Wednesday, September 19, 2007

George Jones & Melba Montgomery

George Jones' best known duet partner was his one time wife (and Country music legend in her own right) Tammy Wynette. But he recorded many fine duets with other female artists, most notably Melba Montgomery.

When she first arrived as a solo artist, Montgomery's deep, husky voice earned her comparisons to George Jones. Jones thought their vocals would mesh well, and his instincts proved right as they notched six hit singles together between 1963 and 1967.

Though she never became a huge star in her own right, Montgomery did manage a number one Country single and surprise pop-hit with "No Charge" in 1974. A mother's response to a child's request for money, "No Charge" is the world's biggest guilt trip set to music. (Tammy Wynette later covered the song with her and George's daughter Tina playing the part of the greedy tot.)

As for these sides, "Let's Invite Them Over" was the duo's second hit single in 1963, and "Party Pickin'" was their final chart entry in 1967. There is a barely unspoken subtext to these two songs that suggests the conservative world of Country music was not entirely untouched by the sexual revolution that unfolded around it. Whatever it is George and Melba were inviting their neighbors over to do in 1963, they sure sound real guilty about it. By contrast, the cut from 1967 has a rowdier tone, and the couple is willing to quickly forgive each others' indiscretions without guilt or apology (or is it the thought of the indiscretions that turns George into a "tiger" at the songs' end?). If you ask me, this is very dirty music.

Capitol released a good compilation of the duo's United Artists sides back in the mid 90s that has fallen out-of print. Hollywood Records released a cut-rate compilation of some of the later sides they cut for Musicor. Sporting crummy art work, no liner notes, poor sound quality and spotty tune selection, George Jones & Melba Montgomery is the kind of CD you typically find for sale in truck stops. Unfortunately, the only other way to find most of the music on it is to track down the original LPs (which is not a bad idea).

Friday, September 14, 2007

Toadstool - The Sun Highway

Toadstool was a Minneapolis based trio of John Joyce (bass, vocals), Scott Sherman (drums), and Brad White (guitars, vocals). The band's first album, The Sun Highway, was produced by Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner, which is probably what drew my attention to them in the first place. The band's overall sound is similar to Soul Asylum in certain respects, but with a much stronger leaning towards the blues, and far more abstract lyrics. At the time it was released, I was impressed enough with the album to book the band to play at my college. They ended up playing on a double bill with Skin Yard in the Fall of 1990. Unfortunately, the show was far less successful in terms of attendance than I hoped it would be. But despite playing for a crowd of about 50 people, Toadstool rocked the Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium right down to the freakin' ground.

I think the show was sparsely attended in part due to bad timing on my part, I foolishly scheduled it too close to midterms. Apparently many of my classmates thought their time was better spent studying than rocking out. Actually, most of them were probably at frat parties. (At the time, I remember seeing a sign that advertised a frat party with the promise that "Toadstool will not be there!" One year later these same dim wits would be blasting Nirvana at their lame ass parties, claiming they always liked this kind of music.)

Obviously Toadstool never went on to scale the multi-platinum commercial heights that Nirvana reached. Actually, that is about as big an understatement as a person can make: according to their label The Sun Highway "sold 434 vinyl albums, 322 cassettes and 643 CDs in the first two years of release." Ouch. They never released another album, and The Sun Highway has been out-of-print for years.

So maybe those idiot frat boys were right all along. Maybe I was the idiot for booking Toadstool in the first place. Going back and listening to this album again after not having heard it for a long time, I don't think that is the case. No, Toadstool was not as great as Nirvana or their Minneapolis compatriots Soul Asylum. (I didn't think they were at the time, but they were a lot cheaper to book, believe me.) But this is solid stuff, delivered with a lot of passion and a surprising amount of skill. The Sun Highway is a very promising debut album, and it's easy to imagine the band having gone on to bigger and better things, even if that's not the way it worked out. The Sun Highway is positively bursting with ideas, and while not all of them work, it's still an engaging listen 17 years later.

"Last Thing Right" and "Dreams Rust" were the two songs from the album I played the most at the time, and they still sound like the best tracks to my much older ears. I remember thinking at the time that the band sounded far better live than they did on record. Too bad they didn't stick around long enough for a follow up. I think they were onto something.

Like Jonathan Richman's Rockin' and Romance, The Sun Highway is available as a custom burned CD from Twin/Tone. If you are still considering ordering Rockin' and Romance (and you should be if you haven't done so already), and want to add another CD to your order to make the shipping charge less painful, you could do a lot worse than The Sun Highway.

The Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium has never been the same.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Harpo Marx - Harpo At Work

Eugene Chadbourne wrote a fantastic review of Harpo Marx's 1958 easy listening masterpiece, Harpo At Work for All Music Guide that very much deserves to be read in its entirety. I don't often read a review at All Music Guide and say "I couldn't have possibly said it any better myself," but that is the case here. I say this neither to denigrate the other reviewers at All Music Guide, nor to praise myself. It's just that generally the goals of this blog are different enough from those of All Music that I rarely find much overlap between their take on a particular album and what I want to say.

Chadbourne touches on all the major characteristics that give this album and the Harpo character such enduring appeal: the surprising and delightful ability of a mute character to express himself so elegantly through music, the tension inherent in the idea of Harpo as both cherubic angel and outrageous rebel, and the seemingly natural affinity between Harpo's unorthodox musical technique and jazz.

I've noticed that Chadbourne--a noted avant-garde musician in his own right--occasionally writes album reviews for All Music Guide. From the few I've read, his reviews are typically both entertaining and insightful. It makes me wish All Music was searchable by author. Chadbourne's writing is so different from the blandly authoritative tone adopted by most of the site's writers that it almost seems as if he somehow hacked into the allmusic server and uploaded idiosyncratic reviews of personal favorites that are obscure enough that the site's editors will never notice they're there. [If that in fact is what happened, I hope I haven't busted him].

Harpo recorded several jazz oriented, easy listening albums during the 50s. In addition to this album, he also recorded a 10" EP for RCA in 1952, and another album for Mercury, Harpo In Hi-Fi, in 1957. Both the Mercury albums were packaged as a single CD by Collector's Choice Music that has sadly fallen out-of-print, and now fetches collector's prices along with the original LPs.

If you consider "easy listening" a derogatory term, you are not likely to appreciate these albums, as the music fits comfortably into that genre. For the rest of us there is much in Harpo's music to appreciate. First and foremost is Harpo's harp playing itself. Though self-taught, Marx was a virtuoso on his instrument, albeit an idiosyncratic one.

When he was first given a harp by his mother (or possibly his uncle), there was no one around who knew how to properly tune the instrument. So Harpo tuned it himself. As it turned out he inadvertently discovered an alternate tuning that allowed for considerably more slack in the strings than standard tuning.

Harpo later hired some of the finest classical harpists in the world to teach him proper technique, but to no avail. The style he developed using his own alternate tuning would have snapped the strings on a "properly" tuned harp. No matter, most of his teachers quickly became more interested in observing Harpo's unique playing style than in teaching him how to play "properly." It is no exaggeration to say that no one played the harp quite like Harpo Marx. (Or as Jonathan Richman put it, "Well when Harpo played his harp it was a dream, it was/Well if someone else can do it, how come nobody does?")

Of course the fact that Harpo innocently stumbled onto his own method for tuning and playing the harp fits nicely with the persona he developed for stage and screen. Harpo the character, the mute clown in a fright wig, seemed to have stumbled in from some alternate universe, so it is no surprise he would play the harp differently from everyone else.

Harpo's unique approach to playing the harp is very much on display in this clip from The Marx Brother's 1932 film, Horse Feathers:

Many of Harpo's fans today seem to remember him primarily as a kind of benign, angelic presence. But it should not be forgotten that in the early films the Brothers made for Paramount (and before the era of censorship ushered in by enforcement of the Hays Code), Harpo's character was also frequently a lecherous pervert who was apparently sexually attracted to animals. His character was neutered in the later films by MGM and the demands of the code, but in those anarchic early films Harpo is one of the most deliciously strange characters ever to appear in film (which is no doubt why he counted Salvador Dali among his many admirers). In films like Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, Harpo's character was typically lecherous and perverted while at the same time angelic, innocent and otherworldly. A similar tension is present in his music which manages to be unorthodox and experimental while simultaneously sounding soothing and conventional.

The first song I selected from the album is "Laura." The virtuoso display of harp pedal use that Chadbourne mentions in his review is also a showcase for the arranging talents of Harpo's son Bill Marx. "Harpo Woogie" demonstrates Harpo's well-known humorous side. Finally there is Harpo alone at his harp, appropriately enough, on Duke Ellington's "Solitude." The music on Harpo At Work is completely enchanting, and Chadbourne's comparisons to Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix are in no way over-the-top. Harpo Marx was a truly gifted and original musician, and his slim recorded legacy outside of the Marx Brothers films is surely a great loss.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Legend Of Thumper Jones

Back in 1956 a house painter from Beaumont Texas named Thumper Jones walked into Starday Records' makeshift studio and recorded two of the wildest, most unhinged rockabilly sides ever recorded. He was never heard from again.

No one knows for certain what happened to Thumper, but speculation abounds. Some say he went back to painting houses, others say he was drafted. One story has him finding Jesus and giving up rock and roll to spread the gospel. Still others claim he was shot in a barfight over a woman known as "Flirty Mirty." One thing is for certain: he never recorded again.

Perhaps the most fanciful claim of all is that "Thumper" was merely a pseudonym for Country singer George Jones. Usually I wouldn't repeat such hearsay and nonsense, but it should be noted that someone named "Geo. Jones" is credited as writer for both "Rock It" and "How Come It." Also, despite Thumper's over-the-top performance, his voice does bear a certain similarity to that of the country legend.

Whoever is responsible for the performance, the rarity of these sides has no doubt contributed to their legendary status. A copy of this single in good condition could set you back anywhere between $250 to $500. But if you manage to track one down, do not under any circumstances ask George Jones to sign your copy--he's been know to smash them to pieces.