Monday, December 31, 2007

Do The Dead!

1985's Return Of The Living Dead impressed me, mostly for two reasons: it was a smartass zombie flick released when smartass horror films were rare and eerie things, and it had a great soundtrack.

During the 80s, both major and minor corporations were still reluctant to touch anything that remotely resembled 'punk rock,' even with the largest safety pin. Still, Return Of The Living Dead, a film presumably marketed to the same teenaged audience listening to stale Foreigner and Bob Seger records (keep in mind, this was before Bon Jovi hit it big with Slippery When Wet) pulsated with some mighty weird tunes. While semi-animated corpses slithered around the silver screen, The Damned, The Flesheaters, 45 Grave, T.S.O.L. and Roky Erickson (!) reverberated through the Showcase Cinema. Being about 16 or 17 years old at the time, I found the experience exhilarating. One very rarely encountered 'cool music' at the Mall in 1985. For example, I recall being stunned when Iggy Pop’s "Lust For Life" briefly arrived during Desperately Seeking Susan. Nowadays, the damned thing reclines in Royal Caribbean ads, but back then…

One of the best numbers on the Return Of The Living Dead Soundtrack, alongside Roky's "Burn The Flames" and 45 Grave's "Partytime," is The Cramps' looming "Surfin' Dead." It shambles along, the true Missing Link between the earlier voodoo vibes of Songs The Lord Taught Us, Psychedelic Jungle and Gravest Hits and the (very) slightly poppier garagifications of "Ultra Twist" and Flame Job. Switching the brains of the Rickety Rockabilly Corpse Of The Past and the Comic Book Rhythm Demon Of Later Years, "Surfin' Dead" is one of The Cramps' most perverse and hilarious creations.

Since Enigma Records released the Return Of The Living Dead Soundtrack, it makes sense that that many of the bands involved were affiliated with the label.* Roky Erickson, for example, released Don't Slander Me and Gremlins Have Pictures on Enigma's wild Pink Dust imprint. TSOL had their Revenge and then Hit & Run. The Cramps, Jet Black Berries (formerly New Math – dig They Walk Among You) SSQ and 45 Grave also exhumed material. Unfortunately, the word in the chat rooms is that Return Of The Living Dead, due to subsequent licensing problems, is no longer shown with its original soundtrack intact. A Shame, that.

Finally, I lent my copy of the Return Of The Living Dead soundtrack to a friend, a younger dude who liked Iron Maiden and Fates Warning. The LP was returned to me, a few weeks later, with an actual footprint stomped into the vinyl.

He was less impressed.

*In the interest of full-disclosure, I should mention that I worked for, a few years back, which was then a division of Enigma Digital.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Top 10 Albums of 2007

Because I'm an important music blogger one of the top 999,999 most read music bloggers on the internets, The Hype Machine wants to know what I think the top 10 albums of 2007 were. There's just one problem. I have no idea what the top 10 albums of 2007 were. The truth is I don't keep up with new music nearly as much as I used to, and most of the posts on this blog are (by design) about old music. Few people are less qualified than myself to decide what the best albums of 2007 were.

Still I'd like to participate in shaping the zeitgeist. So I'm asking for help from my readers. I'm listing some albums that might be included on a best of 2007 list and asking you to rank them for me, and add any suggestions of your own. I'll then synthesize the results into a tidy top 10 list. (I'm only considering new music, not reissues or archival releases).

Some albums I bought and liked:

Wilco - Sky Blue Sky
(I wrote a bit about this album before. While this got a mixed critical reception, it is possibly my favorite Wilco album, and might have been my favorite album of 2007).
Iron & Wine - The Shepherd’s Dog (Another excellent album, also possibly my favorite of 2007).
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - 100 Days, 100 Nights (Wow! Sharon Jones is the real deal. Sharon can really sing, and the Dap-Kings hit a hard groove. Maybe this was my favorite of 2007? Thanks to Adam for alerting me to Sharon.)
Teddy Thompson - Upfront & Down Low (I haven't seen Teddy's collection of country covers show up on any year-end best-of lists. That's a shame because it's fantastic. I've been meaning to do a full post on this album for months--I may yet get around to it.)
Arctic Monkeys - Favourite Worst Nightmare (Thanks again to Adam for alerting me to this. I kinda figured The Arctic Monkeys were another post-punk wanna be act. Maybe they are, but the music is undeniably fun).
Linda Thompson - Versatile Heart (Another strong release from the Thompson family.)
Amy Winehouse - Back to Black (While I think we are all burned out on reading about Amy Winehouse's exploits, her voice cannot be denied).
Richard Thompson - Sweet Warrior (A good, but not great, release from Richard Thompson).
Dean & Britta - Back Numbers (I didn't listen to this as much as I expected to. It's good though).
Fiest - The Reminder (I bought this for my wife, but I like it a lot too).
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - Magic (Ho-hum, another great Springsteen album).
Kristen Hersh - Learn To Sing Like A Star (Another good album that I haven't listened to a whole lot).

Albums I've been meaning to pick up:

Nick Lowe - At My Age
(I hear this is fantastic).
PJ Harvey - White Chalk (Good buzz on this, but I haven't heard it despite being a fan).
Neil Young - Chrome Dreams II (I'll get this eventually I'm sure).
Dinosaur Jr. - Beyond (Another pointless reunion, or brilliant return to form? Not sure I care, but I guess I'm at least curious).
The New Pornographers - Challengers (I always like their stuff, but haven't gotten around to picking this up).

Stuff that's over-rated (in my opinion):

Radiohead - In Rainbows (This is on virtually everyone's year-end list, but I just don't like Radiohead. Actually, I'm not sure that's even the right way to put it. I find nothing objectionable about their music when listening to it--in fact, sometimes it impresses me while I listen. But nothing, nothing this band has ever done has made a lasting impression on me, or moved me emotionally. If you put a gun to my head, I could not hum a single Radiohead tune to save my life. I don't know if that's a criticism or not, but I just am not a fan. And yes, I paid for the download).
Arcade Fire - Neon Bible (Been there, done that).
Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Ditto).
The Shins - Wincing The Night Away (For a pop band, they sure don't write very catchy music).

So help me out folks. What should make the cut and what shouldn't? What did I miss? What order should this stuff be in?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Down In The Park

Down in the park
Where the Machmen meet
The machines are playing 'kill-by-numbers'
Down in the park with a friend called 'Five'
In Fall 2004, I attended a coffee shop fundraiser for a progressive political organization. The Big Election was coming up and, being in a more sensitive frame of mind than usual, I attended. The weather was pretty depressing, as I recall, and there was a sense of real pessimism in the air. Still, local bands, some containing friends, were playing and a full afternoon, if not an actual good time, was guaranteed for all.

The line-up consisted of eccentric New Weird Folkidelica alongside potent electronic avant-gargling and a classical string duo. Alec K Redfearn, an accordionist, close friend, and on-off bandmade of Yours Truly, also played a set. He informed me, beforehand, that his would include a Gary Numan cover.

Alec's rickety squeezebox pulse, strengthened by the presence of some talented cello and violin players, pumped some life into an otherwise downbeat day. As he performed the aforementioned Gary Numan composition, its unforced melodic beauty became quite moving. The song, originally a frosty electro tune, lent itself to Alec's idiosyncratic R. Crumbly instrumentation. I was also startled by the references to "rape machines."

The song was, of course, "Down In The Park."

With some cursory research using Ye Olde Internete, I can ascertain that "Down In The Park," has been covered by a large and varied group of musicians. Besides Mr. Redfearn, artists such as Foo Fighters, Marilyn Manson, somebody named DJ Hell, Christian Death and Girls Under Glass have attempted this oddball number. Now, granted, most of this "research" amounts to me pounding around on Wikipedia and a few other sites, so I haven't heard most of these. However, I do own a CD reissue of Foo Fighters' The Color And The Shape, so I have listened to their take. The rest, I will have to take on faith. What is striking about this list--however accurate or inaccurate it may be--is how people have been affected by this fairly obscure song by Gary Numan, a man thought by much of the general populace to be a cyborgian NuWaver of days gone by.

Why? Why has "Down In The Park" hummed in the collective unconscious of so many freaky people for such a long time? It's certainly not Mr. Numan's most popular tune. That would inarguably be "Cars," his big hit. In fact, it's not even his second most popular tune. We'd have to give that award to the mighty "Are Friends Electric?" Yet, somehow, "Down In The Park," off Replicas by Gary Numan & The Tubeway Army, coming at you all the way from 1979, may shape up as the most enduring song of The Pleasure Principal's career. Again, we must ask ourselves, "Why?"

Well, first of all, the song is quite beautiful. Despite Mr. Numan's solid-state at sub-zero sonic approach, "Down In The Park," possesses a gorgeous and melancholy musicality, like some of the best efforts of The Zombies, The Left Banke or even John Cale. The melody is rolling and sophisticated, yet memorable. Very "Eleanor Rigby" at points, albeit glacial in its pace (and, some would say, attitude.) Surgically remove Mr. Numan's willfully antiseptic approach and you are left with a haunting and powerful set of lines. As such, Foo Fighters attach it to their muscular chug and Alec K Redfearn swaddles the thing in his lysergic chamber music and "Down In The Park" emerges as the true victor. One hears the strength of the songwriter as well as the specific personality of the interpreter. As reluctant as some folks may be to admit it, we should all doff our space helmets in tribute to Mr. Numan's intelligence and wit as a craftsman.

Secondly, and, perhaps, just as importantly, Mr. Numan has put this remarkable melody in the service of some of the most unguardedly bonkers lyrics of his, or anybody else's, career. Near as I can tell, an upsetting William S. Burroughs/JG Ballard lyrical theme oozes through the entire Replicas record, a function of some internal logic and product of The Talented Mr. Numan's imagination. "Down In The Park" is explicit in the details of something so subjective that, even still, it remains vague and troubling. Taken literally from the first-person perspective of an Unreliable Narrator (I was in a car crash/Or was it the war?/Well, I've never been quite the same) the song describes how humans, corralled in The Park by sadistic, robotic Machmen, meet their deaths by the steely gears of "rape machines" and other infernal devices. Our Narrator, perhaps lobotomized by his mechanical captors, watches the ghastly events from a night club near The Park under the supervision of an android "friend" named Five ("Are Friends Electric," indeed.) The whole thing has a really nasty and nauseating Punishment Park/Demon Seed/A Clockwork Orange kind of vibe.

The effect is stunning. Seriously. Take an old 70's AM Radio hit--say, "Just An Old Fashioned Love Song" by Three Dog Night and replace the existing lyrics with rhyming couplets about the "Is It Safe?" scene from Marathon Man and you kind of get an idea of the "Down In The Park" vibe. In the spirit of Love's Forever Changes (the subject of my last entry for this operation, by the way) you sense that Enya or Sade could interpret this just as effectively as Genesis P. Orridge or LCD Soundsystem.

My first encounter with "Down In The Park," like so many of my generation and temperament, came from watching Urgh!- A Music War. Resembling Christopher Pike, Mr. Numan "belts out" the number while coasting across a glowing stage in what appears to a combination orgone box/go-kart. I suggest interested parties watch the clip on YouTube. It is impossible not to be distracted by the overwrought Futurisms of the show, but the song and its composer are unique. Give it a look, or, even better, a listen.

Down In The Park [download from emusic]
Down In The Park [download from iTunes]

Friday, December 07, 2007

Snakefinger - There's No Justice In Life

This single was released on July 1, 1987, ironically the same day that Phillip "Snakefinger" Lithman dropped dead of a heart attack. Lithman was barely past his 38th birthday. No justice in life indeed.

Snakefinger is, of course, most closely associated with the music of the Residents. Lithman was involved in some of the Residents' earliest musical experiments, then went on to found legendary British pub rockers Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers. When that band broke up, he moved to LA to establish a career in mainstream pop music, then returned to San Francisco to help create the music that forms the core of the Resident's musical legacy. Lithman also released a handful of excellent, but largely overlooked, solo albums that tone down the avant weirdness of the Residents just enough to sound something like pop music.

As Ted Mills notes at All Music Guide, Snakefinger's solo work wasn't weird enough to capture the full attention of the Resident's cult audience, nor was it "normal enough for chart success or critical recognition." This is particularly true of his later solo albums, which were made mostly apart from the Residents, though still released through their label, Ralph Records.

These two tracks were also featured on Snakefinger's final studio album, Night of Desirable Objects, cut with his backing band the Vestal Virgins. On "There's No Justice In Life" it never sounds like he's complaining or bitter, just offering a very matter-of-fact observation on life's inherent unfairness. The b-side, a cover of the jazz standard "Move" (made famous by Miles Davis during the Birth Of The Cool sessions), is a revelation. Snakefinger was more than competent as bop-jazz guitarist. His famous manual dexterity is balanced by good taste and a strong instinct for group interaction.

There are precious few artists who can move so effortlessly between avant-garde strangeness, pub-rock, pop and jazz. Unfortunately, commercial success rarely comes to those committed to this kind of musical diversity (some might call it schizophrenia), no matter how talented they are. But then who ever said there was any justice in life?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Gemini - Take Her Back

I occasionally post things that I can tell you next to nothing about and hope someone will stumble upon my post and be able to offer more information. Such is the case with this single by Gemini. Despite some creative googling, I can't even offer a release date for this single.

Here is what I can tell you: The A-side, "Take Her Back," was written by famed bubblegum tunesmiths Bo Gentry and Joey Levine. The flip side, "Ann" was written by Paul Naumann and Kenny Laguna. The record was produced by Gentry and Naumann and released on Forward Records (F-129). (You could play all kinds of "six degrees of separation" games on this release.) Whether any of these people were involved in the group Gemini, or if Gemini was a real group and not just a temporary studio conglomeration, I can't say.

The pedigree of those involved can be heard in the music, which is pleasant if nothing earth-shattering. The best way to describe it is bubblegum meets the Beach Boys' Sunflower album, although to my ears the slightly disco-ish strings on "Take Her Back" date the song to significantly later than Sunflower. If I had to guess, I'd say this was released around 1974. Any further info about this all-but-forgotten single would be greatly appreciated.