I’ve always felt that Brighten the Corners, Pavement’s penultimate album, was a record with an identity crisis, though of a different sort than the preceding, incredibly eclectic Wowee Zowee. On one hand, BtC was another step towards rock “maturity” -- more nuanced production, a greater degree of multi-tracking, less of the gawky warts-n-all approach that made Pavement easy to root for. On the other, with the benefit of hindsight comparisons to the later Terror Twilight, Brighten the Corners is downright rollicking.
Perhaps not coincidentally, BtC’s songs are even sequenced like an adolescent growing up. The record’s funnest tracks are its first few, the much-beloved “Stereo” and “Shady Lane” -- “Stereo” in particular is so canonized that one can find several YouTube videos of hipster parents’ toddlers singing it. “Date with IKEA” remains a great power-pop song, and the sardonic “Type Slowly” is a worthy ancestor of Terror Twilight’s “Spit on a Stranger” -- a twinkling, smirky gem of a tune that actually merits its five minutes. “Embassy Row” tacks a lackluster preamble onto a bona fide barnburner.
And depending on who you ask, “Embassy Row” is either the last worthwhile track on a Pavement record or simply the band’s last true rocker. Either way, it’s hard to argue that Brighten the Corners' second half is as strong as its first, which is as good as anything the band ever recorded. “Passat Dream” and “We are Underused” probably qualify as filler for Pavement, but for nearly any other band they’d be lead-single material. “Starlings of the Slipstream” and “Fin” are pleasant enough, but together mostly represent an eight-and-a-half minute attempt to end the album.
If you’re reading this, though, you’ve likely already listened to Brighten the Corners and formed your own opinion. So what does Matador’s reissue -- dubbed the Nicene Creedence Edition” -- add? We’ve got the original album’s 12 songs, remastered (I can’t tell the difference, maybe you can). Then there’s another 31 tracks of B-sides, unreleased session material, and live songs to wade through, split over two discs. I’ll touch on some highlights:
- A jam session called “And Then (the Hexx)” that was apparently planned to be BtC’s first track. They made the right decision. (It appears in a different incarnation on Terror Twilight.)
- Three quality rockers from the “Stereo” single: “Westie Can Drum,” “Winner of the,” and “Birds in the Majic Industry.”
- A pair of lighthearted (if inessential) numbers from the “Spit on a Stranger” single: “Harness Your Hopes” and “Roll with the Wind” (the unreleased version of “Roll” is even better).
- An unfortunate honky-tonk two-step reinvention of “Type Slowly” (“Slowly Typed”).
- A cover of Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon,” which old-timers might remember from the classic What’s Up Matador compilation
- KCRW, BBC, and Peel sessions whose collective highlights are the Peel session’s playful cuts of “Date with IKEA” and Wowee Zowee’s “Grave Architecture.”
- Two silly themes recorded for an appearance on Space Ghost Coast to Coast
And that’s about it. Pavement were primarily a pop band, and great pop bands are also good self-editors. Thus it stands to reason that a reissue that tacks on stuff that didn’t make the first cut (from a band that had just knocked out the sprawling Wowee Zowee) might not be consistent. With a couple of exceptions, the Nicene Creedence Edition is the least essential of Matador’s Pavement compilations. But even with this caveat, the package performs the service of reminding us how good Brighten the Corners still is -- it bats well above .500, and if it wins the original album any new listeners, Nicene more than validates its existence.
1969: Morgen - Morgen
The cover of guitarist Steve Morgen’s first and only album anticipates the record’s mystery status. It features a monochrome reproduction of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, an equally iconic solid grey background, and a single word, small enough to go unnoticed against the colorful merry-go-round of late-'60s psychedelic balloon lettering: "Morgen," which is at once the artist’s name, the album’s title, and the German word for “tomorrow.” 1969 was the year of Woodstock, but it was also the year of Altamont, where a fan's murder at a Rolling Stones concert sounded the death toll of daisy-haired euphoria. If excess had been the rule of the turning decade, Morgen signaled the throbbing hangover that would accompany its listeners into the new one.
“Welcome to the void,” sings Morgen on the album’s vertiginous opener. If Munch’s The Scream rose to German philosopher Schopenhauer’s call for a pictorial art capable of capturing the sound of a human howl, “Welcome to the Void” provides its acid rock counterpart. Amid plunging baroque bass lines, careering fuzz guitars, and a drum gallop capable of whipping a retirement community into a band of Samurais, Morgen opens his flirtation with emptiness -- not with a scream, but with a single, arching, razor-sharp laugh. Not a Black Sabbath laugh, not an “Oh look how evil I am holding my pinky up to the corner of my mouth” kind of cackle, but one that actually hails from the far side of the borderline. Listening to this song for the first time is as disturbing and exhilarating as watching these four Long Island musicians taking an amphetamine-driven joyride to the top of a cliff, looking out into the star-studded black-yonder, and slamming down on the gas.
Which is perhaps one of the reasons why Morgen crashed and burned the second it hit the press, especially considering the band’s pairing with the subsidiary of a major label. Maybe Morgen and his bandmates simply scared radio stations stiff. But for all its inebriated thrill-seeking, its existential head-scratching, and its overblown guitar solos, Morgen offers a gentleman’s share of softer, more delicate moments. “Of Dreams,” the album’s second track, reincarnates the opener's braying Steve Morgen as a kind of sweet-voiced, sexless nymph, recounting a series of bucolic adventures with a woman whose “hair caressed the air and made it sing.” Suddenly, and almost by a stroke of magical luck, the cantering drums of "Welcome to the Void" weave their way back into the mix, revealing the secret logic of one song in the backbone of another.
Women and narcotics are definitely the central pillars of Steve Morgen’s search for metaphysical meaning, and sometimes it's difficult to tell whether he's courting the perfect high or the girl next door. Fortunately, the lyrical skirt-chasing doesn’t stop at embarrassing one-liners like “I want to fill you with my fire.” On “Purple,” “She’s the Nitetime,” and “Love,” the album’s closing trilogy, Morgen returns to the fatal cliff of the first song, jumps aboard a square of windowpane, and shuttles off into the kaleidoscopic night. At first, he begins to lose his sense of time. Then, he begins to panic. Finally, the stars assume the outline of the young woman he's been pining after, and he realizes that she's been sitting beside him the whole time, there on the cliff, guiding him down to earth with a pat on the back and a water bottle.
After three-and-a-half minutes of major key, up-tempo hot love, Maid Marianne slips through Robin Hood’s fingers yet again, and the album finishes on the same note of ecstatic horror that it began on. Not with a suicidal scream this time, but a long and murderous one, as Steve Morgen fords a black riptide of ascending bass triads, climbs atop a bridge of tumbling drums, and promises to “crush [her] to [him] madly/ smother [her] in kisses/ and wildly proclaim [his] love.”
As its top-ten ranking among many a collector and a blogger will attest, Morgen is more than a representative slice of the heavier side of 1960s psychedelia. And it's more than a showcase of some of the most top-notch electric guitar playing that never made it to Woodstock-Altamont, for people who like that kind of thing. Although it is simply overflowing with ’60s rock stereotypes, it takes the sound of its time to a kind of nail-biting, adolescent extreme, perhaps even to its breaking point. Some people might call it the beginning of hard rock.
It’s hard to believe a lot of things about Murmur. That R.E.M. actually made the album; that they used to sound this weird and original; that Murmur is now 25 years old; that it spurred listeners to toss around newfangled terms like “college-rock” as something new and distinct from the old punk-rock orthodoxy; that R.E.M. started out so right for an act that went so wrong. That, ultimately, this band and this album are the godfathers of so much of your favorite music, whether you’d like to admit it or not. But you know all that already from countless “100 Best Albums Of All-Time” lists that slot Murmur somewhere in the high 80s or low 90s -- every music hack seems to instinctively know it belongs in the ranks but can’t always remember why. So, let’s just talk about the reissue-ish parts of this package.
Disc one is the original joint straight, no chaser. The remastering job brings out the snap, crackle, and pop missing from the murky, mysterious original cut, especially in the percussion. The lack of bonus tracks may seem like wasted space, especially stacked up against, say, the forthcoming 10th-anniversary reissue of Pavement’s Brighten The Corners. One might think Universal would at least append the band’s Chronic Town debut EP. But the label was smart to stay away from repackaging odds ‘n’ sods. Everything from this era already showed up on the largely shitty old relic Dead Letter Office and 2006’s great best-of-the-indie-years And I Feel Fine. However, it would have been nice to toss in the Hib-Tone single version of “Radio Free Europe,” since, as they freely admit, it crushes the album version like a grape.
But that’s where the live set comes in: crushed grapes? Why settle for wine when you can have blood and whiskey? The previously unheard 1983 Toronto show that takes up the entirety of disc two has sharper teeth than any studio versions of the songs, drawn mostly from Murmur with a sprinkling of Chronic Town and some early takes on Reckoning’s best tracks. Who needs Chronic Town itself with such vicious versions of “Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars),” “Gardening at Night,” and “1,000,000” in hand? Why isn’t the audience clapping harder for “Harborcoat” and “7 Chinese Bros”? Oh yeah, they’ve never heard those before.
If you want all the B-sides from this era, you’ll find them without too much trouble -- but you might wish you hadn’t. This concert is much more satisfying than any hoary old chestnuts from the studio archives, an exhilarating reminder that R.E.M. really did come roaring out of the (post) punk era with furious style (on par with contemporaries like Mission of Burma) and a reputation built more on devastating performances than through quietly confounding albums that didn’t fit into any nerdy sub-genres at the time. Block the last 15 or 20 years of R.E.M.’s sputtering output when you throw this on, and you’ll never need to ask what the frequency is again.
It’s difficult to find vocals more compellingly arranged than on Quarteto Em Cy’s frightfully beautiful Som Definitivo. Having released a broad array of popular bossa albums (including children’s recordings), Cyva, Cynara, Cybele, and Cylene, four vocally virtuosic sisters, are among the most significant of female bossa and MPB groups. While the Quarteto released a body of formidable work spanning over three decades, it is Som Definitivo that fully reveals the group’s mastery of bossa nova, jazz, and pop.
“Imagem,” written by Tamba Trio pianist Luis Eça, is a microcosm of the broad genre synthesis that began in the ’60s. The composition begins with an almost stereotypical bossa nova flute section, which, due to the appropriation of Brazilian music, American ears may associate with elevator music. Then comes a jazz-inflected vocal line, sung in hauntingly low -- though imperceptible -- unison; the sisters match their vibrato flawlessly. The harmony breaks into two groups, then four as the section modulates to a new key, insinuating each chord change with as little sound as possible.
The show stopper, though, is the bossa standard “Arrastão,” which Eça engineers away from the piece’s usual pop bombast (search it on YouTube for a nauseating experience). The vocal delivery in relation to the presumed genre is again fascinating; the piece doesn’t actually sink into a recognizable “bossa” feel until the very end, favoring a straight bass line full of jazz and vocal pop tensions. It’s hard not to think of Brian Wilson’s vocal breaks as harmonies circulate around the memorable melody.
This delayed gratification in “Arrastão” also reflects Som Definitovo's astute politics. Bossa nova’s tendency to signify upper-class leisure is subverted by delaying the “bossa” until the very end. The contoured harmonies reflect both the anticipation felt in the first section ("Hey, there’s a raft out to sea!") and the leisurely relief felt in the finale ("We’ll never see as many fish as this!").
Although the Quarteto continues to exist today, the lineup is vastly different and the transglobal resonances of pop as a (potentially) all-encompassing genre are noticeably absent. So, what foresight the group had in calling their masterpiece “Definitive Sound.”
The more recognized Randy Newman is in mainstream culture, the more reviled his presence becomes. Despite enduring critical popularity with Pixar, his songs for their films -- think “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” from Toy Story or “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc. -- have made his name synonymous with mediocrity. They’re fine songs, but regular Oscars viewers turn hostile seeing this potato-shaped old man on the red carpet every year. (Though I’d like to make a case for the beautiful “When She Loved Me” from Toy Story 2. Maybe that’s a separate column.)
It wasn’t always so. Newman’s records, including this year’s decent Harps and Angels, are elegant character portraits and sharp satirical documents. As a writer, Newman ranks with Mark Twain as one of the country’s finest and funniest social critics; as a musician and composer, he stands with McCartney and Lennon, and the best of Tin Pan Alley.
Sail Away, released in 1972, is often cited as the pinnacle of Newman’s satirical work. And while it’s a great record, Good Old Boys is the subtler, more complicated effort. In fact, satire doesn’t get more complex than opening track “Rednecks,” whose hick narrator sees Georgia governor Lester Maddox on the Dick Cavett Show and spits out a rant about the patronizing response the politician receives from the northern-elite audience. The result is Newman singing from the southerners point of view, himself singing about the northern hypocrites who mock his kind: “We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground/ We’re rednecks, and we’re keeping the niggers down.” This is followed by a critique of segregation: “[The black man is] free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City/ He’s free to be put in a cage on the south side of Chicago.” That’s just the first track.
Things get a little less complex from there, but no less vivid. The narrator of “Birmingham” is a proud Alabama resident who works in a factory (“that’s all right with me”) and owns Dan, "the meanest dog in Alabam." He is also married to the title character of “Marie,” one of Newman’s finest compositions. The heartbreaking ballad is sung by Marie’s drunk husband, who tells his wife the things he’d never say sober: “The song that the trees sing when the wind blows/ You’re a flower, you’re a river, you’re a rainbow.” (He won’t remember this in the morning.)
Good Old Boys' centerpiece is “Louisiana 1927,” an account of the Great Mississippi Flood. The song’s refrain is “they’re trying to wash us away,” a comment on the theory that the city’s levees were dynamited to preserve the wealthier sections of New Orleans. Unsurprisingly, the song gained new popularity in 2005, after similar theories arose from Hurricane Katrina. It's simply a gorgeous track, accomplishing in a few words what lesser social critics attempt with entire books. And, like the rest of the record, the song just sounds great. There's just enough orchestration to inject some theatricality, but Newman's tight band -- which included session veterans Jim Keltner on drums, bassist Russ Titelman, and Glenn Frey and Don Henley as guest vocalists -- provide its R&B backbone.
At the time of Good Old Boys' release, some criticized Newman for patronizing his southern subjects. However, though these narrators are seemingly inarticulate, they’re simply direct: “they’re trying to wash us away”, “he’s free to be put in a cage.” These aren’t idiots, and in using the vernacular of a hick stereotype, Newman has pulled off a bait and switch, a record of misdirection. If you think this is a crude caricature, you can almost hear him saying that you’re the one recognizing the stereotypes, so you’re the crude one. See what I mean? Complicated.
There’s a reason people associate the sound of NWA (and West Coast hip-hop in general) with Dr. Dre instead of Arabian Prince. The Prince was a founding member of NWA (under the moniker Professor X) but left after Ice Cube came back in 1988. Now, consider the lack of common knowledge about the group before 1988, which of course means before Straight Outta Compton, and you'll begin to understand Arabian Prince's dilemma. Aside from a few minor vocals on “Something 2 Dance 2,” he just isn’t there. He’s the Pete Best to NWA’s Beatles, the guy who exited at the wrong moment and got left in the dust as a result.
Innovative Life proves that his departure was hardly a tragedy.
While G-funk itself is a pungent leftover dish these days, Arabian Prince’s electro-rap has aged worse, and this compilation shows that there’s not much reason to look back. While opener “Strange Life” provides a great mission statement in the verse ("The end’s not near so don’t scream and shout/ Live a strange life until your time runs out”), Arabian Prince’s definition of strange only went as far as pushing the weirder-sounding buttons on the newest synth of the day. The poorly paced compositions rely on then-new electro sounds to cover up unimaginative riffs and chord progressions, and the results are predictable.
Of course, you could argue that The Prince's music was made explicitly to get booties shakin’ rather than titillate some pasty, sofa-bound reviewer playing the collection in his living room. This is simple dance-floor fuel, and you wouldn’t go wrong slipping one of the tracks into a housewarming party playlist (once you kicked that pasty reviewer off the couch). Maybe Innovative Life is just meant for DJs rather than casual listeners, a handy compendium of tight, funny-ha-ha electro tracks that will effortlessly flow into a Spank Rock remix or something -- as long as no one’s listening too hard and there aren’t any real dance music fans in the house. But ’80s retro parties aren’t even in style anymore: it’s all about the ’90s these days, from Brooklyn to the Bay, and even so, you don’t hear any of the crate diggers at Academy or Amoeba wishing someone would reissue all the old EMF 12-inches, no matter how “Unbelievable” they sounded back then.
Though they didn’t go over too well with the mudslingers at Woodstock, The Incredible String Band were some of the biggest thrill-seekers in late-1960s psychedelic folk. Judging from the group photo on the cover of their third album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, their lives were just as full of fairy-tale images as their music. In 1968, when The Beatles donned white kaftans and absconded to India to study transcendental meditation, Robin Williamson had already returned from Morocco carrying an oud, a gimbri, a sitar, a water harp, and a bag full of melismatic vocal licks. Though former bandmate Clive Palmer seemed lost to India and Afghanistan forever, Williamson reunited with rock guitarist Mike Heron and set up house in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where the Scottish duo experimented with communal living, ran around wearing Renaissance costumes, and mastered enough non-occidental string instruments to justify their towering moniker.
After their second LP, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, confirmed their movement away from traditional Celtic roots, The Incredible String Band hit upon a distinctive marriage of East and West that would become their signature sound. With The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, which expanded their lineup to include girlfriends Licorice McKechnie and Rose Simpson, the group pushed the logic of cultural hybridization further than anyone else had dared. Unlike other members of the Sgt. Pepper’s generation, Williamson and Heron were ready to do more than just quote the Middle Eastern and East Asian musical traditions; they allowed these influences to explode the very fabric of their songwriting.
If only for its hallucinogenic quality, listening to The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is a lot like watching the dream sequence in Walter Lang’s 1939 remake of A Little Princess, where the film suddenly switches from monochrome to Technicolor, sublimating the life of an orphaned Shirley Temple into a tale fit for the Brother’s Grimm. Shirley, now styled as a petticoated princess, arbitrates a dispute between an evil witch (her tight-lipped headmistress) and a lovely shepherdess (her beloved teacher) over a “stolen kiss” as she is regaled by a swirling cavalcade of pied pipers, court jesters, and cooks armed with over-basted suckling pigs. If we can’t triumph the powers that be, the film seems to suggest, why don’t we just drop out of reality for a while and write our own tall tales?
Equally enchanting and enchanted, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter provides a potent musical antidote to today’s daily grind. Taking off from the group’s farmhouse in Pembrokeshire, Williamson’s soaring tenor catches on a gust of wind and sweeps us into a promised land filled with panpipes and misty garden walls, frankincense and minotaurs, spinning castles and witches wearing black cherries on their fingers. Though each song unfurls like one of those long-winded adventure stories that bards rattled off to the ladies back home, Hangman’s is a movement not only across the seven continents but backwards through time, where childhood make-believe magnifies into courtly love and a stroll down a tree-lined lane becomes a caravan down the Silk Road. In “A Very Cellular Song,” a 13-minute ode to an amoeba that joins a Sikh hymn with a Bahaman spiritual, the group enumerates the joys of “living the timeless life” -- perhaps hitting upon the secret ideal of all true-blue hippies, past and present.
But while The Incredible String Band were busy luxuriating in their own escapist fantasy, they were also working long hours to break apart traditional song structure and confront their glut of exotic instruments with their wickermanian aesthetic. With the advent of 8-track recording, they had finally discovered a way of putting all of their ideas (and all of their instruments) down on tape. And Williamson and Heron were overflowing with ideas -- so much that they didn’t see the point in drawing any one of them out into a verse-chorus-bridge-chorus number.
“I did not write this song,” Williamson sang on their first album. “It was my joys and sorrows that bore it.” Obviously, The Incredible String Band did write their songs, and we cannot overestimate the amount of time it probably took them to sync up each microtonal flutter of Williamson’s voice with a corresponding sitar arabesque. But, listening to Hangman, we cannot avoid the feeling that Williamson and Heron were trying to reverse the equation that had come to dominate even the most “eclectic” music of their time: the channeling of sentiment into form, as opposed to the accommodation of form to sentiment. Though their transitions from raga to music-hall parody were nothing short of virtuosic, The Incredible String Band were less interested in blowing their own pennywhistles than in confronting the fact that no single melody, no single musical language, suffices to capture all the colors in the psychic rainbow.
Often lost in the pantheon of Bernard Stollman’s ESP label is the last batch of recordings they released just before closing their doors. While there are several dozen “essential” ESP recordings from the late-’60s, releases from the early-’70s by Ronnie Boykins, Donald Garrett, and others often get lumped in with posthumous records by Bud Powell and Billie Holiday (which do deserve some attention of their own). Among these is Frank Lowe’s debut, Black Beings, certainly one of the most quintessential ESP releases.
The death of Coltrane and Ayler put a small muzzle on American free jazz, ultimately causing it to branch out and take on new forms. By the early-’70s, many American players had left the country, seeking out a more receptive European audience. European natives had already established their own take on free jazz. While not soulless, the deliberate lack of rhythm and melody heard from European’s like Peter Brötzmann, Albert Manglesdorff, and Paul Rutherford were far cries from the Pan-African influences pouring out of those like Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders. But in the midst of all this change, Frank Lowe remained one of the last to carry on the “Fire Music” tradition in its truest form. Mixing post-bop influences, African heritage, and the experimentation of late-period John Coltrane, Black Beings remains one of the most soulful and extreme albums of its ilk.
Beginning with “In Trane’s Name,” Black Beings takes off like a shotgun blast, bearing a sense of urgency rarely captured on recording. Over the interlocking static-like rhythm section of William Parker (one of his earliest appearances on record) and Rashid Sinan, Frank Lowe, Joseph Jarman and Raymond Lee Cheng race through the “head” with intense prowess, a sort of formality before jumping into full-on improvisation. Lowe begins with some staccato melodic phrasing similar to Shepp, but quickly soars into an overblown, multiphonic scream/skronk that sets the tone for the rest of the album.
Essentially just a recording of a live show, Black Beings encapsulates what’s great about improvisation at its very core: harnessing spontaneity in a way that can never be recreated. Aside from stellar, moment-to-moment playing, Black Beings also documents a pivotal time in music. Lowe takes free jazz to its fiercest and rawest states, while remaining deeply invested in the same roots as the previous generation of jazz experimenters. As avant-garde as Black Beings gets, it is indeed pure soul music, without a trace of pretension or self-indulgence that often cripples free jazz.
While this album has been reissued several times by various questionable sources, the latest reissue is significant for two reasons. Aside from being an official release on Stollman’s recently revived ESP label, Black Beings also has bonus material that is pretty much essential to the release. Previously “In Trane’s Name” had ended with Rashid Sinan’s sharp snare drum crack, which seemed to mark the end of the piece. But to make the original album fit within the sides of an LP, Raymond Lee Cheng’s impressive violin solo was left out, along with the entire finish of the song. (It should also be noted that up until this release, Raymond Lee Cheng had always been credited as “The Wizard.” Maybe some people knew who it really was; however, I had always assumed it was a moniker for Leroy Jenkins.) Additionally, the final track, “Thulani,” originally faded out on a high note but now plays out until its definitive ending, in which you can hear an audience of about 10 devoted fans clapping. (How fucking sad is that?) The fidelity of the recording has benefited from a superb remastering job as well. Where previous versions heard the mix obviously in the red, full of lo-fi analog distortion, the latest version keeps the all the grit, while adding a great deal of clarity. Bass notes that were once buried in the mix are brought out to the surface, and no longer do the drums drown everything out in an overdriven haze.
Black Beings is an essential release for anyone interested in the history of free jazz, and those already fond of the album will without a doubt appreciate the upgrade.
He howled at the moon before Allen Ginsberg, freewheeled it to New York from the Midwest before Bob Dylan, and was more adept at self-fashioning than either of them. An object of fixation for the high-profile bohemia of the ’50s and ’60s -- from Charlie Parker to Leonard Bernstein to Dylan and Ginsberg -- he never saw the mainstream success of the fashionable artists who championed him. Moondog (born Louis Hardin in Marysville, Kansas) was attractive to the avant-garde partially because he was unmarketable (though Columbia records briefly tried, releasing two Moondog records in the late ’60s/early-’70s): blind, homeless, stubbornly eccentric and always dressed in his customized translation of Viking attire, he was an outsider in the most fundamental sense. A composer, poet, street performer, and inventor of instruments, he went without all but the most basic comforts and dedicated himself fully to his art.
It’s understandable if Moondog’s romantic profile as the quintessential practitioner of art brut, driven by an unstoppable need to create above all practical concerns, arouses your skepticism. His extraordinary life story has made him a fetish for obscurists, folk academics, record collectors, and field recorders such as Tony Schwarz, who captured Moondog’s impromptu street performances on the record Moondog on the Streets of New York. Yet, as this early career (I use the term career loosely) compilation from Astralwerks proves, Moondog’s works are strange but immediately pleasurable, as idiosyncratic and playful as the legend of the man himself.
Moondog’s freak appeal is advertised by the cover art: New York photographers’ favorite subject stands in full Viking attire on a street corner (presumably 6th avenue and 54th St., now officially known as Moondog Corner) while a swanky Manhattan couple staidly side-step around him. His outsized image was inseparable from his work and his personality; it reflected his complex worldview, one that I frankly fail to fully grasp. It involved a love for the classical tonal compositions of the Renaissance and a deep, possibly controversial identification with the ancient Nordics.
“Theme and Variations” opens with tribal percussion; then a four-note, cycling flute melody enters while other flutes and horns slowly play counterpoint to the original pattern. It’s the kind of concentrated, mesmerizing build-up the minimalist composers were after, and indeed, Steve Reich and Phillip Glass often referred to Moondog as the original minimalist. Rejecting this title, Moondog argued that his songs were in the classical tradition of Western tonal music. The second track “Down is Up” brings this point home; it’s a canon that places (what sounds like) amateur choir singers over Renaissance-style melody and instrumentation, punctuated by quirky percussion. “Bumbo” comes on strong with its pulsing, repetitive jazz. “Big Cat” is a sparse exercise in rhythm, interspersed with Native American influenced flute.
These four songs introduce the major styles that occur throughout the record. There are the melodic flute-driven pieces, the madrigals, the hard-bop numbers, and the rhythm-based songs utilizing Moondog’s unique percussion instrument, which he called the trimba. “Bird’s Lament,” which falls under the bop category, is an impossibly satisfying tribute to Charlie Parker that radiates theatrical cool on every second of its perfectly short 1:44 length. “All is Loneliness,” once covered by Janis Joplin’s Big Brother & The Holding Company, perfectly evokes the alienation of living on the fringe of society, with its single line “All is loneliness here for me” repeated over a haunting flute and acoustic guitar line. “Be a Hobo” finds Moondog entreating anyone with an open spirit to “be a Hobo and go with me/ From Hoboken to the sea” in a melody that echoes “All is Loneliness” but somehow excises the despair. It’s beautiful, funny, and understated. Album closer “Invocation” sounds like the stoic and insistent march of an army of horns led by Terry Riley towards the netherworld.
The Viking of 6th Avenue skillfully arranges a heterogeneous selection of songs from various Moondog releases so that his singular, though eclectic, vision emerges intact. The tunes are minimalist in a few senses; excluding the 10-minute “Invocation,” they are all extremely short. Each idea is allowed enough time to germinate, and no more. Additionally, the songs are stripped down in terms of instrumentation and players; Moondog overdubbed many of the parts himself, and he sings with his daughter on a few of the madrigals. His influence on capital M Minimalism can be found in the contrapuntal pieces where dueling melodies in the same key enter and leave at random intervals.
For all his formal concerns, Moondog rarely abandons the pleasure principle: one listen to bawdy “Rabbit Hop” or endearingly irreverent “Enough About Human Rights!” will prove as much. These songs were written on the streets, not in the academy, and it shows. Those looking to The Viking of Sixth Avenue for a slice of weird Americana will not be disappointed. Try playing it sometime for people who know nothing of the Moondog myth -- if they’ve got any howl in them, they’ll love it too.
Now that Pitchfork scribe Amanda Petrusich has gone and made the investigation of the connection between the old and new “Weird America” all official with her excellent book It Still Moves, the work of artists like Nimrod Workman has become even more paramount to our understanding of the elements that compose American folk music: the thematic ever-presents of God, love, murder, and justice, the lonesome tones of strained voices and the inherent multi-national, multi-racial aspects that manifest themselves as Nimrod Workman (named for his Cherokee grandfather). Unaccompanied by any other voice or instrument, Workman sings songs ranging from self-composed tales of lust and murder, to British and Scottish traditional ballads and spiritual devotionals.
I Want To Go Where Things Are Beautiful contains just a small chunk of the 18-hours' worth of recordings that musician and folk historian Mike Seeger made of Workman at his home in Mascot, Tennessee in 1982. At 87 years old, Workman proves strikingly lucid; between the songs, he often takes time to elaborate on their origins, explaining that his uncle Peter McNeely took him aside as a young boy and taught him songs he wouldn’t teach anyone else. He details his struggles as a coal miner union activist, fighting to gain medical compensation for exposure to coal dust that led to black lung. The conversations between Seeger and Workman are warm and often given to laughter, as Workman details where he learned the songs, as if by recording them with Seeger he is to some degree passing them down to future generations as they were passed down to him.
Workman’s voice, shrill and heavily accented, is the perfect vehicle for the songs. As he describes singing in the coal mines, alone and in the dark, it becomes clear that his songs serve a higher function than mere entertainment. Songs like “Shady Grove” and “Gabriel’s Trumpet” long for a kind of beauty, sounding like survival tactics against the harsh backdrop of dirty, desolate mines. As he belts out “Coal Black Mining Blues” and describes his battle against the injustice of the mining business, a line connecting Pete Seeger to Billy Bragg and The Clash becomes apparent, with music as a message of social change. Just as Bukowski spent a good chunk of his life slagging it out in a sea of crap jobs, only free to truly explore the “fullness” of artistic life after retirement, Workman only began singing professionally after 42 years of mining, forced into retirement by a slipped disc and black lung, and the years of work are clear in his ringing voice as they are in Bukowski’s writing.
Workman shines when walking the line between the sacred and the profane, offering Pentecostal blessings in the same company as murder ballads (and sometimes even merging the two) or depicting Jesus as an avenging warrior in “Hewed Out of the Mountain,” conjuring images of a “stone rolling down from Babylon.” “Oh Death” and “Great Big Hand of God” feature similar dread, recognizing that at the core of the smiling-pastor visage of Christianity is a pretty terrifying book, full of rivers of blood and sacrifice. Workman is careful not to sermonize too much; however holy the Sunday mornings are, the Saturday nights seem pretty wild, as Workman describes calling out girls, drinking in the bar, and generally having a great time with the ladies when he’s not disposing of their bodies in the river.
But it’s not all so grim. “Good Morning” finds Workman blasting out some rapid-fire talking blues, genially rapping, and the smirk on his face is practically audible. As the record concludes, Seeger has wisely left in Workman’s goodbyes to him on that particular day. Among the colloquial “y’all comeback now”s, his gentle nature shines through. A classic storyteller in a uniquely American fashion, his tale is one that embodies all that’s notable about “traditional American” music. Though he passed away at the age of 99 in 1994, Nimrod Workman’s songs contain the threads that our modern folk -- indie or otherwise -- is built upon, the tightrope walk of spirit and flesh, the pathos of love and murder, and, above all, the idea of music as lasting salvation.