The Good, The Ugly And The Bad
The best, worst and most disappointingly nondescript
things I've dug out of the bargain bin
V/A - Here It Is, The Music (Vol. 1) (1988)
Though housed in what may be the most atrociously ugly packaging ever, Ryko's Here It Is, The Music compilation is any thrift-store-frequenting music nerd's wet dream. Originally released as a free giveaway when you bought a brick of TDK cassette tapes, this compilation was designed show off the range of Ryko's back catalogue as much as its commitment to sonic fidelity (Ryko, you'll recall, was the world's first CD-only label).
However, unlike many independent labels when they just start out, Ryko had gotten the attention of many big-name artists, so in addition to the usual budget-compilation castoffs, you get tracks by Jerry Garcia, Frank Zappa, John McLaughlin, The Residents, Devo, and Jimi Hendrix (among many others). It's not so much an album as a bunch of songs falling off the back of a truck and into your ears. I mean that in a nice way.
The big highlights are the obscurities: the unclassifiable "Home Is Where The Heart Is" by The Red Clay Ramblers (which starts with a wall of Brian Wilson-esque harmonies and turns into something resembling a bunch of friendly hillbillies playing Broadway jazz), an instrumental track by reclusive ex-PiL man Keith Levene, and especially "Henry and James", a where-the-fuck-did-that-come-from synth-pop gem by Dave 'Not The Eurythmics Guy' Stewart & Barbara Gaskin. I'll also admit to being highly entertained by Bernie Krause's dated, animal-noise-sampling "Jungle Shoes" (which almost sounds like a low-rent Yello).
There's also a surprisingly low ratio of mediocre filler, though I think we can all agree that synth-bebop is the worst idea ever conceived and thank god Phil Woods and Chris Swansen's "Moose the Mooche" is the only example of it I've ever heard. The rest comes down to your own personal preference. I know there are plenty of people who'll like Nanci Griffith's "Once in a Very Blue Moon" (traditional-sounding folk that's a bit too mannered for my ears), while a lot of people will recoil in horror at Zappa's circus-music-at-78-rpm MIDI experiment "G-Spot Tornado" (which I love).
Had this compilation come out around the time Ryko got the rights to David Bowie's catalogue, it would have accomplished the neat trick of featuring most of my favourite musicians on a single disc. As it stands though, it's a neat artifact from the dawn of the CD age and worth picking up if you find it languishing in any cut-out bin.
Martin Rev - Strangeworld (2000)
I'll start this off by saying that I still have a lot of respect for Martin Rev. I purchased this album because I absolutely love Suicide, the late-'70s New York synth-punk duo from which he sprang, and I would say anyone looking into the roots of synth-pop would do well to check out Suicide's Ric Ocasek-produced second album. That album managed to combine all the best qualities of '80s synth music... in 1979. Ahead of the curve? You betcha.
Here's the thing, though: Martin Rev never sang on that or any other Suicide album. In Suicide, the division was always clear: Martin Rev wrote and played the music, Alan Vega wrote and sang the lyrics. Here, Martin Rev attempts to do both and the result is disastrous. Simply put, he can't sing. Put another way, he doesn't actually seem to realize he can't sing. Put yet another way, THIS GUY WHO CAN'T SING IS MIXED TWICE AS LOUD AS THE ACTUAL MUSIC.
This, as you can imagine, is a problem.
Now, I don't necessarily have a problem with bad singers out of principle, provided they know their limitations. Lou Reed's spent most of his career basically talking in key. Johnny Rotten whined his way into the hearts of a generation. Joey Ramone didn't sing more than three notes because he knew he didn't have to. By contrast, Martin Rev's voice just kind of sits there and wanders around the melodies like a dazed toddler.
The worst part is, some of the music's actually pretty cool, sounding like a modern update of Suicide's echobox-tweaked urban-alien soundscapes. Other times though, it sounds like a karaoke video made by someone who'd just shotgunned an entire pitcher of liquid Gravol. What's fascinating about it is that the guy had been making music for about 30 years at this point. His work in Suicide indicates that he could, in many instances, differentiate a good musical idea from a bad one. So when he abruptly interrupts what sounds like a jolly farting Casio march to nowhere with a loop of his voice whispering "CHALKY. CHALKY. CHALKY." over and over, you kinda have to wonder what the hell he was thinking.
By the way, for those who actually get a kick out of bad music: yes, I'm overhyping it, but you have to understand. I'm more or less convinced this is what sounds like in hell every day.
Primitive Radio Gods - Rocket (1996)
Of course, between the sublime and the ridiculous, there's the norm. This is where blandness and mediocrity thrives, and it's the kind of thing that often barely registers but can really piss you off if you choose to think about it. Thus, I give you Primitive Radio Gods' Rocket.
I almost feel bad picking on an album that's been torn into by most critics and forgotten by the general public, but part of my antipathy towards it comes from the rampant douchebaggery of the lyrics. From what I can surmise, Chris O' Connor (who pretty much was the band in the same way Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails) is angry at "the man" because they won't let him smoke pot, has meaningless sex with women he sees as desperate and unworthy of respect, thinks Leonardo Da Vinci counts as modern art and generally talks about how awesome he is. Oh yeah, and he thinks racism sucks. That's gotta count for something, I guess.
So... okay. The music. It's mostly pleasant and inoffensive, in that mid-'90s "fuck it, let's just call it alternative rock" kind of way. "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand" was the hit, and it's actually a really good song if you're okay with the fact that it pretty much invented the entire Play album by Moby (seriously — the trip-hop beats, the thin nasal voice, the incongruous blues sample — it's all there).
Part of the reason this song works is because it's the only place where Chris O' Connor's reach doesn't exceed his grasp. The lyrics are sensitive and vulnerable where they usually try to be brash and provocative (and fail), the music is cool and understated instead of trying to be passionate and galvanizing (and failing), and the use of samples is actually relatively restrained as opposed to the sub-Bomb Squad aural graffiti that coats pretty much every other song on the album.
By the way, if you're wondering why I'm being so much harsher to this album than the Martin Rev album (which I would actually rate below this one in terms of listenability), it comes down to this: between a rambling street lunatic who used to be a poet and that guy in the local bar band who thinks he IS that poet, I'd probably tell the latter to shut up first, if only because I know his behaviour is a conscious choice.
Anyways, to quote Chris O' Connor himself: "I'm out of things to say / so here's a raw display / of the power of the silent truth."
Also, "(*mediocre guitar solo*)"
Mutations of Today
Selections by Anthony Hansen
“It’s one thing to use new sounds in experimental music, quite another to do it on a pop record.” - Daniel Miller
How does one define ‘weirdness’ in a musical context? I’m of the theory that anyone with open ears and a broad enough mind can get used to just about any form of music. They may not like it, necessarily, but they can at least come to understand and/or appreciate it on its own terms. While artists like Captain Beefheart and The Residents are often cited as the weirdest of the weird as far as pop-based music is concerned, the argument is almost moot because they deliberately put themselves on the fringes. In my opinion, true weirdness exists in that uncanny valley where people’s strangest musical impulses are passed off as ‘normal.’ This is the realm of outsider music and forehead-slappingly bad ideas, of songs that try and fail to communicate ideas on even the most basic human level. Which isn’t to say this is just a musical freak show — there are quite a few songs here that I genuinely like, often for the reasons the artist actually intended me to like them. However, every one of these songs, either deliberately or not, has an element that completely escapes my critical comprehension. Hold on tight folks, it’s about to get weird.
1. Tiny Tim and the Brave Combo – “Hey Jude”
How I first heard it: Through my uncle, who was going through a Tiny Tim phase at the time.
Why it’s here: The intro to this song sounds like the inside of a serial killer’s head. Though not as weird as anything else on this mix, what comes next is certainly... unexpected. This might actually be - aw, screw it - this IS my favorite Beatles cover. “Take it away, Tiny!”
Presumable Target Audience: Anyone who doesn't take The Beatles too seriously.
2. Marlin Wallace - "Abominable Snow Creature”
How I first heard it: A sadly defunct ‘weird album covers’ website.
Why it’s here: Marlin Wallace is a paranoid schizophrenic who thinks commies are out to kill him. Not that you’d know it from the song itself, but it does help put things into perspective. He also has a very dramatic baritone, which, in the context of this particular song, is mildly unfortunate.
Presumable Target Audience: Johnny Cash fans that also happen to be completely insane.
3. The Dead Kennedys – “Mutations Of Today”
How I first heard it: A radio show featuring online music critic Mark Prindle as the guest DJ.
Why it’s here: 6025, the author of this song, was the mentally ill Dead Kennedy who got kicked out of the band after one year and a near-fistfight with Jello Biafra. It’s easy to see where they might’ve differed — where Biafra favoured direct social satire, 6025’s take on the world was a bit more... um... peculiar, as this unreleased demo demonstrates. I kind of wish more Dead Kennedys songs sounded like this.
Presumable Target Audience: That one guy at The Dead Kennedys show who thought Beefheart was really bitchin’.
4. Prince – “Annie Christian”
How I first heard it: A used copy of his 1981 album Controversy, bought mainly on a whim (this was before I got into Prince).
Why it’s here: Though his eccentricities are usually more pronounced in his public persona than in his music, there’s always at least one moment on each of Prince’s albums that produces a “wait... what the hell?” reaction in me. This song goes past the point of being merely ‘odd,’ though, and actually borders on ‘fucking creepy.’ The chorus, if you can call it that, is a wall of overdubbed Princes chanting the words “Annie Christian, Anti-Christ, until you’re crucified... I live my life in taxicabs.” Is anyone at all surprised that he later became a Jehovah’s Witness?
Presumable Target Audience: Prince.
5. Ramsey Kearney, from a poem by John Trubee – “Blind Man's Penis (Peace And Love)”
How I first heard it: A message board, in response to some of my own ‘poetry.’
Why it's here: One of the more demented oddities from America’s song-poem archives. I think it’s more fun if I don't even try explaining this one, though this will tell you the whole story if you absolutely must know. Incidentally, this song gets stuck in my head all the time.
Presumable Target Audience: ????
6. The Shaggs – “My Pal Foot Foot”
How I first heard it: My uncle, who was going through a Shaggs phase shortly before his Tiny Tim phase.
Why it’s here: America's most famous ‘outsider’ rock band, The Shaggs consisted of three sisters who had had no prior musical training before being rushed into the recording studio by their eager dad. A psychic told him they would be famous, you see.
Presumable Target Audience: Foot Foot. WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU, FOOT FOOT? WHY WON'T YOU ANSWER THEM?
7. John Maus – “Tenebrae”
How I first heard it: At work.
Why it’s here: Not necessarily the weirdest John Maus song, but definitely the creepiest. Sing to the mystery of his blood, he says. I was tempted to make this mix all Christianity-themed songs, then decided against it when I realized even normal Christian music kinda gives me the willies. By the way, watch the video. It will give you nightmares for weeks.
Presumable Target Audience: Anyone who gets most of their religious paraphernalia from Urban Outfitters.
8. Li'l Markie – “Diary Of An Unborn Child”
How I first heard it: See intro.
Why it’s here: Speaking of creepy (and Christian!), here's the most disturbing thing I’ve ever heard in my life. If you can tolerate that awful nails-scraping-against-a-blackboard voice for three minutes (yes, three minutes), you get to hear ‘Li’l Markie’ ‘sing.’ My dad played this for me on my 17th birthday, which explains a lot, I think.
Presumable Target Audience: Someone who wasn’t going to get an abortion anyway.
9. Yes - “Sound Chaser”
How I first heard it: On a tiny turntable in my parent’s basement, many years ago.
Why it’s here: That’s right, Yes. Why? Well, there were a lot of strange things done in the name of progressive rock, but I think the “CHA-CHA-CHA, CHA-CHA” bit in this song easily trumps them all. Frankly, anything that manages to get a loudly exclaimed “what the FUCK?” out of me on first listen deserves a spot on this mix.
Presumable Target Audience: Prog fans who’d rather listen to King Crimson.
10. “Come In My Mouth (Original Cast Recording)”
How I first heard it: I don’t even wanna think about it
Summary: Taken from the ‘nude musical’ Let My People Come. I suppose you could call this a... (wait for it)... ‘happy ending!’ HA HA HA! You'd be wrong, though. I haven’t met anyone who isn’t completely and thoroughly repulsed by this song.
Presumable Target Audience: Rapists.