2002: The Star Room Boys - This World Just Won’t Leave You Alone
Over the years, I’ve managed to cobble together a conception of what I believe to be, in the Platonic sense, the ideal dive bar. No mere shadow on the wall of a cave, mind you, this image has emerged over time as a rock-solid mental construct, complete with cracked leather booths, a slightly surly staff, and very cheap shots. The centerpiece of the whole grand vision is a jukebox equipped to confound and repel the casual drinker. Every one of a Platonic form’s elements are, of course, equally essential, but the records of the Star Room Boys merit special mention, for they exist so securely at the heart of the ideal dive-bar jukebox as to constitute an utterly indispensable part of its anatomy.
The Star Room Boys formed in Athens, Georgia, in 1995 and went on to produce two LPs under the direction of singer and songwriter Dave Marr before calling it quits in 2002. Lyrically, both records trade in some of country music’s most familiar themes - love, liquor and loss - but they do so without stridency or excessive sentimentality, and with a good deal of moral ambiguity. No doubt this helps to account for the “alt-country” label that critics have applied to the group, but make no mistake, the Star Room Boys are a straight country band. In fact, Marr’s facility with honky-tonk idioms amounts to nothing less than a pitch-perfect mastery of the genre.
While the band’s debut, Why Do Lonely Men and Women Want to Break Each Other’s Hearts,may well be their definitive statement, Marr’s talents as a singer and songwriter are manifest throughout This World Just Won’t Leave You Alone. The opening line of the record, “White lies, blue tears, red eyes, black fears,” crests and crashes on a wave of up-tempo guitars. Many of the remaining tracks are more subdued but no less engaging. Boozy ballads like “Whiskey and You” and “When I’m All the Way Down” showcase Marr’s wonderful voice, which, though slightly less prone to twangy affectation, has aptly been compared to Dwight Yoakam’s. Arguably the highpoint of the entire Star Room Boys catalog, “Cocaine Parties” is a minor masterpiece, in which Marr builds to the first chorus with remarkable restraint and delivers it with climactic conviction. Surely the author of tracks like this and “I’ll Play Angel,” another standout, can be forgiven for the album’s sole misstep, a little rockabilly-tinged regret called “Daydreamer” reminiscent of early Old 97's.
Whether or not they ever emerge from their present obscurity, the Star Room Boy’s legacy should be one of excellence in a much maligned and misunderstood genre. At the very least, they provide the best soundtrack since Hank Williams for a good lonely drunk. While not necessarily a band for amateur alcoholics, anyone with even the slightest tolerance for country music should take the time to sample and savor these songs.
2006: Karen Dalton - In My Own Time
When record labels reissue albums, it’s just as important to critique the conversation around the album as it is to discuss the actual music. Why are we returning to a particular record at a particular point in time? Do obscure records, lost gems, and fan favorites get repressed because a bunch of lawyers finally decided how to disburse the royalties, or do the albums that get reissued say something about the attitudes of their potential audience?
In Karen Dalton’s case, economic factors explain why her second LP, In My Own Time, languished in obscurity for a quarter century. Dalton only released two albums: her 1969 effort It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best, a collection of one-take recordings made unbeknownst to Dalton when she dropped in the studio to visit her friend Fred Neil, and this 1971 follow-up, a more lavishly produced album that took six months to make. It’s So Hard saw CD re-release in the late ‘90s and attracted listeners who had read about Dalton in oral histories of the ‘60s Greenwich Village folk scene. Dalton landed in New York just as Neil, Bob Dylan, and Tim Hardin were establishing themselves, and though she was too shy and erratic to thrive as a recording artist, she still earned the admiration and respect of her more renowned peers. When It’s So Hard reached a mass audience, revisionists began to argue that Dalton is just as essential a part of the ‘60s folk-rock pantheon as her famous pals. That album’s too-good-to-believe backstory only bolstered Dalton’s mystique – here was a woman who felt and lived the blues she sang so fundamentally that she didn’t need a producer to make affecting music. In praising her authenticity, though, Dalton’s converts couldn’t embrace here sophomore album so readily. With its borderline soft-rock trappings and glistening Nashville twangs, In My Own Time seemed to many like a case of a natural talent restrained by commercial pressures – as the record’s title implied, a seemingly timeless voice had begun to reflect her milieu.
Over the last decade, however, a new generation of listeners has begun to grant folk-rockers more space for pretension and adornment. We’ve seen neo-folkies like Devendra Banhart (whose hyperbolic praise of Dalton comprises a considerable chunk of this reissue’s 30-plus page booklet) and Joanna Newsom create sprawling, expensive albums that felt miles away from their humble, acoustic debuts, and we realized that bigger can indeed be better, or at least just as good. Meanwhile Jim O’Rourke’s Insignificance and Eureka have demonstrated that the line between avant-pop experimentation and AM-gold populism is more easily transgressed than one might initially think. When The New York Times writes articles on Six Organs of Admittance and Arthur runs Best Buy ads, it’s probably time to re-evaluate In My Own Time.
Well, it’s beginning to look like this is a more substantial record than we originally thought. For one thing, Dalton seems as bewildered by the world of pop as one could be. As an interpreter rather than a songwriter, Dalton’s m.o. is to make others’ songs her own by re-imagining cadences, intonations, and even bar lines. For In My Own Time, Paramount, the parent company behind her label Just Sunshine, allowed Dalton to cover the kinds of smash hit songs she didn’t on her debut. In her versions of “How Sweet It Is” and “When a Man Loves a Woman,” the singer goes to great lengths to divorce her interpretations from more popular recordings – when working with tried and true material, an artist has to go to such lengths to assert themselves. She reworks “When a Man” into a gentler number more befitting a jazz coo-er than a soul crooner and injects a female perspective into the lyrics. Dalton sounds more mournful than celebratory, though, and so does her band – the horn section is downright woozy, on the verge of slipping out of key even. In “How Sweet It Is,” Dalton cultivates an even stronger sense of ambiguity. She seems as unconfident of the words she sings as Robert Wyatt does in his laconic take on The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” leaving her bandmates to sing the refrain as she wrings some other, ineffably sad sentiment from particular syllables. Lost in these songs, Dalton sings against pop’s promise of generality – her intonations suggest that love is an idiosyncratic, personal series of emotions that can never conform to a Holland, Dozier, and Holland blueprint, even when we want to believe that it can.
Much more assured are Dalton’s performances in “Same Old Man” and “Katie Cruel,” the only traditional pieces that appear on the album. Here she eschews the opulent bass lines and flashy drum fills that characterize the rest of the record and lets a banjo, a violin, and her voice do the job. For once, Dalton doesn’t manipulate meter or sing against the grain – the dynamic between her voice and the music is symbiotic, intuitive, unified. It’s as though her connection with songs from time immemorial is more fundamental, more human.
Let’s not make the mistake, though, of overplaying Dalton’s connection with authentic folk music. Otherwise we might end up looking at the artist’s Native American lineage and begin to espouse some horribly primitivistic sentiments. Lacy J. Dalton does this in the reissue liner notes: “Karen loved the earth, as a Native American, a woman, a queen, a pagan mother goddess rooted in this planet, and she was so desolate about what we were doing to it.” Pagan mother goddess’ don’t even touch Motown songs, not even to subvert them. While Dalton would constantly leave NYC to spend time in southwestern outdoor settings, she found her artistic footing in an urban environment and with people who were active participants in the pop music world. This was never an environment in which she was fully at home, but Dalton nevertheless cracked open its potential for critique. Only amidst sparkling arrangements can a wavering voice express just how bittersweet it is to be loved by anyone.
1995: James Brown - Funky Christmas
Growing up in the Kern household, Christmas was always a magical time full of beautiful sights, smells, and sounds; in short it was a confluence of Norman Rockwell-esque touchstones and traditions. There was only one problem: the frigid, iron grip my parents had over the holiday music selection, willfully dismissing my fervent pleas to stray from the well-heeled, vanilla stylings of crooners such as Bing Crosby and Andy Williams.
"When you're older and you get a place of your own, you can play whatever kind of weird-ass Christmas music you want," my father calmly told me, putting in yet another Mannheim Steamroller CD one year.
Years passed, and that day finally came. To fully capture the celebratory mood of the occasion, I decided to pick a record that would fly directly in the face of every bland Christmas record I had ever had to sit through growing up, and when I came across a copy of James Brown's Funky Christmas, I thought it would fit the bill quite nicely. Yes, that's right. Papa's got a brand new bag, but in lieu of toys, he's bringing us a stylistically diverse sampling of his Christmas songs from the '60s.
The title is actually a bit of a misnomer, as the ballads outnumber the funkier fare by a rather sizable margin, and several of the jauntier tunes are good but unremarkable. That said, when Brown does decide to turn up the heat on the rest of the up-tempo numbers, he's as combustible as a Douglas Fir watered with gasoline. The self-explanatory "Soulful Christmas" is classic JB, a horny, explosive sleigh ride replete with a dynamite groove built on crisp, hollow snare licks entwined with a naked, no-frills bassline, while "Hey America" is a tight, sexy X-mas song, far more Superfly than Santa Claus. The blend of fluid strings, brass, and slippery blaxploitation riffs behind James' powerfully shouted surreal, inscrutable lyrics would have made Curtis Mayfield beam so brightly he would have rivaled the North Star.
Surprisingly, Funky Christmas' greatest assets are its amazing ballads, in which Mr. Brown draws from a pool of disparate influences, synthesizing the smooth croon of Nat King Cole ("The Christmas Song"), the baroque inspirational trappings of Isaac Hayes ("Santa Claus Is Definitely Here To Stay"), and the bittersweet melancholy of Sam Cooke ("Christmas In Heaven"). None of these come close, however, to the album's masterpiece, "Sweet Little Baby Boy Parts 1 and 2." On this exceptional cut, James wrings out every bit of his adoration and reverence for the nativity over the morose and haunting crawl of piano and strings, simultaneously echoing both his own "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World" and some of the more recognizable passages of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day."
While Funky Christmas may seem like a kitschy novelty to add to an already overwhelmingly large stockpile of Christmas records available, it’s a refreshingly well-rounded collection of finely crafted, nicely executed holiday music for all backgrounds to enjoy, which goes to show that while the world may share different values and beliefs around this time of year, soul is indubitably non-denominational.
1988: Beat Happening - Jamboree
For all the ink spilled about Beat Happening’s genius in the 16 years between the two releases of their first true LP Jamboree, there is, of course, the irony that the seminal Olympia trio didn’t even meet the standard requirement for forming a band: being musicians. It was from that bottom level though, where Bret Lunsford, Calvin Johnson, and Heather Lewis maintained their music and simultaneous reinterpretation of punk music.
Their piecemeal self-titled debut solidified the group’s main foundations with its driving drum beat, three broken guitar chords, and off-key whimsical vocal tradeoffs between Johnson’s Aleutian trench-deep baritone and Lewis’ playfully innocent alto about the harmless (rather than gratuitously obvious) points of sex, love, and awkwardness.
Those basic elements remained intact on Jamboree, but where its predecessor embraced the innocent, Jamboree took the opportunity to be more abrasive. It is perhaps the most musically punk album of the Beat Happening catalogue, embracing repetitious lyrical motifs, that same punk beat that somehow now grooved, and everyone’s favorite punk standby -- feedback.
Though what follows is something new altogether, the album states its punk roots from the start as “Bewitched” pounces in with a discordant, obnoxious chord more reminiscent of the Sex Pistols than the Pastels. From there the feedback grooves into Johnson’s simple interpretation of the most basic teenage inhibitions: “I’ve got a crush on you/I’ve got a crush on you/What am I to do…” and so on. “Jamboree,” “Ask Me,” and “Cat Walk” continue in this vein, with some of the best songs here lacking vocals. Beat Happening understood themselves enough to know that less truly did equal more in their case. The more they stripped the songs of audible noise, the closer they got to driving through emotion the songs were trying to convey, especially when Calvin Johnson sang (Whether you can tolerate his voice seems to be the difference between liking the band and despising them).
Despite the greatness of the first 2/3 of the album, the last three tracks are the true highlights, forming a trilogy that perhaps most completely defines the band’s existence. They aren’t as fast or direct as punk, but “Drive Car Girl” and “Midnight a Go-Go” assert status quo rejection better than anyone with a mohawk ever did: “Don’t you mind that daily grind/I walk down the sidestreets too/9 to 5 gotta live their lives/never knowin’what the night holds for you.” The haunting closer “This Many Boyfriends Club” is a unique artifact recorded at one of Beat Happening’s notoriously raucous live performances. Johnson’s building vocal angst, ripe with childhood images backed only by pure feedback, is as good an indication of the intensity and charisma with which he spouted every needling line live. And oh, are they needling!
With Beat Happening, the greatness can seem understated because anyone probably could do what they did, but when considering the egos most acts gain from notoriety in any form, the fact they remained so steadfastly themselves is a landmark for all who embrace true expression to appreciate. Jamboree is the perfect witness to this. The subtle, steadfast drum beat is the chant of a revolution.
2. In Between
3. Indian Summer
6. Ask Me
7. Crashing Through
8. Cat Walk
9. Drive Car Girl
10. Midnight a Go-Go
11. The This Many Boyfriends Club
2004: Mars - The Complete Studio Recordings NYC 1977-1978
I've mentioned this in various written pieces regarding bands in the past, but nothing fascinates me more than the reverse career trajectory, or, in simpler terms, a musical artist going against the conventionally held status quo of mellowing out and instead completely destroying and mutilating their sound as time passes. Perhaps no more plainly have we seen a band self-destruct this way musically than Mars. Arguably the most uncompromising of all the late '70s No Wave
acts — and that's saying something — Mars almost vanished into the ether before the visages of the very few who were witness to their terror. It's rare to see a band become increasingly primitive since the laws of logic suggest the moving of time creates refinement and maturity; even Half Japanese became halfway agreeable to a point, but Mars existed like a wild animal that became ravaged with both rabies and a flesh-eating virus: a ferocious beast devolved into a sputtering, screaming heap of puss-and-blood-leaking flesh. And to see all of this occur in what could've been less than two years is even more fascinating.
Mars' plummet into the depths of insanity can be witnessed chronologically on The Complete Studio Recordings disc released on G3G a few years ago. At only 11 songs, it's nevertheless more than most audiences can possibly stomach. Of all the recorded works out there that will endlessly endure in a state as harrowing and disturbing as their moment of initial creation, Mars are guaranteed to confound, confuse, and mentally assault for years to come.
But surprisingly, it didn't appear from the outset that Mars would ravage minds in such an egregious fashion. The band's first single "3E" is a comparatively easy-going nugget of primordial punk rock, similar to a very restrained Contortions or perhaps an artier Urinals. By the time the band cranked out their four No New York tracks with Brian Eno, the highlights being the perennial "Helen Forsdale" and "Tunnel," something had seriously taken a turn for the abnormal. While structure was still more or less within grasp, a much more atonal, grating, and deranged persona seemed to have possessed the foursome. Whereas Arto Lindsay of fellow No Wave legends DNA at least had some tonality in his scrapes of chordless carnality, Summer Crane's (R.I.P.) guitar musings liken to waves of industrial machinery pulling an innocent into its uncaring death-trap. Coupled with his quasi-tongue-speaking yelps, tracks like "Forsdale" sound akin to downright horrifying religious exorcisms despite the obvious concessions to a few touches of convention here and there.
All compromises, no matter how minuscule, were obliterated by the time the band rolled out their self-titled EP, which comprises the last five songs of this disc. An unmitigated venture into freeform caterwauling comparable to a snail withering in pain after being salted, the EP was one for the deviant ages, with Crane spitting into a trumpet sans mouthpiece and all manner of guitar and percussive scrapings chucked at the wall without thought. Those who can penetrate the ugliness will hopefully come across pieces they can cherish, but for all accounts and purposes, this is music that does not wish to be liked. Not until the power-electronics and noise rustlings starting to occur at the time, and which would continue to test the boundaries of sonic extremity for years to come, was there any music that pushed aural endurances as far over the edge as Mars did. And even taking in abstract noise to account, there's still something unpleasantly maniacal about Mars' swan song.
If No Wave's intentions were to take punk to task for not venturing far enough into the anti-social abysses it so desired, then Mars were perhaps easily the most successful at vaporizing everything possibly pleasant and agreeable about rock 'n' roll. You may hate The Complete Studio Recordings, but it's sheer bravery, id, and shit-tossing freedom stretches far beyond both No Wave's arty posturing and punk's self-righteous breast-beating. It gets a perfect score just for having the nerve to exist, which, in its ability to enthrall while simultaneously intimidate, is in everyway its own bit of genius.
2. 11,000 Volts
3. Helen Forsdale
6. Puerto Rican Ghost
9. Outside Africa
11. The Immediate Stages Of The Erotic
1977: Suicide - Suicide
Just as the primordial strains of punk began with bands such as The Stooges and The MC5 serving as a brazen musical stake through the heart of the peaceful, harmonious ethos of many bands of the late '60s, No Wave was birthed in the late 1970s as a drastic response to the inevitable dominance of the then current genres of punk, New Wave, and disco. With its spasmodic atonal textures, crushing overtones of ennui, and general sense of alienation, No Wave was not just unmusical in comparison to the other genres of its day. It was, in a sense, Un-Music.
New movements are never created in a vacuum, however, and some of the seeds that would eventually bloom into the black blossoms of No Wave were sown by two refugees of the New York art scene; keyboardist Martin Rev, and vocalist Alan Vega, also known as Suicide.
Suicide's eponymous debut in 1977 is a fascinating study of contradictions. Rev's keyboards and electronics could paint chillingly claustrophobic landscapes, while Vega's wildly theatrical shrieks and moans could only only be considered singing in the loosest academic sense of the word, as heard on the 11-minute "Frankie Teardrop," which masterfully immerses the listener into the hellish nightmare of a desperate man whose entire existence unravels before him in a miasma of pleading, painful whimpers and bloody murder screams, during which an artificial beat palpitates over a churning, repetitive hiss. "Che" follows a similar formula; its low, heavy synths and foreboding tones become a disaffected dirge as Vega's listless chants of "Hooray, hooray" vibrate into Rev's noisy ether.
Though attributes of these songs would later manifest themselves more prevalently in the work of their No Wave successors, Suicide maintained a level of warmth and musicality that could not be completely hidden behind the band's frigid, superficial austerity. Upon closer examination, one can glimpse a very subtle, yet clear undercurrent of melodies which pay tribute to the simple bubblegum rock and roll of the '50s and early '60s, as evidenced in such songs as "Johnny" and "Girl"; the former with happy synth loop gurgling merrily beneath Vega's Elvis-esque vocal affectations, while the latter plays like a lo-fi electronic soundtrack to phone sex, with a Latin twist sounding as though it was on loan from War's "Low Rider."
During their prime, Suicide was one of the most misunderstood and hated acts of its day, due in large part to their unique mixture of clinical, nihilistic electronics, audience baiting showmanship, and penchant for the rhythms and melodies of yesteryear in one disturbing, genre-defying package. Luckily, as with most overlooked works of genius, time has cast a favorable light over the work of Suicide. With bands from Cabaret Voltaire, A.R.E. Weapons, and practically the entire genre of electroclash counting Rev and Vega's work as a major influence, Suicide seems to have finally made the well-deserved leap from reviled to revered, even if only took the last 20 years for it to happen.
1. Ghost Rider
2. Rocket U.S.A
6. Frankie Teardrop
8. Cheree (remix)
9. Keep Your Dreams