Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Rev. Fred Lane

I can still remember the day Car Radio Jerome by The Rev. Fred Lane arrived at our college radio station. Previous Shimmy Disc releases from arty New York weirdos like Bongwater, B.A.L.L. and King Missile had impressed me and found their way into the station's heavy rotation, much to the annoyance of some of students at our small, conservative, liberal arts college.

Most of the stuff on Shimmy Disc was weird, but The Rev. Fred Lane was from a whole different universe of weirdness. This wasn't arty, affected, New York "weird," this stuff was strange and compelling in a way that was more in line with the work of "outsider" artists like The Rev. Howard Finster or Henry Darger. While the music was too sophisticated and knowingly strange to have been made by an illiterate janitor who stashed tapes in his dresser that no one knew he made until his landlady found them, it was clearly made by someone on the "outside" who wasn't looking for a way "in."

The album threw absurdist humor, an Elvis fixation, demented swing music, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, rockabilly, and lounge music into a pop-culture blender. It was pretty obvious to me that the "Rev. Fred Lane" was some sort of pseudonym. The back cover featured photos of what I assumed were imaginary albums by the Reverend with titles like How's That Oil? Vol. II, and From The One That Cut You, mixed with covers for real albums by the likes of Pat Boone, Frankie Laine, and album covers by imaginary artists like Ron 'Pate's Debonaires and Nervous Tension Headache McPherson.

Or at least I assumed this stuff was imaginary. It was possible the covers referred to real albums—it was hard to tell. Could it be that there was some strange, alternate musical universe that I was previously completely unaware of? It didn't seem likely, I was pretty up on the world of strange music—I knew about The Residents, I knew about Jandek. But maybe Fred Lane and these other guys had been self-releasing albums for years and this was the first one picked up by an actual record label. Maybe this was something that had flown well under my radar.

My curiosity was aroused, so I called up Shimmy Disc owner Kramer. I had previously interviewed him for an article in our school newspaper about his multiple jobs as a producer at Noise New York, musician in several bands, and owner of Shimmy Disc. In the article I called him a Renaissance man and a genius. It was the last thing I was allowed to write for the school paper.

Kramer and I chatted for a few minutes. He told me he was working on another album with Galaxie 500. (For some reason he never asked me if we actually played the records he sent.) After a while I told him I loved the Fred Lane record, and thought it was weird even by Shimmy Disc's standards. "Yeah," he said, "cool, huh?" "Yeah, it's great," I replied, "but tell me who is The Rev. Fred Lane really, and what's the deal with all the album covers on the back?" The line went quiet for about ten seconds, and when he replied the earlier friendly tone in his voice was gone, and in an icily serious voice he said, "I'm sorry, I'm not at liberty to divulge that information."

Was he serious? He couldn't tell me who The Rev. Fred Lane really is? We were talking about music, not Iran-Contra. "Come on man," I said, "don't be like that—you gotta give me something." After a few minutes of pestering he relented, "I've already said more than I should, but if you want to know more, show up at KKs on First Avenue between 11th and 12th Street at 2:30 AM. Order a bowl of borscht with two eggs. When the waitress brings you the check tell her 'the one that cut you' sent you."

All right, now this was really getting strange. I figured he had to be pulling my leg. "Dude, you gotta be kidding," I said, "I'm in freakin' Carlisle, PA. New York City is over four hours away. I have a midterm tomorrow." "Do you want to know or not?" he replied. Something in his voice told me he was serious. "Do what I told you and all your questions will be answered."

I really didn't think about it much. I went back to my apartment and "borrowed" $20 for gas money from my roommate [Adam—someday I intend to pay you back, sorry about that] got in my Subaru and headed for New York City. I listened to dubbed a cassette of Car Radio Jerome the whole way. It was almost 2:30 by the time I got to the city.

I went to KK's, a grungy little Polish restaurant in the East Village. I did exactly what I was told. I ordered a bowl of borscht with two eggs. The waitress was a pretty woman in her mid-thirties with a heavy Eastern-European accent. When she brought the check I was rather embarrassed, but said, "The one that cut you sent me." I was half expecting her to freak out on me and have me thrown out, but in a very blasé voice she said, "Okay, just a minute, I get it." She came back with a two hundred page mimeographed manuscript. It still had that slightly sickening fresh off the mimeograph smell. I looked at it for a second. "This isn't even in English," I said, "What language is this?" "It's Esperanto," she said. "But I don't speak Esperanto," I protested, "Nobody does." "You're smart boy" she said, "You'll figure out."

[To be continued...]

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Dr. Janet

2007 marks the 17 year anniversary of the only release by indie-rock super-group Dr Janet. I don't think any major commemorative celebrations have been planned, but I could be wrong about that. This was a one off project that featured Gary Lee Connor of the Screaming Trees, Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, Matt Sweeney of Skunk, and Lyle Hysen of Das Damen. (Bonus points to the first person who can tell me which one of these guys would go on to record with Johnny Cash). One could think of the group as a Blind Faith or Rhinoceros for the 90s. Actually, I suspect all these guys just happened to be in New York in August of 1990 and someone said "hey, let's make a single."

With it's epic sweep and psychedelic guitar jamming, the A-side "Ten Years Gone" would not have sounded out-of-place on the Screaming Trees' major-label debut Uncle Anesthesia. Connor is not Mark Lanegan's equal as a vocalist, but the track works well enough.

The real treat in my opinion is the B-side, a cover of The Records' power-pop hit "Starry Eyes." The band is smart enough not to muck around with the song's chiming guitars and pop hook too much, while adding just enough wah-wah guitar to distinguish it from the original. It's a nasty kiss-off to a former manager, and Connor's vocals bring the caustic nature of the song to the forefront a bit more than in The Records' version.

The Records' hit version of the song (truly one of the all-time great power-pop anthems) is available on the compilation Smashes, Crashes and Near Misses, while the original demo version can be found on Paying For The Summer of Love. While The Records' Virgin recordings are just fine, I prefer the demos on Summer of Love which capture the band at a time when they still had a strong 60s influence that they largely abandoned in favor of a more contemporary and less-compelling sound on their first album.

As for the Dr. Janet 7" if you want a copy, I suspect eBay is your best bet.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"The Velvet Underground" - Squeeze

Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows that I take an almost perverse delight in declaring albums that critics and the public have written off as garbage to be "lost classics" or at least more worthwhile than is usually assumed. So you might expect me to declare Squeeze, the 1973 album by the Lou Reed-less, Doug Yule-led Velvet Underground, to be a minor masterpiece. Not this time. Squeeze is not a lost masterpiece. It's the kind of garbage that deserves to be forgotten, only it can't quite be because it turns up in the discography of one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time. It's a putrid footnote to an otherwise nearly flawless band's career.

Apparently some believe Squeeze deserves a second listen (from Wikipedia):
Due to perceived middle of the road content, Squeeze is sometimes dismissed out of hand by Velvet Underground fans. However, with the advent of Internet audio file sharing, the previously obscure record has gained some supporters, who speculate that Squeeze might have fared far better if it had been promoted not as a V.U. album, but as Yule's solo debut, with some arguing that some of the songs would not have been out of place on Loaded.

First of all, I would point out that Squeeze was not promoted as a Doug Yule solo album, it was promoted--in the most exploitative manner imaginable (with cover art and type script that recalled Loaded no less)--as a Velvet Underground album. There is a very good reason for this: no one was interested in a freakin' Doug Yule solo album. Doug Yule could not have gotten a record deal, even in the UK, if he had opted to release this under the name "The Doug Yule Experience." Yule and sleazeball Velvet's manager Steve Sesnick decided to "squeeze" a few extra bucks out of the Velvet Underground name by foisting a fraud onto the public. The fact that Sesnick was the driving force behind this (and the guy who made off with the advance money) does not absolve Yule of his share of the blame. This is not the same thing as Arthur Lee releasing sub-par "Love" records with himself as the only original member. (A better comparison would be if Frank Fayad or Noony Rickett tried to release a "Love" album.) Lee had both the legal and moral authority to release anything he wanted under the Love moniker. Yule and Sesnick had the legal right to do whatever they wanted with the Velvet's name, and what they chose to do was sleazy and dishonest.

But for the sake of argument, let's pretend that we can set aside the inherently insulting nature of a Velvet Underground album with no original Velvets playing on it (we can't, but let's pretend). Would this album have fared better with critics if it had been released as a Doug Yule solo album? Perhaps, but it wouldn't make the music on the album any better, and for the most part the music really stinks. Lou Reed made good use of Doug Yule's soulless choirboy voice on the last two Velvets albums, but while the voice here is familiar, the material lacks the startling tension between Reed's razor sharp lyrics and the blandness of Yule's delivery. Hearing Yule sing "Candy says, I've come to hate my body, and all that it requires in this world" was chilling, but hearing him sing "Everybody knows you used to dance the hoochie-coo, just can't shake it like you used to do" (as he does on "Louise") is literally painful.

I will grant you, the best of the songs on the album ("Friends," "She'll Make You Cry," "Caroline") might not have sounded entirely out of place on Loaded, but they certainly would have stood out as the worst track on that album. And the rest of the songs ("Louise," "Little Jack," "Crash," "Dopey Joe," etc.) would have been unlikely to make the cut on a Mr. Mister album. The majority of the material is just plain bad.

"Caroline" is one of the few tolerable songs on the album, and has the most direct link to the sound of the classic band. Even so, the track is borderline insulting with it's Lou Reed-like backing vocals (possibly provided by Deep Purple's Ian Paice) and Lou Reed-lite hipster lyrics. "Louise" on the other hand is an outright travesty, and more typical of the poor quality of the material contained on the album.

Is this one of the worst albums ever made? No. But no amount of revisionist history can redeem it. Doug Yule and Steve Sesnick deserve to spend eternity in rock and roll hell (a place where you can only hear Pat Boone's version of "Tutti Frutti") for foisting such a monumental fraud on the public.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Digging Through the Live Music Archive

In the Live Music Archive there are basically two categories: Grateful Dead shows and non-Dead shows. Most artists in the database are dwarfed by the huge Grateful Dead Live Archive, which covers a 30-year span and has a whopping 2,800 shows. I haven’t downloaded the one and only Dead show I saw which was at RFK in ’86 but my memories of that day are still pretty vivid. It was a wild scene and unforgettable.

Out of the 128 Camper Van Beethoven shows in the archive I thought by chance one would document one of the nights I had seen them in D.C. back in the mid 80’s but most recordings were from 2003 to present - so no such luck. Ditto for the Robyn Hitchcock shows. While much of the archive is devoted to bands I’ve never heard of like the Disco Bicuits which have 700+ shows for instance, there is something here for everyone. Maybe even one of those ‘lost shows’ from your past. I did find two very different but enjoyable live sets.

While probably not new to many fans, Mojave 3’s Black Session from November 11, 1995 has a certain legendary status as being their first live show and is in my opinion on par with their official releases. A set of 8 songs slowly unwinds for the C’est Lenoir radio show in front of a small audience. A charming recording full of first-gig jitters that make it hard not to like.

On a related note, now has Slowdive’s last and hard to find out-of-print LP Pygmalion which I’d been curious about for sometime but couldn’t find a copy. Pygmalion further explores the territory of ambient textures and Eno influenced soundscapes.

Getting back to the Archive - The Minutemen were giants of their time and still stand as one of my favorites from the 80’s hardcore scene. Listening to this complete set from March 9, 1983 recorded in NYC does nothing in the way of changing my opinion. Blazing through 38 songs with hardly a pause between for fans to yell “Van Halen!” makes me want to yell "San Pedro!"

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Richard Thompson

What makes a particular sound recognizable? Neuroscience has made much progress in helping us to understand things like how we can recognize the voice of a loved one. We can even create algorithms that allow machines to recognize voices with a fair degree of accuracy (though they do not approach the efficiency of the human brain). Someday, perhaps sooner than we think, we will have a fairly detailed idea of what happens to our brain on a molecular level when we answer the phone and instantly recognize a voice.

But what strange alchemy is it that allows us to recognize the "voice" of an instrumentalist? This is a much more rare occurrence. It's one thing to instantly recognize the sound of your mother's voice, but it seems much more amazing that we can distinguish say, Miles Davis trumpet playing from that of Freddie Hubbard. Developing a recognizable "voice" on an instrument like the trumpet takes a level of skill that it is difficult for me to imagine.

Which makes Richard Thompson's accomplishment all the more remarkable. A few months ago, I was standing in line at a Babies 'R' Us and a voice in the back of my head said "Richard Thompson is playing that guitar." I tuned into the background music more closely, and sure enough it was Thompson playing "I Ride Through Your Slipstream" a track from his 1994 album Mirror Blue that I hadn't heard in years. The thing is, I can almost always recognize Thompson's playing--whether on an acoustic or electric instrument--within only a few notes. How does something like this happen? It's one thing to establish a "voice" on an acoustic instrument that produces sound by the force of one's breath (e.g. a trumpet or saxophone), but to do it on a stringed instrument that is at times electrically amplified and distorted--that strikes me as nearly miraculous.

How is it that using hardly anything more than his fingers Thompson has managed to create a "voice" that is so instantly recognizable? It's not just that I recognize Thompson's songwriting or his singing either. I can recall a number of times listening to someone else's music and thinking "that must be Richard Thompson playing." I check the liner notes, and yep, it's Thompson doing a guest spot (something he is asked to do often). Maybe I don't instantly recognize Thompson's playing 100% of the time, but far more often than not I do, regardless of context. I am at a loss to explain this phenomena. Perhaps one day neuroscience will be able to explain it. Until then, I chose to believe that Richard Thompson has magic fingers.

Here's a couple instrumental tracks from Thompson albums that have fallen out-of-print. The first is a Duke Ellington composition, "Rockin' In Rhythm" taken from Thompson's 1981 album of instrumentals, Strict Tempo. The other, "Persuasion" comes from a soundtrack to a nearly forgotten film, Sweet Talker. Tim Finn of Crowded House later added lyrics to the song, and Thompson re-recorded it with vocals for his Capitol era best of compilation, Action Packed. In both cases, despite the disparity in the material, production and instruments played, Thompson's playing is instantly identifiable.

Too often when people discuss the "great" rock guitarists, the basis of evaluation seems to be the level of technical difficultly required to play a particular solo or riff. Such considerations have their place of course--and there is no doubt that Thompson is capable of great feats of technical dexterity--but in creating a unique and instantly recognizable "voice" on his instrument, Thompson has in my estimation done something very special indeed.

Also, Thompson just released his umpteenth solo album, Sweet Warrior.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Strawberry Alarm Clock

When I was in high school I picked up a cassette compilation by The Strawberry Alarm Clock. Never having heard "Incense and Peppermints," I was expecting something similar to the proto-punk garage rock of The Chocolate Watchband. I was not prepared for music that sounded like a light psychedelic version of the Four Freshman. The cassette never got much play, and eventually got sold or lost. So when I came across a copy of the band's second LP, Wake Up. . . It's Tomorrow in a pile of unwanted records given to my Dad by a friend, I figured what the heck.

The pile was filled with a lot of 70s rock of little interest to me (the good stuff I already owned). Most of the stuff was pretty beat up too, so it was slim pickin's. In addition to the Strawberry Alarm Clock album, I took a signed Howard Stern album from his days as a DJ at DC 101 (I thought I might make some money on eBay on that one, but didn't), and a still sealed Tammy Faye Baker album.

The Strawberry Alarm Clock album was a pleasant surprise. I found I had a much greater tolerance for the band's easy-listening variant of psychedelia than I did as a kid, and could now admire the relatively intricate arrangements. The lyrics to "Sit With The Guru" still kinda crack me up, but It sure is catchy.

As for the Tammy Faye Baker album, it is still sealed and shall remain so eternally. I consider it a kind of allegory for temptation itself, and am determined not to give in.

I'll have a tall, no foam, 2%, caramel Macca-iatto

If you visit Starbuck's today you will hear Paul McCartney's new solo album playing. If you work at Starbuck's you'll hear it all day long (unless you did the only sane thing and called in sick). Apparently, McCartney's new solo album, Memory Almost Full, is the first release by Starbuck's and Concord's Hear Music label. (At least that's what this article says, although it seems to me like Starbuck's and Hear music have been releasing music for a while now. I suspect I am missing some nuance.)

If you are allergic to coffee, you can download the album from iTunes or eMusic, or buy it from a traditional music retailer. (Interestingly, since this is not an EMI release, it is not available in a DRM-free, higher bit rate version at the iTunes store, unlike the rest of McCartney's EMI controlled solo catalog).

I don't really have anything to say about Starbucks as a music label, I just wanted to post that clever title with "Macca-iatto" in it. Obviously a lot of people buy music at Starbuck's these days.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Big Day In Rock Music History

As many of you probably know, today is a big day in rock music history. Yes, that's right, we are only 191 days away from the 40th anniversary of the release of The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request (original release date: December 8, 1967). It's hard to believe it's almost been forty years since this album was released. I'm only 37, but I remember well the many celebrations, speeches, dedications, and all around pandemonium that marked the occasion of its 20th anniversary release.

I personally plan to celebrate the 40th anniversary in a manner so depraved that it is too shocking to post on the internet. Have you made plans for December 8, 2007 yet?