Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Holy Modal Rounders - The Holy Modal Rounders

The Holy Modal Rounders – The Holy Modal Rounders
Fantasy, 1972
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2013
Price: $5

Sure I could have had original pressings of the first two Holy Modal Rounders albums. Some dude brought their whole discography into work. Alas, I’d rather just have their first two albums in a re-released combo package. Because it keeps me humble. Because I knew dudes who were obsessed with first printings and original pressings and I think that stuff tends to get in the way of the actual listening to music part of owning records. Anyway, though this two-disc set shares the same title as the Holy Modal Rounders eponymous debut, it’s really just the first two albums in a budget package. I’ve never listened to this band before today, but have been familiar with them. Their name pops up here and there when you talk about Americana and psychedelia, which they blend into some real harrowing, fucking weird ass shit. The whole affair is deeply unsettling. In the best way, of course. It’s kind of impossible to imagine a group like the Danielson Famile existing without these two albums serving as forebears. I have nephews now, and I feel like they’re going to grow up to be outdoorsy jock types so sometime when they start to appreciate music I feel like I should play these albums if they ever come to visit Aunt Jenny and Uncle Ian. Is it wrong that I love the idea of confusing children? I’m almost certainly going to expose my own children to weird-ass music at an early age to make sure they spend as much time on the dark path than their old man (see: solid year of high school where the song I woke up to every morning was Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff.” Never forget). Now that I’ve said how WEIRD this band is, let’s talk about how for the period this was probably some cutting edge shit. Like just totally fucking with roots music at a gut level while also churning out some kind of magnificent straight-forward renditions of traditional folk tunes. The music is just so all over the place and psychotic and drug-addled that it keeps things fresh. The harmonies sound insane, the fiddles and banjos sound like they’re going to decapitate you. But sometimes they sound like beautiful back woods Appalachian folk music. And then the realization that these two albums came out a within two years of Kennedy’s assassination and it’s really strange to think that people were this fucking weird fifty years ago when currently bands are trying to be weird like this and failing because they’re actively trying to be weird. Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber don’t even sound like they’re trying. They’re just naturally gifted at being bizarre.

Frontier Ruckus - Eternity of Dimming

Frontier Ruckus – Eternity of Dimming
Quite Scientific, 2013

Frontier Ruckus’ third long player is definitely long. Eternity of Dimming spreads twenty songs over two discs and clocks in at the running time of a feature length film. In this hour and twenty minutes front man Matthew Milia spins yarns of personal history with the sort of detail that cuts straight through you if you grew up in 1900s suburbia. Home depot parking lots, strip malls, birthday parties, bowling alleys, first loves, first surgeries, the weird nether regions of Kohls and JC Penny, etc. It is exhausting. It is indulgent. It is my favorite album of the year so far. Milia’s lyrics are a borderline stream-of-conscious flow of memories filtered through the band’s modern Americana that shows flashes of bluegrass when the banjo comes out and the grandeur of Neutral Milk Hotel when the horns and singing saw show up. The whole is a heart-wrenching and poetic batch of songs of youth filtered through adulthood. Nostalgia for a simpler time. Not for an older, simpler time when men were men or whatever, but of high school sleepovers, 90s prom dates, and heat lamp buffets. I feel like if you grew up in suburbia your experiences are rendered as a sort of non-factor because so many people have it so much harder. Or maybe that’s imagined, or maybe it just isn’t a thing because growing up in a suburban home isn’t terribly interesting. Matthew Milia sort of validates this experience and filtering it through the lens of roots music is a brilliant way of telling very American stories with very American music.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Gram Parsons - GP

Gram Parsons – GP
Reprise, 1973
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2013
Price: $5
It’s hard to find a more beautiful pair of duetters than Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. The tenderness they achieve on “A Song For You” is something outrageously special. You can tell Parsons—the son of wealth and privilege—is trying VERY hard to be a good old boy, and actually succeeding. Granted, the backing band he threw together is doing most of the heavy lifting, what with all those mournful fiddles and all, but it’s the way Parsons sells his compositions that is so impressive. He’s not a great singer in the classical sense, but it doesn’t matter because he gets across what he needs to get across. You feel like you’re slipping on his drug-addled shoes. The covers he does feel like the cement he mixed himself to bring in that legitimacy I was talking about, but his originals are what make this album special. The aforementioned “A Song for You” is one of his best , but then you’ve got tunes like “Kiss the Children” and “How Much I’ve Lied” which feel like they’re trying to sneak into the classic country & western songbook. And then there’s the obnoxious shit-kicker “Big Mouth Blues” that caps the record off, a song I relate to on a deep personal level because, like the protagonist, I can never keep my big goddamn mouth shut. Overall GP is a better record than the posthumously compiled Grievous Angel, even though the latter features most of Parsons’ best songs. This one feels more complete, though.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Loudon Wainwright III - I'm Alright

Loudon Wainwright III – I’m Alright
Rounder, 1985
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2013
Price: $1.50
I don’t know why the other Loudon Wainwright III album I grabbed from the stack of them at work was this one. Someone brought in his whole discography, and I picked two albums 13 years apart. And I think I did it because I’d recognized the song title “One Man Guy.” I can’t remember if I’d ever heard the song, but it was good enough for me. And Jesus F Christ has a song. Just bare bones guitar and like crippling honesty in relation to ego. And that’s the first song so it’s a promising start,  but also of course none of the rest of the album is as good as that track. There are highlights like “Screaming Issue” and the silly songs like “Cardboard Boxes” (which, if you know me, you know I’m constantly collecting songs about the agony of moving for the mix I play whenever I have to move) are clever enough. But there’s just not enough substance here. The second half is kind of a wash of blues/bluegrass/country-tinge (although “Out of this World” is pretty good) but man, “One Man Guy” sure is something.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Loudon Wainwright III - Album III

Loudon Wainwright III – Album III
Columbia, 1972
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2013
Price: $2
The Wainwright children Rufus and Martha are the cornerstone of my argument about the sons and daughters of famous people having the sort of opportunities normal folks don’t have and somehow their art is less valid. It’s a really silly argument. I think I just wonder whether Rufus and Martha would have become famous had their parents not been notable folk singers. The argument is silly because there’s going to be basic genetics and nature/nurture stuff that’s going to foster musical ability via growing up in a house full of music/with musicians/around musicians. So I mostly just gave up on that argument and have been appreciating Loudon’s kids’ music for years.

So now I’m listening to Loudon for the first time ever and trying to separate him form whats-his-name’s dad on Undeclared. I know Martha Wainwright wrote “Bloody Motherfucking Asshole” in his honor, so you know, I didn’t have the highest opinion of the guy going into this record. “Dead Skunk” is a weird song from my childhood. I remember my dad being pretty fond of it and maybe singing it every time we’d catch a whiff of a dead skunk on the Kansas back roads (so many dead skunks). I don’t know if that really happened, it feels right in my head though. Wainwright’s not taking himself seriously but making music that is itself not not serious is one of his most appealing traits. He’s almost a tame forerunner to Ween, who injected their songs with weirdness and humor and somehow managed to rise above the novelty factor.

Wainwright catches you off guard with gorgeously sad folky numbers like “Needless to Say” and “New Paint.” Those songs sandwich the silly, juke-joint inspired “Smokey Joe’s CafĂ©.” Needless to say, he does a great job playing with you emotions. This thing is all over the place. There’s a totally goofball jam from the point of view of a bee (“B Side,” which features the play on words “comb sweet comb,” which I thought was pretty hilarious), there’s a drinking song in the absolute most literal sense (aptly titled “Drinking Song”), and then there’s the aforementioned “New Paint” which is full of clever wordplay but at its core is about finding a good woman. The songwriting is remarkably solid, even when it’s being intentionally stupid. And while I mostly bought this as a cheap prospect I didn’t expect that I’d sit around listening to this album literally all day. All day I just dicked around, listened to this album, did the dishes while listening to this album, put off doing other stuff. It’s a good one. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Mary Hopkin - Post Card

Mary Hopkin – Post Card

Apple, 1969
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2011
Price: $4

For the most part, Mary Hopkin’s debut is some really cloying, folky pop. Post Card features a weird mix of covers ranging from the Russian folk tune “Those Were the Days,” a handful by Donovan, one by Harry Nilsson (the bizarre and totally out of place “Puppy Song”), and an awkward yet kind of fantastic in its weirdness version of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” I can’t find who did the drums (probably because they’re buried so far toward the bottom of the mix they didn’t warrant a credit) but there are some cool (if clumsily orchestrated) beats on “Prince en Avignon.” Cool if only because they seem to be part of an entirely different song. Paul McCartney produced this album, and um, er. Yeah. Mary Hopkin possesses an average talent voice-wise and maybe someone other than McCartney (who apparently pushed for the standards that make this album really weird in a bad way) could have coaxed some more spirited performances from Ms. Hopkin. I don’t know why this record was priced so high, because it’s not rare, and it’s not good, and it’s not cool, and it’s going right on the chopping block.

Kraftwerk - Trans-Europe Express

Kraftwerk – Trans-Europe Express
Capitol, 1977 (1993 Reissue)
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2011
Price: $4

I really have no idea why I bought this because I fucking hate Kraftwerk. OK, hate is probably too strong and “Strongly Indifferent” is probably a better fit. I’m sure there’s something to be said for synthesized electronic minimalism, but the title track makes me want to die of boredom. It’s not that I hate trains or anything. It might be that I can’t think about Germany without thinking about Germans killing Jews. That’s probably a horrible thing to think, and I’m sure the Germans have come a long way since the Holocaust and have had that horror beaten into their skulls at an early age and really turned thing around but I look at this cover with these incredibly Nordic looking German dudes and I’m like “If they’d been born like 20 years earlier they probably would have been Nazi soldiers.” And this argument is absolutely unfair to Kraftwerk, as what there doing has an importance to probably anyone who seriously cares about electronic music this is exclusively a personal hang-up I’m airing. International forgiveness is a weird thing. Fortunately, most of the songs are sung in English so I don’t have to deal with my irrational fear of the German language. It must have really blown to grow up in post-war Germany. And I do like the sparse, cold minimalism and the vocodors a lot of the time; I just can’t get gaga over this. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

New Order - Low-Life

New Order – Low-Life
Qwest, 1985
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2013
Price: $5

New Order’s full-lengths are much weirder and more inventive than their singles collections would have you believe. Or at least that’s what I think every time I put on one of their records. The single collections are still my go-to because, despite that whole thing I said about “more inventive,” they were a band who sequestered their best songs to singles. Low-Life follows their seminal Power, Corruption & Lies and comes off a bit edgier. The forlorn opening track “Love Vigilantes” is an incredibly tuneful bummer (made even sadder in Iron & Wine’s tragic and gorgeous cover) and “The Perfect Kiss” is a much more angular mega-single than Lies “Age of Consent.” It’s a frighteningly cohesive album for a band that hated including singles on their albums. I listen to the pure pop bliss of “Bizarre Love Triangle” or “Temptation” or even the gorgeous mid-album gem “Your Silent Face” from Lies and try to figure out at what point New Order surpassed Joy Division as an artistic force. Although maybe it’s best to just leave that alone. Low-Life is a display of the rough edges usually absent from New Order’s pristine singles. It’s a nice change of pace from the hit-after-hit feeling of the singles collections. 

And here's that mega sad Iron & Wine cover:

Cocteau Twins - Heaven or Las Vegas

Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas
4AD, 1990
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2013
Price: $4

Coming from the murky depths of sophomore LP Head Over Heels, Heaven or Las Vegas sounds like it’s from another planet. Like literally, music from some other world. I feel like I’m underwater when I’m listening to it. The guitars shimmer in a way that feels like the platonic ideal of “shimmering guitars.” Like the adjective was first used for this record because man oh man does this thing shimmer. “Ethereal” is another word you see whenever Cocteau Twins are mentioned and again, it’s because well yeah this is what I think of when I think of ethereal. The way the vocals sort of drift like a ghost through the shimmery guitars on “Iceblink Luck,” and the way Elizabeth Fraser contorts her voice like some deformed pop goddess. “Dream Pop” is another term that gets used a lot with Cocteau Twins, probably because this album is a sparkling example of the genre. The music still feels hazy but there’s a crispness to it that Head Over Heels didn’t have. Granted, a lot of maturing can happen over seven years. It’s sublime. Just absolutely gorgeous and mysterious. Jenny says it’s either springtime or summer night music and I’m inclined to agree. Despite the coolness of the synths there’s a sensuality to Fraser’s vocals that fills this whole thing with warmth. The thump of the bass right up front lulls you into a hypnotic, drug-like state (which is almost sadly ironic considering that Simon Raymonde’s bass was pushed up so much to compensate for Robin Guthrie’s ongoing battle with drug addiction which correlated with a certain absenteeism). The title track is one of the most disgustingly beautiful tracks I’ve ever heard. Leave it to the Scots—a group of people typically associated with a certain glumness brought on by overcast Northern Britain—to create some of the brightest pop music (I’m looking at you too, Teenage Fanclub). 

Cocteau Twins - Head Over Heels

Cocteau Twins – Head Over Heels
4AD, 1983
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2013
Price: $2

Cocteau Twins second album is loaded with unintelligible vocals, cryptic drum machines, and floats by on moodiness and a beautifully crafted atmosphere. I’d only listened to Heaven or Las Vegas before this one and as always it’s fun to play musical connect the dots. How does a band get from murky goth-tinged post-punk to ethereal dream pop creating one of the hallmarks of the genre? How would I know! There are like four albums between Head Over Heels and Heaven or Las Vegas so that’s a road I’m likely to go down. Mostly because as a rabid Cure and Kate Bush fan, Jenny is enamored with this stuff and I’m always looking for stuff to put on and both enjoy (there’s a certain guilt I feel subjecting her to say, Bad Brains or Pixies or copious amounts of John Prine and Billy Bragg). Head Over Heels had Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie functioning as a duo following the departure of bassist Will Heggie. Fraser’s vocals are psychotically great at times, especially on the intense closer “Musette and Drums.” The interplay between Guthrie’s dark complexity and Fraser’s so-damn-close-to-ethereal vocals shining through is fantastic. It's like some kind of punch drunk daydream.