence on this compilation was what prompted me to buy it in the first place. Some enterprising indie label should put together a tribute to the entire album.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Relaxing on the Eve of Destruction

I love extreme juxtapositions, and it doesn't get much more extreme than the music found on Positively 4th Street and Other Message Folk Songs by The Living Voices. Just a few years earlier The Living Voices were happily creating beautiful music arrangements of stuff like Nat King Cole's "Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer," but by 1966 the pop music scene had changed and they had to cover "Like A Rolling Stone," "Universal Soldier," and "Eve of Destruction" in order to keep up with the times.

It must have been weird to be on the other side of the cultural divide in 1966. American popular culture was in the midst of a genuine, and massive, paradigm shift, and if you're the Living Voices Bob Dylan's music must have seemed awfully strange, if not downright awful. But I imagine the producers behind the Living Voices probably just figured, "this is what's popular now, so this is what we should be doing" without considering the extreme disconnect between the soothing vocal arrangements of Anita Kerr and the venom spewed by Dylan on "Positively 4th Street." They probably figured, sure "Eve of Destruction" might be a little dark, but the kids seem to love it and once we let Anita work her magic on it...presto! Something the whole family can enjoy! They were just doing what had worked for them in the past; smoothing out the rough edges on whatever was popular at the moment. What we are left with is a bizarre relic from the exact moment of a seismic shift in pop culture.

I have to admit to a secret, un-ironic, affection for beautiful music of this sort. I can remember my grandmother listening to the legendary beautiful music station WGAY out of Baltimore when I was a kid, so it's hard for me not to have some fondness for it. Up until recently there was a radio station on Cape Cod, WOCN, that mostly adhered to the old easy listening format. My wife and I always enjoyed tuning in to it when we vacationed on the Cape...they played stuff like The Four Freshman, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Sergio Mendes and Brazil '66, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, George Shearing, Nat King Cole...I genuinely enjoyed listening to it. Unfortunately they slowly switched over to the current "adult contemporary" format, and it is totally un-listenable for me today. I guess that makes me a complete geezer; The Four Freshman and Montovani are just fine by me, but I just can't abide by the music of these young upstarts like Carly Simon and Dan Fogelberg.

So here you easy listening version of "Eve of Destruction." Just because your country has gotten bogged down in a senseless war based on lies, and has set itself on a path of self-destruction doesn't mean you can't mix yourself a cocktail and relax after a hard day at the office. (Come to think of it, maybe these guys knew what they were doing after all.) And as the liner notes put it; "...they're all here, the milestones in message music; and with the Living Voices in charge, their appeal is every bit as musical as it is cerebral." As a special bonus I offer "Positively 4th Street" for your listening pleasure as well--you've never heard Dylan like this before. And just pray I never break out my copy of Chipmunk Punk, because you really don't want me to got there.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Game Theory

One of the things I'm learning as I do this is that a lot of music I assumed was obscure isn't anymore. For example; every song ever recorded by Miaow (which I spent years searching for on record) is currently available on CD; likewise you can download Wild Carnation’s once scarce Tricycle from iTunes. On the other hand, CDs that were ubiquitous 5 to 10 years ago have (at least temporary) been condemned to the dustbin of history.

Sitting at the top of that dustbin is the music of Scott Miller. If Amazon’s Marketplace is any indication, it will cost you a small fortune to collect the complete works of Game Theory, music I assumed was still easily available. It’s especially a shame that nothing by Game Theory is in print; "24," "Erica’s Word," "Crash Into June," "Throwing the Election," and others are sublime moments of pop perfection that deserved a wider audience than they ever reached. But then that seems to be true of nearly all power-pop; despite being insanely catchy, from Big Star to Tommy Keene to Teenage Fanclub, the best power pop has never actually been particularly popular.

If you can find a copy, I highly recommend Game Theory’s 1990 best-of Tinker To Evers To Chance. In addition to presenting some of the best material from their wonderful Enigma albums, it also has some re-recorded versions of early material, including a 1989 re-recording of his early band Alternate Learning's "Beach State Rocking." Michael Quercio of The Three O'clock played bass in the that final edition of Game Theory. After that line-up (the last of many) fell apart, Miller retired the Game Theory moniker only to record the exact same type of music under the name The Loud Family with a similar rotating cast of extras. Free downloads from The Loud Family and Game Theory are available at the Loud Family website.

Also on the Loud Family website Scott Miller lists of his 20 favorite albums for every year from 1965 to 1999. (By the way, although I am not a list maker myself, I actually think Scott's lists are pretty cool. First off, he doesn't assuming a position of authority, he's just lists just what he likes, which is a lot more interesting anyway.) Also on the Loud Family website is Scott’s rather sad answer as to why no Game Theory albums are currently available.

Pitchfork's 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s

Apparently Pitchfork is counting down the “200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s” this week. I’m not going to argue with their list, although as my friend Adam pointed out, the fact that they ranked The Byrds “Eight Miles High” at #105, behind King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” probably says a lot about the perception of pop music within elite indie music circles these days.

Instead of nitpicking, I just want to ask a simple question: Why?

Why does anyone feel the need to decide what the greatest songs of the 1960s are in the first place? Who cares? Why do they care? Most importantly, what leads someone to believe they have the cultural authority to make such proclamations?

Why not just make a list of “200 Songs From the 1960s We Think are Swell”? Somehow having Pitchfork tell me the “greatest” songs of the 1960s strikes me as silly, especially since I’m willing to wager the majority of their staff was born well after 1970. (And this is off point, but why does Pitchfork have to give ratings with decimal points? What exactly is the difference between an album that scores a 6.3 and one that scores a 6.4?)

Beyond such quibbling, I simply don’t understand the obsessive need to make lists. I suspect it is some kind of cognitive disorder that is carried on the nerd gene (everyone I’ve ever known who feels the need to make this kind of list is a hopeless nerd).

When I lived in New York I had an acquaintance (actually he was more like a stalker) who was one of these obsessive list makers. He was the most socially awkward person I have met in my entire life. He was an incredibly smart guy, but he literally had no clue how to interact with other human beings. I made the mistake of showing him some small level of kindness, and the next thing I knew he had my schedule memorized and I couldn’t get him out of my hair. He would call me up at odd hours to tell me he was making a list of the “200 Greatest Films of All-Time Without Repeating a Single Director,” or “The 100 All-Time Greatest Pop Songs With a Theremin in Them,” or "The 50 All-Time Greatest Lists of the 50 Greatest Albums of 1967." I imagined he had hundreds of such lists squirreled away in his apartment that he was constantly editing and re-arranging. (Personally, I thought his time would be better spent working on his resume considering he was unemployed.)

Anyhow, from the little I looked at it, there appear to be some really swell songs on the Pitchfork list, and it must be an extremely popular feature because their server keeps running slow and/or crashing, so what the heck do I know? But instead of working myself into a lather over some meaningless slight to the Byrds, I’m just going to pity these poor guys for what I imagine is their complete lack of a social life.

Bag O Shells

Before they settled on the name Velvet Crush, Paul Chastain and Ric Menck (both separately and together) issued music under a bewildering array of monikers; Choo Choo Train, The Springfields, The Paint Set, Paul/Paulie Chastain, The Nines, The Reverbs, The Big Maybe, Stupid Cupids, etc. I have never been entirely clear on what distinguished one project from the next, and I doubt even Paul and Ric could explain the difference between all of these bands. (To make matters more confusing some of these early recordings were later collected under Ric Menck's name on the wonderful Ballad of Ric Menck CD.)

This song comes from a 1990 Bus Stop 7" credited to "Bag O Shells." It's hard to imagine that they ever envisioned Bag O Shells as anything other than a temporary moniker, but for all I know they thought that was the name they were going to ride to the top of the charts. More pre-Velvet Crush material has recently been collected on the appropriately titled, Hey Wimpus: The Early Recordings Of Paul Chastain & Ric Menck, but for some reason none of the Bag O Shells material is on it. It's hard to understand why, because this is wimp rock in its purest form, I mean, this song is even called "Pocketbook" for crying out loud.

Like most of the pre-Velvet Crush material, this is more twee and cutesy than anything Paul and Ric did as Velvet Crush, which makes it pretty darn twee and cutesy. It's easy to hear their infatuation with the baroque pop of the The Left Banke on this cut. I like it.

Monday, August 14, 2006

George Jones

During the 1950s and 60s Country Music was an art form frequently in a dialogue with itself; if a male singer had a hit song about how great their dead dog was, you could bet dollars to donuts that three months later there'd be an answer song by a female singer telling her cheatin' man why she ran over his mangy mutt. But while many answer songs were (ahem) proverbial dogs, the trend also led to some true classics; perhaps the best example was Hank Thompson's "Wild Side of Life" about a wife gone astray being answered by the Kitty Wells classic "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" explaining why good wives go bad.

Back in 1957-58, with American military forces stationed around the globe, Nashville was in the midst of a mini-craze for cross-cultural love songs. In '57 Hank Locklin had a hit with "Geisha Girl" and Skeeter Davis answered it with "Lost To A Geisha Girl." Bobby Helms hit with "Fraulein" and Kitty Wells answered with "I'll Always Be Your Fraulein." And Jimmie Skinner put them all in their place with "I Found My Girl In the U.S.A."

It's in this context that George Jones wrote "Eskimo Pie" in 1958:

You can talk about your Frauleins and your pretty Geisha girls / And about the one you got in the U.S.A. / But I found myself a sweetheart in Alaska way up high / She's my Eskimo baby, she's my Eskimo pie.

Part answer disc, part trend hopping, and slightly bizarre, Jones sings about a pretty Eskimo girl who saves his life and wins his heart. Mercury/Starday released this song as 45 with "Color of the Blues" on the flip. "Color of the Blues" can currently be found on about 20 in-print Jones anthologies, while "Eskimo Pie" has been unavailable anywhere for years.

One more thing; George Jones is the best country singer ever.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Lancelot Link & the Evolution Revolution

For those of you under the age of 35, Lancelot Link Secret Chimp was a live-action Saturday morning kids show that ran from 1970-72, and sporadically in repeats for a few years after that. It featured secret agent chimps from APE (Agency to Prevent Evil) that battled an evil organization known as CHUMP (Criminal Headquarters for Underworld Master Plan). As was the custom at the time, the show also featured bubblegum pop musical interludes, and Lance’s band, Lancelot Link and the Evolution Revolution, provided the show’s music. Somehow the fact that the chimps were both secret agents and rock musicians provoked no cognitive dissonance for me when I was four. Hey, if the chimps could talk, why not?

In 1970, ABC Records released an above average bubblegum pop LP featuring music from the series credited to Lancelot Link and the Evolution Revolution. The music may not quite be up to the standards of the best of The Ohio Express or the 1910 Fruitgum Company, but it is pretty groovy nonetheless. And I have to give these chimps extra credit for even being able to play instruments, because I don't think most chimps can do that. And you gotta love the outfits!

The entire Lance Link series was recently released on DVD. Unfortunately, it has been the subject of a boycott by both animal rights groups who believe the animals were treated less than ethically during filming, and fundamentalist Christians who find the notion of talking chimps blasphemous. I understand Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has even made a campaign issue out of it calling his opponent, Bob Casey, "soft on talking primates."

Saturday, August 12, 2006

feelies on youtube

I just found this great clip of the feelies performing "Doin' It Again" on Letterman. It looks like only three actual feelies were present (Mercer, Million and Weckerman), but what makes it really interesting is that it reunites them with Crazy Rhythms-era drummer (and Letterman band member) Anton Fier. [As a poster pointed out, Anton Fig, not Fier, is Letterman's drummer.] I vaguely remember watching this at the time.

If you haven't seen it already there is also an awesome version of "Crazy Rhythms" up on youtube where they look to be playing at a hippie/nerd alliance conference circa-1979. Check it out. This is a real treasure.

Tomorrow I will post a song in honor of this blog's very first poster, "secretchimp."

the feelies

This is another promo-only B-side from A&M, and another song deserving of wider distribution. If you think about it, A&M circa 1988 had a heck of a line-up of underground/indie acts; the feelies, Robyn Hitchcock, Soul Asylum, The Mekons, and probably some others I'm forgetting about. When A&M got gobbled up by Polygram in 1989 most of the A&R people that signed those acts were replaced, and the bands that didn't get cut outright received insufficient promotion and tour support. This is one of the factors that contributed to the 1992 break-up of the feelies, when Bill Million decided he and his family needed heath insurance and he took a job as a locksmith at Disney World.

"Dancing Barefoot," a Patti Smith cover, features a rare lead vocal by Brenda Sauter. I probably saw the feelies live over a dozen times, and I can't recall a single instance of Brenda getting anywhere near a microphone. She seemed content to keep in the background with her bass, but her sweet, monochromatic voice is quite effective on this cut. I prefer this version to the Smith original. Brenda later overcame her mic-shy ways in Wild Carnation, a band she formed with her husband Richard Barnes after the feelies demise.

I have a bunch more feelies rarities that I imagine I'll post later. Their Coyote material is available for special purchase from Twin/Tone Digital, which I think is an interesting way of making music for which there is minimal demand available. You can also download half-song samples to see if you like it. If you don't already own it, The Good Earth is an absolute classic. I will have more to say about distribution models in the digital age later.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Magick Heads

The Magick Heads were (are?) a side project of Bats frontman Robert Scott. I guess the best way to describe them would be a cross between the the Kiwi pop of The Bats and the British folk-rock of Fairport Convention. Lead singer Jane Sinnott even sounds a little like Sandy Denny. Their first two albums, Before We Go Under and Woody seem to have fallen out-of-print. I missed their 2000 release, Transvection, but I'm willing to bet that it's excellent as well--from The Clean, to The Bats, to The Magick Heads, I don't think Bob Scott is capable of being involved with anything less than fantastic. The title track of Before We Go Under was written for Barbara Manning and released on a Teenbeat 7". It's the best thing she ever did, and I'll probably post her version later. Until then enjoy "Standing On the Edge" from the first Magick Heads album.

Arthur Fiedler/Leroy Anderson - The Waltzing Cat

"The Waltzing Cat" Is my four-year-old son's favorite song--by a long shot. No car trip of longer than five minutes goes by without a request for "The Waltzing Cat." This version is taken from an LP of the Boston Pops playing some of the best-known compositions by Leroy Anderson. This is the kind of thing that many classical music enthusiasts today turn their noses up at, but I'm willing to bet that many of them got their first introduction to classical music through Arthur Fiedler. Under Fiedler the Boston Pops made more recordings than any orchestra in the world and sold in excess of 50 million records.

For people of my generation Fiedler's legacy may be slightly tainted by late-career embarrassments like Saturday Night Fielder, but the he deserves better than to be remembered for projects like those. In addition to being the greatest ambassador classical music ever had, he was a terrific conductor as well, especially with lighter music like that of Leroy Anderson.

"Living Stereo" LPs by Fiedler and the Pops are cheap and plentiful (I got this one for free). They are well worth picking up both for the excellent music and sound quality.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Redd Kross - Annette's Got the Hits

"Annette's Got The Hits" is one of the all-time great teen punk anthems. What distinguishes it from most other great teen-punk anthems is that it was actually written and performed by teen punks (actually, Steven McDonald was only 12 at the time this song was recorded, so perhaps it's really a pre-teen-punk anthem). The last time this song was in print was on a Rhino Records "Rodney on the ROC" compilation (the song garnered a lot of airplay on KROQ at the time of its release in 1979).

Redd Kross's bubblegum/punk/pop hybrid has been criminally overlooked. Virtually their entire catalog is currenly out-of-print. If you find a copy of their brilliant 1990 Atlantic CD, Third Eye grab it. Neurotica has recently been reissued with bonus material, and the cult-classic movie they contributed heavily to, Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, has recently been released on DVD. Also, the Neurotica-era line up has reunited, and a new album is due for 2007. Hopefully all this activity will lead to a renewed interest in the band.

Funny story: Back when I lived with my parents for a year between college and grad school I rented Desperate Teenage Lovedolls on my parents Blockbuster account. I guess I returned it late. The next time my Mom went to rent a movie she was informed within earshot of everyone else standing in line that she owed a late fee on Desperate Teenage Lovedolls. Mortified, she assured the clerk she would never have rented that kind of film, so the clerk yells out to the manager, "This lady says she didn't rent Desperate Teenage Lovedolls!" Sorry Mom!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Soul Asylum - One Way Conversation

"One Way Conversation" was released as the B-side of a promo only 12" supporting the 1990 album ...And the Horse They Rode in On. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been made commercially available, although a quick search of reveals that it was covered by Crash Vegas. I imagine this song didn't make the final cut because it was decided it wouldn't fit in with the rest of the album, seeing as how "One Way Conversation" is actually a decent song. (I remember thinking Horse was a disappointing album when it came out in 1990 on the heels of Hang Time, and I guess still think so today.)

I have to admit I've soured on Soul Asylum in general over time. I haven't listened to them in years. Even the recent passing of bassist Karl Mueller was not enough to get me to drag out Made To Be Broken in a fit of nostalgia. I'm not exactly sure why I turned on this band. I don't think it's because they temporarily got big, or even because Dave Pirner stole my then make-believe girlfriend Winona Ryder.* It's just that lyrics that once struck me as clever seem too facile, even downright embarrassing, now.

My judgment is probably too harsh: when I cringe at one of Dave Pirner's cornier lines today, I think I am mostly feeling contempt for the dumb kid who used to worship these guys (i.e. me 15-20 years ago). Why Soul Asylum evokes that contempt more than say, Robyn Hitchcock, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, or any one else, I'm not sure.

And to tell the truth, as I look over the track list for ...And the Horse They Rode in On, it doesn’t look like such a bad album; "Spinnin'," "Bitter Pill," "Gullible's Travels," "Grounded"...those were all solid songs. It would have been a stronger album with "One Way Conversation" included though. Also, "We 3" really should have been cut, the lyrics to that one made me cringe 15 years ago.

*True story: I used to clerk at the infamous New York City video/music store Kim's Underground circa 1993-94. One day I was sent to sub for someone who had called in sick at the West Village location. While I was there, none other than Winona Ryder walked in and purchased every Soul Asylum CD. And no, she didn't shoplift them, she paid for them with a credit card (although for all I know she might have walked out of the store with a couple laser disc players under her blouse). A few weeks later I saw her and Dave Pirner walking hand-in-hand down St. Mark's Place.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Phil Ochs in Africa

I have always been attracted to doomed and tragic figures, and perhaps no one was more doomed or tragic than Phil Ochs. Crushed by the weight of collapsing idealism in the late-sixties, Ochs committed suicide in 1976. He left behind an uneven, but extraordinary body of work. Even his most topical songs tend to hold up well today because of the undeniable passion and humanity he brings to them. Sadly, many of his protest songs are all too topical today; a few judicious word changes to "Here's To The State of Richard Nixon" could describe our current imperial presidency. Had Phil Ochs survived to see the Bush Presidency, he no doubt would have hung himself all over again.

Here is one of the most rare items in the Ochs discography, "Bwtue" the A-side of a single he recorded while on tour in Kenya in 1973. To my knowledge, the two songs he recorded for this single were the last studio recordings of Ochs' career. By 1973 Ochs had already fallen into a state of deep depression, and was suffering from a severe case of writer's block.

The 1973 African trip would have tragic implications for Ochs' life and career. While walking on the beach at night, he was robbed and strangled; as a result his vocal chords were permanently damaged. Ochs believed agents of the U.S. government orchestrated the attack. I cannot say if this was the case or not, but it should be pointed out that Ochs was extremely paranoid at this point in his life. It should also be pointed out that the FBI had long had him under surveillance and considered him a threat.

I suppose you could say that Ochs was doing "World Music" long before Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads or Paul Simon started incorporating elements from African music into their own compositions, but I think that is giving him too much credit. Listening to this song it is hard to figure out what the heck Ochs is even doing on it. Perhaps if he had not been so depressed he might have returned to the States to create some kind of genuine World Music fusion, but that was not to be.

Monday, August 07, 2006

R.I.P. Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee

The recent deaths of Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee got me thinking; who’s next? These things usually come in threes, so if I were Roky Erickson or Sky Saxon, I would probably be extra careful crossing the street over the next few weeks.

In all seriousness, I was very sad to hear the news of the passing of these two 60s rock titans. The discovery of the music of these two artists, and the mythology surrounding them, had a catalyzing effect on my taste in music. Love, Barrett and The Velvet Underground formed a sort of holy trinity for me when I was in high school. One of the things that especially bonds Lee and Barrett in my mind is the fact that after an intense period of creative genuis, neither ever created anything close to as good again (in Barrett’s case he never even recorded again). Sometimes it really is better to burn out than to fade away.

No doubt both Barrett and Lee's careers were hampered by drugs and mental illness, but one could argue their careers were made in no small part due to drugs and mental illness as well. Lee's passing is particulary sad, as after years in the wilderness (including time in jail), he finally seemed to have gotten his life back on track before he got sick.

As for Barrett, beyond his music, much of his appeal to me always laid in the mystery of his total disappearance from the public eye after releasing his two solo albums. In this interesting interview Barrett's sister claims Syd led a fairly normal life, and did not suffer from any mental illness. While such a revelation might puncture the romantic image of Barrett as a wild-eyed recluse, it should be pointed out that his sister seems to be a bit protective of him. Still it’s interesting to consider the possibility that since 1980 or so Barrett lived like a normal guy with interests in gardening and photography. It’s probably closer to the truth than the mythology his former band built up around him.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Robyn Hitchcock

Solo acoustic seems to be one of the better settings for Robyn Hitchcock, offsetting his sometimes unfortunate production choices when working with a full band. I Often Dream Of Trains was an early career highlight, where he regained some momentum after the disastrously over-produced Groovy Decoy. Later in his career Eye served as a welcome change of pace from his fussily produced, but otherwise excellent, A&M releases.

While cleaning out my basement recently I found a cassette tape of Robyn doing a bunch of covers live in the studio. Here is a nice little version of Morrissey’s "Everyday Is Like Sunday" from that tape. According to the tape cover this song dates to the A&M era. The tape even lists an A&M A&R contact with phone number (what do you think the chances are that guy is still at A&M?). These were probably intended as B-sides, but to my knowledge none of them ever emerged on any commercial releases. Pretty much everything Robyn recorded for A&M is now out-of-print, but I would love to see Robyn release a whole album of some of his better acoustic covers.