1976: Merrell Fankhauser - Maui
Although you may not have heard of him, you are at least karmically aware of Merrell Fankhauser’s work. Quickly after writing the still often-referenced “Wipe Out” surf-rock signature piece with The Impacts in the early ’60s, he founded MU with Antenna Jimmy Semens (Captain Beefheart) as well as the freak-folk Fapardokly, which melded into Merrell Fankhauser & The H.M.S. Bounty. Those projects only produced a handful of LPs, but they are all highly sought after by serious vinyl geeks. Trust me, this trend has helped shape almost every dusty record bin you’ve poked through since such things first started forming in garages and flea markets.
After becoming disillusioned with the music industry in the early ’70s, Merrell, his violinist wife, and MU, his band at the time, all escaped to Hawaii. Mary Lee and Merrell built a Tarzan nest in a Maui rainforest after hearing the island may have had remnants of the sunken Mu civilization, and dug into the surroundings for what would end up being seven years. His band didn’t last long, though; half of them left to become Christian ministers on the mainland, as addressed in the song “Some of Them Escaped.” So, by the time there was enough material to warrant a recording excursion to Los Angeles in 1975, it was just Merrell, Mary, and some session musicians (hence his first solo album). It sold in small numbers on a local island indie label, then, like the tragedy that followed so much of his work, just kinda faded away into strategically placed vinyl troughs.
That’s where Anthology comes in. Now with seven bonus tracks, Maui is complete and restored for the über-nerd, who can’t find or afford the original LP, to see how Merrell’s sound progressed since his prominent late-’60s acid phase. Being as it was recorded and released in the mid-’70s, the studio sounds reflect less of the razorblade fuzz charm of his earlier work and more of the glossy sheen that came with newer, more accurate equipment, while his lyrics, despite still being based on abstract mysticism and myth, ooze a wiser, more honest maturity.
“The music business has got more sharks than there are in the sea/ They stole my songs and they stole my girl, but they can’t steal me” from “Sail It Over The Ocean” isn’t just dreary bitching, after all. It’s an affirmation of the choices he made, having already acknowledged the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. The high strung, plucky, BJ Thomas-like “I Saw Your Photograph” deserves to go down in history as one of the catchiest and happiest pop love songs of all time, and it’s just one of the moments here that compel you to smile. As such, the quality of these songs will see most of them outlive the style in which they were recorded. Rock sure doesn’t produce many characters like this any more.
1990: Souled American - Around the Horn
Something totally weird has happened. Something I spent a lot of my life actively working against while being reared in smalltown Texas has suddenly started to make sense: I’m sort of digging country. I was shellacked with ungodly guilt and smirks upon the realization and revelation of this fact. You can only yell “Asshole” to a certain number of Confederate-draped trucks before they’re allowed to brandish the bullhorn mounted in those Hella lights and scream “Hypocrite!” right on back, you know? If those dudes could see me now (they can’t), they’d have an offcial license to mock. I mean, my dad gave me a Jerry Jeff Walker LP when I told him about this and, uh, I liked it. It’s a pretty serious affliction and, in addition, it’s entirely the fault of this album, Around the Horn, by Souled American.
Souled American are one of those heavily under-listened-to bands. According to Rough Trade, they have that rare distinction of each subsequent release selling fewer records than the previous. I really don’t remember how I heard of them past the skeletal and languid reputations of their last two albums. After the “best band ever” confirmation by a friend, I searched out their not terribly easy to find records. Around the Horn marks the mid-career stage for the band and superlatively bridges early- and late-period Souled American. Thus it is pretty slow in the grand scheme of things, even if it’s damn upbeat in regards to future Souled endeavors.
The big tonal distinction is Joe Adducci’s bass, which sounds more or less like it was recorded underwater from three rooms away, though here it isn’t quite as extreme as on earlier albums. Adducci and Chris Grigoroff share vocal duties, both singing in a weird, raspy, twangy voice that occasionally lapses into falsetto. The guitars on this record are, for lack of a better analogy, the shoegaze of country; churning, ringing, and slippery. It seems like the guitars are strummed a few seconds before you actually hear the sound. The whole album has random dissonances bristling about. The final two albums saw the band play without drummer Jamey Barnard, but here, on their third, his presence is already pretty minimal, the drums almost always understated.
Around the Horn also introduced me to the country notion of releasing an album half filled with cover songs and not being seen as a total hack-job (in fact, their next album, Sonny, has only one original on it). They inhabit the covers so well that I really can’t imagine any of these songs being written by anyone but Souled American. They’re that sort of inexplicably weird band where you can’t quite put your finger on what’s so bizarre about them, which is, at the end of the day, what makes Souled American worth listening to in the first place.
1967: Fifty Foot Hose - Cauldron
This is a true forgotten classic. Out of the great San Francisco acid wave, bassist Louis “Cork” Marcheschi -- along with husband and wife, guitarist and Slick vocalist David and Nancy Blossom, bonus guitarist Larry Evans, and Kim Kimsey on drums -- produced but one album in 1967, then basically faded away into normalcy. At the time, critic Ralph J. Gleason said, “I don’t know if they’re immature or premature.” I believe history has proven them to be the latter. While the razor-bladed blues rock fuzz and love laden “I’m just trying to free my mind” lyricism may have been par for the course for that era, the Blossom’s jazz influences met with Marcheschi’s homemade Radiophonic synths and Theremins to create a sound tragically ahead of its time. Acid Mothers Temple makes a decent living these days doing basically the same thing, touring with a Roland synth, but, since Cork made his own, the aural electricity smothering Cauldron in space sounds is just too fantastically dirty and totally original.
Each Doctor Who warp and UFO multidimensional warble is a Technicolor snowflake caught in a notion where time is no longer relevant, totally unable to be absorbed by a mind without blowing it. These remarkable noises augment a solid base of haphazard prog-blues and Nancy’s dispassionate vocals to make an undeniably classic and deservedly legendary LP, easily on par with the greatest works from the Elephant 6 catalogue or anyone who played at the only good Woodstock. I can see why the ’60s generation may not have dug it, though. The synthetic opening “And After” sounds like a broken stylus making a feeble impression of a healthy needle as it digs deeper and deeper into the virgin vinyl. Many copies were probably returned on this notion, let alone the fact this is the next level shit today. When this album came out, it was like showing a Shatner-era Star Trek fan The Matrix. They couldn’t really form a full idea as to what they really had in front of them. You sure missed out, 1967.
1977: Dennis Duck - Dennis Duck Goes Disco
In 1977, Dennis Duck (who would go on to play in The Dream Syndicate and Human Hands) probably never thought this to be anything more than fucking with records on a variable speed turntable and dubbing 20 cassette copies for some friends of The Los Angeles Free Music Society. But like punk rock, 30 years later Goes Disco -- and the greater LAFMS -- amounts to something historically more altruistic than its self-serving, incestuous origins. A loose organization of sorts, LAFMS’s grassroots, DIY aesthetic largely foreshadowed the contemporary noise/experimental scene -- making short runs of cassettes and privately pressed records for whoever would listen (usually friends in bands). Often favoring freethinking, experimentation, and quantity over quality, there’s an inherent charm in just how unapproachable recordings by Smegma, the Doo-Dooettes and other LAFMS groups can be.
While the collective as far as the name is concerned is no longer officially active, the Los Angeles music scene hasn’t changed much. The Sunset strip is still defined by leather, bar rock, hair metal, and other types who will gladly “pay to play.” But deep within the drudges of the city there’s a thriving, self sustained music community giving themselves all the attention they need to make successful art. Among them is the city’s oldest (although technically in Pasadena), and one of the few remaining record stores (2006 bidding farewell to historic landmarks such as Aron’s, Rhino, and Tower), Poo-Bah. Former employer to LAFMS veteran Tom Recchion, the store has always embraced the avant garde with open arms and has played host to many LAFMS events in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s only fitting that they reissue Dennis Duck Goes Disco as part of the launch of their new record label.
So eat your heart out Christian Marclay. Not that the two are identical, and with no disrespect anyone, but Duck’s one-time experiment is a delicate reminder that there are always innovators who will never get due credit. And not to put Marclay on the spot, for there’s a seemingly endless amount of historical context that Goes Disco’s primitive turntablist tinkery fits into. Amongst mash-ups, DJ culture, William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Phillip Corner, Pierre Schaffer, and you name it, Goes Disco could most easily be compared to the modus operandi of John Cage.
In the ’30s and ’40s, before delving deeply into compositions based on the I Ching and other chance operations, Cage primarily composed percussive pieces that bore the simplistic intricacies of Erik Satie. But far be it from the classical world to welcome Cage’s percussion, comprised of car parts, toy pianos, and other found items with open arms. Much like Duck’s carefully “prepared” turntable, Cage’s greatest invention from those years, the prepared piano, was made by meticulously placing nuts, bolts, screws, keys, etc. in between the strings on the piano according to diagrams and specific instructions within the written score, thereby altering the characteristics of the piano and giving it a more percussive effect. Just as Cage’s piano was (among the aristocrats at the time) a desecration of the most sacred instrument in music, Goes Disco too, sounds like a defiance of what is musically correct (even 30 years after the fact). It uproots musical form, basking in the sound of (in very broad terms) warped and skipping records. By meticulously deriving different combinations of speed, anti-skate, lopsidedness, and off-centered center holes, Duck finds new possibilities in what a turntable can do.
To further this somewhat blasphemous comparison of Goes Disco to the career of John Cage, Cage’s work from the ’50s and on was derived from chance operations, and though often misconstrued as randomness, he always operated with a detailed written score, creating something of a musical ‘choose your own adventure’ for each piece. Duck didn’t necessarily have the same egoless, Zen Buddhist motivation for his art that drove Cage, but there are parallels in their processes. Duck’s liner notes describe the specific ways in which the turntable was manipulated for each piece as though setting up the obstacle course for the Mousetrap board game. With all the compositional tools in place, the stylus is left to run through the grooves and barriers at its own freewill, and its ultimate sound is unique to that very moment in time.
Perhaps it’s not all that heavy-handed or intentionally asking for that much conceptualism. Duck unknowingly struck at gold using any vinyl not too precious to be destroyed, thereby making a “disco” comprised of society’s waste (unless you’re Don Bolles or Irwin Chusid). Old children’s records, instructional LPs, laboratory samplers, demonstration discs, and other curiosities are brought to life or hammered fiercely into the ground depending on your point of view. Like a child thrashing his records and breaking his father’s turntable, Goes Disco is indeed a brute tour de force, but fortunately there is a conscious sense of flow and continuity through the album. Duck digs humor out of otherwise banal narratives, desperately trying to move them forward, and children’s songs that sound like they’re melting. It’s things like these, as well as comical clauses and juxtapositions that keep Goes Disco from becoming tedious and allow the more minimalist, beat-induced skipping to become that much more effective.
Thirty years ago, Goes Disco couldn’t have come from a government grant (the U.S. still being behind the times in that regard) or a performance at Carnegie Hall. However, time has aided these pieces in terms of their value as high art. While critical writings such as this review seem like the antithesis of the impulsive activities of the LAFMS, history needs every anti-art movement it can get (and they have the fancy, “coffee table” box sets to back up their historical significance). Ultimately Dennis Duck Goes Disco works so well because its original intentions were more an obnoxious experiment than a grand artistic statement.
1995: Elf Power - Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs
If Cobain hadn’t snuffed himself, a nation in mourning may not have turned to the anesthetizing Blue Album for blissed out suburban comfort; in turn, troubled parents might have hesitated in popping Prozac into the gaping maw of a generation already inculcated with escapism. A more focused, less weepy record-buying public might instead have turned to the criminally neglected Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs and inspired Elf Power to hone its jagged angst instead of blunting their sound to a dull hum so psychedelic it might be mistaken for a busted air conditioner. In turn, Elf Power’s Andrew Rieger could pursue a sporadic academic career desperately seeking authenticity of purpose, while Rivers Cuomo could maybe open up a falafel stand or something and autograph pitas for dozens of Theta Kis spring-breaking in the flatlands…
However, the flux capacitor’s shot, I’m stuck here in 2007 and I can’t fix the incongruity of the space-time continuum or introduce Chuck Berry’s cousin to Appetite for Destruction, which, I’m sure, everyone will agree would have sped things up a bit. The best I can do is relate the virtues of Elf Power’s debut against a career that careens towards blander, less visceral material, marking them as the most meager monster to emerge from the Atlanta suburbs since the first shitty R.E.M. record.
The crux of Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs rests on the album’s fourth cut, a cover of The Dwarves’ “Drug Store.” Rieger drains the rambunctious refrain of its intended frenetic energy and imbues it with the sweet, sweet apathy and angst of a sophomore PE class. The inclusion of a Dwarves’ song suggests a primogeniture that Elf Power has since distanced itself from, and subtly introduces the themes of alienation, adolescent disillusionment and involuntary catharsis, which dominate the record as a veritable rock anthem. Reiger cushions his darker motifs with a lyrical joviality that keeps self pity at bay, drawing allusions to Pinkerton. While admittedly steeped in high school heroics, notions like “You self righteous motherfucker/I don’t give a shit what you had for supper” go down smooth and almost radio friendly thanks to Reiger’s dirty finesse. The surgery and amputee motifs that litter the record develop a markedly complex metaphor of heartbreak as limb loss that permeates the album without crowding it, leaving room for the distortion jam-outs and GBV-ish esoteric pop cuts that prevent Vainly Clutching… from becoming a senior thesis on loneliness. Elf Power have discarded many of the classic song styles that make their debut so strong, allowing a love of arena/anthem rock to mutate into a lolling interest in marches on later albums, kind of a return to old-world aesthetics that blends a potentially solid band into the grey tapestry of indie rock like so much frizzing wool.
While the strictly lo-fi aesthetic of Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs might be the most galvanizing aspect of the recording, it incorporates itself into the character of the album, adding a caustic layer to an already dense mélange of distortion and bittersweet pubescent contempt. It gives the songs a sense of covert self satisfaction. Latter day Elf Power has intentionally retained the semblance of low production value with little consequence, except perhaps to masque the heavy influence fellow E6er’s have had on Elf Power’s sound and style. The civilizing effect of the Elephant 6 collective on a band like Elf Power has proven disastrous: Spanish blankets to the Aztecs disastrous. Certainly, Reiger & Co. could never have maintained the raw, sarcastic malevolence for long, but their distance from this strong, albeit particular, debut boggles the mind.
It’s sort of like meeting that scary kid from art history a few years after graduation, and he’s got a crew cut, some urban outfitter gear and he pretends you never saw where he carved that pentagram in his arm back in 10th grade. “But dude, have you heard Beefheart?” Man, I miss that kid...
1969: Frank Zappa - Uncle Meat
Striking from every sonic angle, the mega- (or magna depending on who you ask) opus Uncle Meat is the casual music listener’s most horrid experience. Over the course of four sides of recorded wax we find quick thematic interludes, improvised woodwinds, arranged orchestration, demented doo-wop, tape tricks, hedonistic guitar rock, and dialog clips from the belated film of the same name. In other words, it’s an aural trash heap for anyone who approaches this record wanting to discover a few cool tunes.
Take “Dog Breath in the Year of the Plague,” for example. It’s here, five ‘grooves’ into the record that we encounter our first pop moments. It begins with wailing horns and a pleasant guitar strum, then a catchy, climbing vocal melody line, then the chorus hits and a female faux-opera singer joins the mix. As the mantra-like verses progress, the vocals turn to groaning men and helium clowns. At the conclusion of the song, vexing slurs of horns unravel. And with that our culture of song-downloading, album-dissectors roll their cursors away from the ‘Buy’ button and call Zappa and The Mothers a wash. What may or may not be heard following this is Frank’s indifferent chuckle rising or descending onto us (I make no assumption as to where deified producers go when then they die). “Fantastic,” he says.
The genius that dwells amid Uncle Meat’s multiple personalities is its cohesion. The skill at capturing this trait unsurprisingly goes to Zappa’s production and editing abilities, which masterfully corral the collection of renegade musicians, sounds, improvisations and characters in this fevered film score. The cohesive devices themselves are both found in the thematic and instrumental portions of the record. Its theme, intended to be the score for a film that wouldn’t come into fruition for another two decades, revolves around the life of a talented collection of visionaries who reside in the sunny abundance of suburban LA. The songs and pieces of Uncle Meat document the mini-sagas of these people as they examine groupie life, the quest to create transcendent music and the all-American tradition of “Cruising for Burgers.” We meet the disenchanted Suzy Creamcheese and the budding Ian Underwood who Zappa urges to “whip out” his alto saxophone. Without question the Mothers’ signature commentary-laden absurdity thrives on Uncle Meat.
Musically, the glue of this record resides in the unhinging, and original, woodwind and organ playing. The quick movements of clarinets and saxophones create an urgent pulse that frames the music and fosters the miscellany in between. This design builds momentum toward the magnificently titled “King Kong,” which occupies an entire album side using these exact devices. Within this cocoon of tweets and organ haze, we find everything else. “Nine Types of Industrial Pollution” showcases hypnotic acoustic guitar soloing with a gentle, building organ in the background. There are irreverent renditions of “Louie, Louie” and “God Bless America” that make use of the Royal Albert Hall pipe organ and a kazoo respectively. “Mr. Green Genes” uses a proclaiming alto sax and twittering vocal harmony and “Ian Underwood Whips it Out” exposes us to some mean slabs of Coltrane-esque improvisation amid a maniacally groovy rhythm section. “Electric Aunt Jemima,” “The Air,” and “Cruising for Burgers” are off-kilter sunshine pop songs that would later find tremendous translation in Zappa’s live shows. “Uncle Meat Variations” and “Project X” both begin as pretty jazz pieces before evolving into avant-mayhem. And yet for all of its diversity we’re left with a record that has flawless fluidity.
If there ever were, records like this aren’t made anymore. Uncle Meat, purveyed by a master composer/producer/guitarist/editor, is a zany vision, carried out by a large collection of musicians who diverge and improvise to such an extent that it all makes sense. Music critics tend to laud works that influence -- ones that are used a foundation upon which other works or even whole genres are built. The prize in Uncle Meat is in fact the opposite. It represents a sonic exploration so keen, unifying, and rousing that, aside from Zappa himself, no has dared to follow in kind.