Page 1 of archived music reviews originally run on Bartcop-E.
More recent reviews at the bottom, most recent on last page.
Shockwave is a science fiction/science fact radio program. After 20 years or so of doing a live weekly show, strange things start to creep on the air. One of those strange things is The Electric Amish. Starting out as a bit of humor for a radio show, the concept was successful enough that they have three CDs out: Barn To Be Wild, Milkin' It and A Hard Day's Work. Mostly, it's covers of rock songs done Amish style; parodies of Amish lifestyle, to be sure. While more than a little irreverent in their approach, there is a certain amount of respect for both the original song and the religion.
Perhaps not everyone will appreciate For Your Mule, a parody of the Yardbirds' For Your Love, about bartering; or Black Bonnet Girls, a parody of Queen's Fat Bottomed Girls, about an Amish whore... but I do. They have Christmas songs on all three CDs, and a bonus Irish track on A Hard Day's Work. My favorite song of theirs is A Girl On Theology, comparing the mating rituals of many religions in two line verses.
The quality of lyrics, singing and musicianship varies from track to track, though I'd wager that many would disagree as to which songs place higher or lower. Still, if The Electric Amish are an acquired taste, I have acquired it.
You can order CDs through their web site, which has a lot of information and sample tracks and so on. A bit twisted, but who wants to be normal?
Children live in a magical world, where everything is new and problems get solved by beings of power and mystery. Music is a powerful part of a child's life. The best children's music contains magic, delight, originality, whimsy and a dash of guidance, though not necessarily all at once. If the songs work for adults too, so much the better. Here my recommendations for children's music, aimed roughly at ages 5-12, though younger and older kids will still appreciate the songs. This is by no means a complete list. In fact, why don't I just call this list
A Child's Celebration of Folk Music has a really nice range of classic children's songs done by well known artists. It starts off with the underappreciated Pete Seeger doing She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain When She Comes in its proper variant: A repetition of sound effects after every verse, adding as they go. Maria Muldaur does a good version of Would You Like To Swing On A Star; David Mallet does his Garden Song. Other tracks include Little Brown Dog by Taj Mahal and Run Molly Run by Sweet Honey On The Rock. Here's another review.
The Happy Wanderer, by Bill Staines, is not merely one of the great children's albums of all time, it's one of the great albums of all time. The Gypsy Rover, The Happy Wanderer, The Applepicker's Reel and many other classics are given fine renditions, along with such standards that rarely get seriously recorded like Home on the Range (with all the verses) and Kookabura. While not my favorite Staines' recording of his A Place In The Choir, this oft neglected song is served well here.
The Wombles was a series of children's books from the late 60s and then a British children's tv show a few years later. I've seen some of the episodes, and they're awful. The worst aspects of Davey and Goliath animation combined with the worst aspects of HR Pufnstuf plotlines. These small, furry creatures in Wimbledon Commons are dedicated to picking up litter. Individual personalities are drawn broadly. On the show (or at least the ones I saw, courtesy of a Showtime special many years ago), they didn't even talk; all the dialog was in the third person from a narrator. To be fair, I've talked to some Brits who grew up on them and remember them fondly. Oh well. I'm here to talk about the music done in their name, which was, it seems, a separate promotion that took off on it's own.
A young Mike Batt was commissioned to do some music based on the show, and they became hits in the mid-70s. They never reached America, and I'm not sure how you can get the older records, but the songs are wonderful. Batt, playing all the instruments and doing all the voices (at least on the recordings, I think), does terrific pastiches from all over the musical spectrum, featuring characters from the show. Minuetto Allegretto is a Mozart waltz featuring Great Uncle Bulgaria, who was dancing in 1780. I've seen deadheads close their eyes and sway to the country Wipe Those Womble Tears From Your Eyes. Tobermery's Music Machine is similar to a song by the Banana Splits about a nifty music maker. Science Fiction Fans will appreciate Womble of the Universe. Political/historical junkies will understand why Chinese music is represented by Invitation to The Ping Pong Ball. Batt riffs off barbershop quartets, James Bond theme songs, reggae, Beach Boys surfing music and more. Wonderful stuff. I have two of what a web site claims is four of their gold albums. You can get a double CD with 34 songs in Britain, but haven't been able to track down how to get it for myself! The few additional cuts gleaned from Napster were great, though. Update 4/03: Batt's site now has lyrics from the 34 song CD, and claims more info later.
Dave van Ronk is my favorite male vocalist, though not necessarily my favorite male singer. Nobody could put more expression in a song than Dave. His raspy but controlled voice mirrored his grizzled appearance and his hard life. His world is one of hookers, junkies, sinners, children and fellow blues performers. He likes his sex dirty and his religion clean. Too many folk musicians of the early 60s smiled their way to fame and fortune. Dave stayed true to his roots and sang from the heart. He bent a little for commercialisms sake, but he never broke.
Dave van Ronk died on Feb. 10, 2002 at age 65. Most obituaries, if they ran at all, credited him with being a mentor of Bob Dylan. While his influence is still felt in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, his own performances stand out. He was the essence of the urban folk music scene, growing up in Brooklyn and living in Greenwich Village from the 50s on. When the producer of the group who would become Peter Paul and Mary was looking for musicians, they auditioned him. Things would have been very different.
Despite the hard-drinking, hard-loving image he presents, Dave's range can be seen with a superb rendition of Teddy Bear's Picnic. A bit on the scary side, it still works as a children's song. Not at all saccharine sweet, but cuddly and protective. Similarly, Swinging On A Star never felt quite right with Bing Crosby crooning it; Dave van Ronk's authoritative growl is far more fruitful as a cautionary tale. On the other side, his obscenity-laced anti-Vietnam scream, Luang Prubang, is a simple song told with power; the flip side of Eric Bogle's The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. His version of the Weill/Brecht Alabama Song warns of the dangers of obsession more effectively than The Doors could muster.
Personally, my favorite album of his is Songs for Ageing Children, which seems to be unavailable. Followed by No Dirty Names, which I also couldn't find listed on the net. They show his range and depth. Of the CDs available here and here, I suspect Sunday Street is a good first look at both his singing style and excellent guitar work. On Shockwave I played Last Call from Going Back To Brooklyn, a solo a cappella piece about alcoholism and loneliness, and got a call wondering exactly what that was. Several cuts on that CD can't be played on the air, so I'm glad I hit one with power, and that CD too is recommended, but not for the untested listener. If you want to approach him from a different angle, Hummin' To Myself features a lot of showtunes and a few cuts with Christine Lavin.
Too many of his earlier records seem like studio cuts of songs done more forcefully in concert. They lack the single-take rawness of Ledbelly and the polish of The Kingston Trio. Ah well, these are what we have. Inside Dave van Ronk and The Folkway Years are good collections of tunes that are NOT children's folk music.
Goodbye Dave. You will be remembered for being a relentless observer and critic of the society around you but mostly what we'll remember is a damn good singer.
Peter Paul and Mommy, by Peter, Paul and Mary (Associate Producer, Phil Ramone...) remains one of the standards. All of PP&M remains listenable to, lo the years, and their children's songs are still strong and still being sung. Puff The Magic Dragon still captures the child-like awe of power, enchantment and loss. The Marvelous Toy remains a favorite of children and parents (and fun to do the sound effects for). Boa Constrictor is a quick cautionary tale, while Day Is Done is one of the rare father-son songs. Going To The Zoo is one of the road songs you can still sing. A total of ten songs, all at least good. Highly recommended. (I've never heard Peter, Paul and Mommy Too, but the song list looks good.)
Tom Paxton wrote The Marvelous Toy and Goin' to the Zoo as well as My Dog's Bigger Than Your Dog (you know only part of the song through dog food commercials) and his version of these can be found on his first CD for children conveniently entitled Goin' To The Zoo. Other songs include the lullabye Jennifer's Rabbit and how happy you are eating Peanut Butter Pie.
Still, I prefer the second volume of his children's songs, I've Got A Yo-Yo. The Magic Whistle is about the worlds you open up by playing a musical instrument. Bananas is a great deal of fun, and might make you hungry. The Crow That Wanted To Sing is about dreams vs. reality, and strikes to the heart. Perhaps the only free speech kid's song is The Thought Stayed Free; if it weren't a kid's song, it would be an anthem. He does songs about dinosaurs and fish and subways and rhinoceroces... Fun, witty and tuneful, I highly recommend this one. Many of the tracks have kids singing along.
Around The World and Back Again asks What Is A Didjeridoo and takes you to the time when The Troubadour was the main source of stories and two kids from Buffalo overcome problems and see the world as they're Gonna Go To Borneo (probably the Chapin cut to which I give the most airplay). Fun songs.
Moonboat takes you on a horse for The Trail Ride, has us Sing A Whale Song and even the jokes in State Laughs work.
Common Ground isn't a children's album, but I like it. It's G-rated; slip it in with the others and have the kids develop some taste.
Okay, an obscure one. I found Somewhere In The Corner at the semi-annual KFAI record sale here in Mpls. It's a cassette tape that I picked up for the wrong reason, but sometimes the magic reaches out to you. Since then, I've been forced to make a CD of the cuts, just so the tape won't wear out. (No, I won't make a copy for you; buy the tape!) Debbi Friedlander's songs are bouncy and clever and superbly performed. My favorite is Deepest Africa, a brilliant play on words and a duet that shines musically. (On compilation tapes for friends, I follow it with Allan Sherman's One Hippopotami and sometimes precede it with Ray Steven's Guitarzan. But then, I'm like that.) In Canaan, a handyman keeps years handy. The pit-a-pat of Mice feet gathering food for winter contrasts with the talkin' mouse blues of Jumping Mouse. She gives good advice to avoid standing under a tree with Coconuts and Inspiration urges you to fill your life with laughter. Discoveries like this one make haunting sales worthwhile, and now you don't have to buy on spec.
While a group that was nominated for two 2002 Grammys and won the 1999 Grammy for Best Polka Band can't exactly be called "obscure", Brave Combo doesn't get the buzz they deserve. I like the description on Group Dance Epidemic, "Fun... and Functional". The group, which has changed personnel since their 1979 debut, plays dance music, and they play it very well... and they don't necessarily play the music you expect in the way you expect.
I only have two of their CDs and one tape (and have been to one concert), but I'm already a big fan. They gave a great concert here in the Twin Cities a few years ago (joking that the tech crew did a terrific job since all three groups on the stage that night needed sound checks for accordians). They had they crowd dancing to polkas and chicken dances and almost anything else. Any doubts about their playfulness were erased by the url of their web site, www.brave.com/bo.
Mostly what you do with Brave Combo is dance. They know their music and they know their musical styles and they're not afraid have you stomp your feet to an unexpected beat. As a DJ, I had people dancing to O Holy Night Cha Cha Cha from Musical Varieties when one of the dancers turned to me and screamed, "This isn't a cha cha, it's a Christmas carol!" AND a floor wax...
Without realizing exactly what's going on, you'll be shaking your bootie to The Hokey Pokey, Sixteen Tons, Mexican Hat Dance, People Are Strange (take THAT, Lizard King), The Chicken Dance, Havana Gila Twist, Never On Sunday and you have a short time to fill out your dance card answers to Jeopardy (schottische). Heck, I didn't even know what a schottische was until I danced to it. Fortunately, the CD liner notes on Group Dance Epidemic give dance instructions.
Small word of warning: Their releases often contain tracks from previous releases, so you don't have to get all of the CDs to get most of the group's recordings. Still, they're a lot of fun and if you can see them in concert I recommend going (for March and April they're only scheduled for Texas, but they occasionally foray outside the state).
There are a lot of dinosaur songs, mostly for children, and many individual songs are scattered across divers albums. Here are a few albums primarily featuring dinosaurs intended for the children in all of us.
Way back when Jim Henson was alive, between the two Muppets shows, he produced a tv program called Dinosaurs, which was so good and made fun of so many political figures it was cancelled. Meanwhile, the show released an album called Big Songs with characters from the show singing. The Baby sings I'm A Dinosaur, the anthem of all bratty kids everywhere. Charelene, the teen ager, gets to speculate about growing up In A Perfect World. Earl the Ralph Kramden-like working stiff commiserates over Poor Slobs With Terrible Jobs. His Fran sings a beautiful cajun dinosaur love song, Stone Age Bayou. Even the Disney web site doesn't seem to have the CD, but if you can dig it up, I highly recommend it. If you can find copies of the show, they're also highly recommended.
Dinosaur Rock, one of several albums by DinoRock, which puts on theater productions. The CD alternates between spoken dialog and songs based on the characters introduced. Loads of fun. The songs range in styles from yodelling to swing to folk. Tyrannosauraus rex... rex... rex... is a nifty country song while Leapin' Lizards goes bluegrass. You can dance to The Sauropod Swing while Stella Stegasaurus tells her story in oom-pa.
Dr. Jane isn't exactly a children's singer -- she's a filk singer and paleontologist who sings for science fiction fans at science fiction conventions. Many of her songs require a college education to really appreciate. Still, they're all G-rated and the music is good enough and bouncy enough that kids will enjoy what you're listening to. The first, and my favorite, of her CDs is Fossil Fever. You might be able to get it (and the other Dr. Jane CDs) online here, but almost any medium-to-large sf con will have one in the huckster's room. Dinosaurs dance heavily to The Graviportal Polka and sing sweetly of the Ambition to fly. A paleontologist catches Fossil Fever in ragtime and learns to Digga Digga Bones.
Dr. Jane's Remains has a nice doo-wop variant of At the Hop called At The Loch about the search for Nessie. The true story of Who Owns the Bones was written before the final decision over Sue the Dinosaur was rendered by the courts and the exhibit went on national tour. More academic songs and a diversity of song stylings round out a good album.
It doesn't have any dinosaur songs, so I'll only mention Wackademia in passing. Getting a PhD in Paleontology requires dealing with college bureaucracy and other scientists, and her experience is reflected in Drivel (to the tune of Dave van Ronk's River) and Anthem To Bureaucracy. Aria in Ape Flat Minor is bouncy and The Overflowin' Cat Box Blues is universal.
You hate him but your toddlers love him but you'll both like Barney Rocks!. Sure, there are a few cuts which are just old songs recycled, but the first couple, That's How You Make Rock and Roll and Rock-N-Roll Star are great, especially if you know the characters from the show. Anything Can Happen if you use your imagination and Pumpernickel is about breads. Believe it or not, this Barney is recommended.
Science Fiction Fandom has given much to the wider culture. Filk Music started off as a typo, continued as an in-joke and then expanded beyond the original circle. Way back when, a young fan mistyped 'folk' music, and so the subcategory 'filk' music was born. Or, shall we say, reinvented and claimed by fans even as the rest of the world blithely continues the rich tradition of parodies.
Filk music started out, for the most part, as participatory. A fan would adopt a well-known tune with new lyrics based on a favorite book or movie. They'd pass around dittoed sheets and everyone would sing along, the wide range of keys bringing a campground feel to the event. Sometimes, the performer would do a solo act, but the song was aimed at their friends and fellow sf fans. Mundanes simply wouldn't get it; that was the charm. What Allen Sherman did and Weird Al Yankovic does, fans do to almost anything deemed worthy. The Green Hills of Earth is a poem from a Heinlein story, and has been filked to Amazing Grace and The Gilligan's Island Theme Song. Onward Sauron's Soldiers is sung to the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers. That sort of thing.
Nowadays, there are still traditional filkers, but a large array of people with performing and songwriting talent have joined fandom, and con music is closer to the folk coffeehouses of old. I'll most likely review a bunch of musicians known primarily through their performances at science fiction conventions. Many are fine musicians and don't like to be called filkers... but we know.
Masquerading As Human by the Duras Sisters is the closest thing to traditional filk in this review. The group is named after the power-hungry Klingons in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the a cappella trio does a lot of songs based on the tv show, indeed some of the songs are based on individual episodes. My favorite songs aren't from the show, however. I really love the title cut, Masquerading As Human, about an alien on Earth, and Bella Chow, a parody of a Russian troika that every cat lover will appreciate.
The personnel in Dandelion Wine keeps changing, anchored by Decadent Dave Clement, but they make some of the best music in or out of fandom. Based in Winnipeg, their music is in the tradition of Canadian balladeers like Stan Rogers. Circles in the Grain is a great album. I prefer the 'filk' side to the 'folk' side (it was originally released on cassette), but your tastes may vary. Drink Up the River ("you've got to drink up the river before you drown") is an amazingly upbeat song about aiming toward the future. Discovery is about explorations, from Columbus to the stars. Captain Jack and the Mermaid is a terrific tale well told. This Island Earth is another optimistic song.("calling all dreamers and optimistic fools").
Cheap Hooch is good too, with a nice version of Dixie Chicken. (You can get both Dandelion Wine CDs here here, it claims, as well as other filk that I'll be reviewing later.)
Nate Bucklin has been a mainstay of the LA/Minneapolis fan music scene for a long time, with forays into professional gigs, and has been a friend of mine for over two decades (with a short stint as housemate). He writes heart-wrenching autobiographical songs and plays them spectacularly well. Someday, a recording will live up to hearing him live in a filk circle but in the meantime we have his three tapes and Rainbow's Edge on CD. My favorite Nate work is The Chart Song, about trying to live down a sexual encounter at a science fiction convention, full of faannish references (a Langdon Chart is a diagram of such liaisons, so you can find out how many links you are from...) and delicious rhymes. You enter into his life with Convention Report, You Don't Know About Me, Afraid of the Desperate, I Pop Pills (heard on Dr. Demento), and others. Some Dumb Duke is silly and fun. I never know how seriously to take When I Stop Reading SF ("Will you still love me when..."), since Nate still reads (and occasionally writes) the stuff.
A regular feature on Shockwave radio is Folk Songs for Yuppies, a show that entirely comprises television theme songs. From there, I developed a kick for playing covers of any song, preferably odd or unusual covers. While interesing covers can be found on many CDs, here are whole CDs that are nothing but familiar songs in unfamiliar venues..
Big Daddy is not hard to describe: They do contemporary songs in 50s doo-wop style. What's hard to describe is how good they are at it. I have a couple of tapes, but the CD Cutting Your Own Groove is one of my favorite albums of all time and contains my current favorite song. The Talking Heads version of Once In A Lifetime always seemed too good for the 80s. It took Big Daddy to sing it doo-wop in the style of Day-O to make the song really shine. Memory and The Greatest Love of All get over-the-top doo-wop styling that improves on the original, and doing Money For Nothing to Sixteen Tons is a fitting cover. Prince, Springsteen, Vanilla Ice, Paul Simon and more get the Big Daddy nod. Highly recommended. I don't know where you can get the CDs online, but Amazon has a Best Of Big Daddy which looks like a pretty good selection.
But, alas, Big Daddy wasn't successful enough... until The Benedictine Monks of Santa Domingo de Silos scored a big hit with Chant. Reforming briefly as the Benzedrine Monks of Santa Sominica, the former Big Daddy parodied the genre with the small CD Chantmania. Six cuts (really five plus a joke) are entirely unaccompanied plainsong. Since I started off collecting tv theme song covers, I'm especially fond of (Theme From) The Monkees, which is great. I once played Smells Like Teen Spirit to several teens, and one turned to the other, "Oh, is THAT what that line says!" Losing My Religion and Da Ya' Think I'm Sexy and We Will Rock You are fun and conceptual.
What could be more natural than a reggae band fronted by an Elvis impersonator doing Led Zeppelin songs? Dread Zeppelin may not quite match Page, Plant or Presley, but they have their moments. The Fun Sessions has several really good cuts including the Who's Baba O'Riley, Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water and a delicious treatment of the Beatles' Golden Slumbers, Carry That Weight, The End.
Another Country is a great excuse to talk about The Chieftains, one of my favorite Celtic bands for many years. Here, they travelled to Nashville and recorded such Irish favorites as Wabash Cannonball (with Ricky Skaggs), Goodnight Irene (with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson) and others with Bela Fleck and Chet Atkins and more. Not all the songs work, but all the songs played with enthusiasm and easy skill.
The Nick Atoms are a group that I was just introduced to this week, and sparked this particular set of reviews. They are a three-piece punk band that (mostly) covers tv and movie theme songs. Like a lot of punk, the quality of performance is superseded by the fact that they're doing it at all. Any band is okay with me that slashes out the themes to Doctor Who and Fireball XL-5 and Lost In Space (the good one) and others. They dress in futuristic robot costumes and bring 'atomizing' equipment on stage to try to explain what is is you're hearing. I'm not entirely sure if their CDs are available, but you can hear cuts on their web site and I suspect if you ask nicely (and send them a few bucks) they'll burn a CD just for you, and autograph it.
I might as well complete the trifecta. Covers are songs done more-or-less unchanged except for the musical style and arrangement. Parodies are songs where the musical style and arrangement are the same, but have new lyrics. Filk is a subset of parody, and I've already talked about The Electric Amish, but here are some more..Weird Al Yankovic. Almost enough said, but there might be a few stragglers who missed him and spent all their time listening to Rush (Limbaugh or the corporate rock group). So briefly: Weird Al is a brilliant musician, parodiest and video producer. He's almost a brilliant filmmaker, but his only film, UHF is merely great. Frankly, that's also my favorite of his albums, containing Money For Nothing/Beverly HIllbillies (yes, another tv theme song), Spam (a better song than REM's Stand) and the hysterical, manic and yet poignant ballad The Biggest Ball of Twine In Minnesota. (Because of the song, I went and visited the Twine Ball. To my knowledge, all the places in the song are real.)
While his polkas and parodies are easily accessible and fun for all (including those being parodied, whom he's careful to get permission from), his original songs are also great. Spatula City, Dare To Be Stupid, Albuquerque (okay, so I'm twisted)... Loads of fun and highly recommended, even in concert.
Allan Sherman was underappreciated and The Best of Allan Sherman does him justice. It contains his hits Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah! (that all camp goers in the 60s gleefully sang at the drop of a canoe paddle) and Sarah Jackman (a strange phone conversation) as well as timeless classics like One Hippopotomi ("did it ever occur to you that the plural of half is whole?"), Pop Hates the Beatles and Hail to Thee, Fat Person.
Stan Freeberg is only peripherally a parodist, but deserves a mention in several categories, so this is one. His parody of Banana Boat (Day-O), Heartbreak Hotel, Rock Island Line still hold up from the 50s and the exactness in the parody of the tv show Dragnet in St. George and the Dragonet transcends the show. And there's more!
For those of us who like our politics and song parodies mixed, there is nothing better than Capitol Steps. It's kind of hard to describe what they do, so go to the web site and listen to some of the cuts. While the parodies are on target and well sung, some of their best political commentary is the spoken Lirty Dies, entire Scicious Vandals done in spoonerisms. They gleefully skewer any politician. Eclectic Warning: Some of their references are too obscure for Dennis Miller, especially in the older songs, if you don't follow politics like an insider.
Jordin Kare is a filk singer, and proud of it, but his CD is called Parody Violation and has the neat concept of him singing the original song (often a filk) in the first half of the CD, and in the second singing the parody. If you like the country song Heart of the Appaloosa but were also into computers in the 80s you'll appreciate Heart of the Apple Lisa. Dawson's Christian becomes Dawson's Concom. Caretaker, about a tree, is morphed to Cashtaker, about government funding.
Music for younger kids, most likely, appoximately ages 2-8, though adults can readily appreciate the songs.
It's a little unfair to talk about Danny Kaye for Children, since it's way out of print, but it's the single most requested CD from my entire collection. I get more mail from my CD collection than Shockwave. More people want to talk about their CDs than about conceptual science fiction humor, I guess. And no, I won't make you a copy. Danny Kaye doesn't boast the greatest voice in the world, but he's one of the most expressive and has done a lot of children's movies and songs. Several web sites mention the album -- for example and another -- and many of the cuts can be found on available CDs.
The Little White Duck was one of my favorite songs as a tyke, and it still pulls on the heartstrings. I'm Late, about the White Rabbit, and The Walrus and the Carpenter are from Alice in Wonderland. The Woody Woodpecker and I Taut I Taw A Puddy-Tat are from cartoons of the 50s. Kaye's verson of The Tubby The Tuba Song isn't up to the Paul Tripp original, but the whole album has stood the test of time. The Best of Danny Kaye contains several of these tracks, and some of his other children's songs, too.
The Banana Slug String Band comes from a place deep in the child's imagination. Penguin Parade explores the wide wonderfully silly world of animals and how we interact with them. Croak-A-Ribit is an a cappella doo-wop homage to "our froggy friends". What Do Animals Need explores ecological niches. There are songs about Fish, Moose, Ants, noses and nocturnal sounds.
The Cat In The Hat Songbook is as delightfully whimsical as Dr. Seuss lyrics can be. Not all the songs work, but I suppose that's a matter of taste. I really like the foods in Super Supper March and the a cappella rat-a-tat of Drummers Drumming. Others have covered My Uncle Terwilliger Waltzes With Bears nicely, while the animals admonish Let Us All Sing and you can try to finish The No Laugh Race.
Celtic Folk/Rock is my favorite type of music and Steeleye Span is my favorite group, and has been for more than 25 years, but I'll try to keep it short. I won't link to all the albums, but you can get many of them from Amazon here or here and find the lyrics to almost all their songs here. I love the net.
Steeleye Span has gone through a lot of changes in it's lineup since the band was founded in 1969 to the possibility of a tour in 2002, but to me the essence of their sound is Tim Hart and Maddy Prior. Tim's musicianship and arrangements with Maddy's soaring, plaintive voice with the wonderful song selection are what take this group to a higher ground than others drawing from the same sources (though your taste may vary). They take you into the culture of the time, and you don't merely listen to a song, you get caught up in the story.
Hart/Prior made three solo albums before and around SSpan (as I usually abbreviate it). They were part of a bubbling British folk music scene that produced a lot of albums and a lot of groups in the late 60s and early 70s. Their first two albums, Folk Songs of Olde England vol. 1 & 2, are okay, but no better than that. Their third solo album, separate from SSpan a couple of years later, is Summer Solstice, and one of my all time favorites. Maddy Prior's soaring vocals on False Kight On The Road, a song about a child meeting the devil on the highway and besting him in a game of questions, is unmatched by anyone else. Annoyingly, SSpan has covered this song, at least twice counting live albums, in a terrible version. She sings of Three Drunken Maidens and Serving Girls Holiday (which tells you a lot about what the lower class was doing for a living) and bemoans separation in I Live Not Where I Love while later Sorry The Day I Was Married. Tim sings emotionally or The Plougoy and the Cockney fighting over a wench and conjurs up the image of an elderly lady remembering the past while Dancing At Whitsun. A great album, done mostly with traditional instruments. I count this as the first Steeleye Span album, even though it isn't either Steeleye or their first, because of how it sounds in the progression of their musical development.
The first three albums are more traditional than later efforts, and not as well produced. Hark! The Village Wait features Gary and Terry Woods (Gay and Maddy doing duets) and Martin Carthy, some of whom would come back later. It's a good album, with the traditional celtic song Twa Corbies (Two Ravens) and The Blacksmith (which they would cover in a different version later) as well as starting off with A Calling-On Song. Please To See The King is uneven, with that lousy version of False Knight on the Road, but has the great Boys of Bedlam as well as jigs and The Female Drummer and others. Ten Man Mop, or Mr. Belvedere Rides Again is much more consistent, with excellent fiddle work even on mediocre songs like Four Nights Drunk. When I Was On Horseback keeps reminding me of Streets of Laredo, but what makes the albums is that they finally pick up on the trick of ending with a great, long song. Skewball (an old song covered by many, including Ledbelly as Stewball), about the race between and American and British horse, features Tim's singing and superb banjo playing.
If you're only going to get one from this group, it's Summer Solstice no question. As you get more into the group, you'll want the three SSpan albums; I currently don't have the two Folk Songs, and have no plans on getting them, but you never know.
Next up: They drift into using electric instruments and *shudder* drums.
Below the Salt, Steeleye Span's fourth album, is often considered their best, and it's my favorite. The album jacket (though not the CD jewel case insert) folds out to show a dinner table with the lords of the manner above the salt (a dish of the expensive spice in the middle of the feast) and the servants below the salt. As is often the case, the use of symbols and terminology is offered without explanation; it's a lot of fun to delve into the Child's Ballads to read the original lyrics to the songs (and compare SSpan's version with other versions). But I digress.
Below the Salt starts out with the weakest cut on the album, Spotted Cow, one of their interminable cow songs. A pleasant ditty, I suppose, with the woman winning the battle of the sexes. Still, one of the great advantages of CDs is how easy it is to skip the first cut and go to one my favorite SSpan songs, Rosebud In June, an a cappella fertility song where the all the musicians join Maddy Prior in the chorus. Some nice jigs are followed by Sheep-Crook and Black Dog, a song notable for being two tunes that crossfade from one to the other as Maddy expresses her anger at an unfaithful lover and you find out why she's mad. Royal Forester, a song about a rape and aftermath, uses electric instruments; not the first time this is done in the celtic folk/rock pantheon, but used quite effectively. King Henry can be inadequately described as a ghost story, and in this long song, 7:10, they shine in their use of music to enhance the narrative. Gaudete hit the British pop charts as an a cappella chant; Latin with an English accent. John Barlycorn, about the development of beer, has been done by many other groups, notably Traffic, but I prefer this one. And one of the great ending songs of all time is Saucy Sailor, with Maddy taking all the parts including the sailor just back from sea, proclaiming his independence. One of the promises I made to myself was that my first radio show would end with Saucy Sailor. It was great.
As Maddy Prior puts it, "Parcel of Rogues saw the use of drums reappear." It's their most electric album to this point. One Misty Moisty Morning is one of their few upbeat songs, followed by a Alison Gross, about a witch, that uses the electric guitar to great effect. The Bold Poachers get caught and a girl looses her maidenhead to a boy who works at The Ups and Downs tavern. Robbery With Violins is a terrific instrumental duet between violin and electric bass. The Wee Wee Man is a magical creature while class differences are explored yet again with The Weaver and the Factory Maid. Rogues In A Nation is about the attempts to put Bonny Prince Charlie back on the thrown of England in the 1700s, solemnly sung nearly a cappella. Charlie was fighting George I, who is ridiculed with the ribald Cam Ye O'er Frae France, an amazing intersection of folk and rock; heavy use of electric instruments even though it's not in modern English and you need a glossary to understand it. Hares on the Mountain is a pleasant tune of an old man urging young men to go after women while they have the chance.
By Now We Are Six (refering to the number of the album and the children's song on it), SSpan was a rock group. Seven Hundred Elves is pure rock, and they got David Bowie to play the sax on the Phil Spector hit, To Know Him Is To Love Him. But they never forgot their folk origins. Thomas the Rhymer (which had different cuts on the British and US releases) is about the Queen of Elfland taking Thomas with her. My favorite cut is Two Magicians, a wizard's duel (as in Disney's Sword In The Stone) that's similar in structure to the Q&A in False Knight On The Road but is a very old song of seduction where the maiden will lose her virginity if she can't counter his magical gambits. Nice fiddle work here as well.
These are three of my favorite albums with Below the Salt and Parcel of Rogues belonging in any serious British folk library and Now We Are Six not far behind. Maddy Prior's voice is strong and expressive and ranges into unlikely keys; the band is musically strong with great choice of songs, instruments and arrangements.
Next up: The Goon Show and Womble connections.
Commoners Crown is their darkest album, which is saying a lot for Steeleye Span, and yet ends with Good Show ad libs. Go fig.
Little Sir High contains no specific reference to the real horror of the song: It's an old ballad called Sir Hugh, or the Jew's Daughter that's been used to perpetuate the Blood Libel against Jews and probably relates to St. Hugh or one of the several saints that were canonized from the lie (and, to my knowledge, since decanonized). The song is bloody enough: Dark and chilling, about a child being cruelly murdered. A disturbing song, suberbly told, even if they've purged anti-semitism from the Britain of the time. Long Lankin is another long song, chillingly dark, about a child being murdered.
One of the biggest culture shocks in listening to the SSpan canon (and then reexaming other folk songs) is how many of them deal with young women, often young mothers, leaving, never to be seen by anyone living again. Are they really tales trying to surpress women who are leaving a bad marriage, or are they old wives' tales (if you'll pardon the expression) trying to explain why a woman is gone after dying in childbirth? Roughly a third of all women died in childbirth prior to the rise of antiseptic medicine in the 1800s and infant mortality was as high as 50% (no, I'm not going to delve further into that: Do your own research), and folk songs like The Foggy, Foggy Dew refer to their death in childbirth more directly. What would happen if a man were called on to explain his wife's disappearance? These were times when they burned witches who didn't drown in the test; superstition and folk tales would be the norm. Demon Lover is about a woman who leaves her husband and child for the riches of a faraway place, which turn out to be Hell. Elf Call, more sympathetically, tells the tale of a woman who has just lost her own child being called to nurse the Elf King's child. A beautiful song, one of my favorites.
Bach Goes to Limerick is a gorgeous fugue, with the first part working better than the second when the drums come in and it goes rock. Dogs and Ferrets is another poaching song, done in an odd time signature. Galtee Farmer is another interminable cow song that I could live without. But the album ends quite strongly. Maddy Prior sings both parts of an a cappella duet wherein her lover in pressed into service (ie kidnapped onto a British Navy ship) by the Weary Cutters. This segues into New York Girls, a comment about American sluts, I suppose, which also ends with impressment. A bouncy cautionary tale recorded by many, SSpan managed to persuade Peter Sellers to play "acoustic ukelele". The liner notes of a 1978 compilation aver: "Apart from playing well, Sellers enlivened the session with a stream of ad-libbed Goon humour, some of which was kept in the final mix. The band still have a version that is entirely swamped with manic Goon Show interruptions." I'd keep that, too. As it is, the few lines from Sellers at the end of the album are mildly amusing but a must for the dedicated Goon completist.
Immediately noticeable is the strange cover art of All Around My Hat. This is a piece of art that, alas really only works on the vinyl album cover. First of all, the back of the record (but not the CD) contains the other three members of the band, similarly skewed. Second, the album liner notes are are required to see the art properly. You pull out the inner card, just a little. There are three holes: flip up the edge to look through a whole to see the band member normal; flip down to see the back cover. Was this use of Anamorphic Projection a good idea? What the heck. More important to the success of the album was the producer, Mike Batt, of Womble fame. As mentioned above, the Wombles became a hit, and the animated series... went on tour. It's rumored that the people inside the Wombles costume were Steeleye Span. They owed him, since this is one of their most successful albums, and the title song was #3 in the British pop charts in December 1975. 'Pop', more than 'rock' describes much of this album, but it really works most of the time.
All Around My Hat sent me scurrying to the college library to find out what the herbal references meant, and whether they were part of the same symbolism as in Simon and Garfunkel's Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme. Both refer to the loss of a lover, but have slightly different takes on the jilted beau's reaction. The SSpan song has Maddy Prior at her scorned best with rock verses and an a cappella section. Several groups have done Black Jack Davey (or Black Jack David or Gypsy Davy or other variants) from The Incredible String Band to Koerner Ray and Glover, but the SSpan version is my favorite, telling the story of a young woman who runs away with a low class boy in a menial job (he slaps tar, or 'blackjack' on ships) and her father chasing them. Gamble Gold (Robin Hood) is a nice take on part of the legend rarely mentioned (well, I'd never heard of it, before or since). Sum Waves is an incredible violin instrumental. Cadgwith Anthem and Hard Times of Old England are nice vocal arrangements dealing with economics; the first about robbers and the second about merchants. I confess I don't like the other three songs very much, but they do have the occasional bit of lovely harmony and nice arrangement.
*Whew* An entire section devoted to two albums... but two of their best. While All Around My Hat is probably more accessible for the average rock listener and certainly more upbeat, Commoners Crown may be the height of their tight musicianship and storytelling ability.
Rocket Cottage was also produced by Mike Batt, but this time the music didn't quite gel as well and this signalled a downturn in the band's fortunes. For one thing, it was "Recorded very fast, in just over a week in fact" and feels very uneven. Maddy Prior actually misses a note! The Brown Girl is a great song, another one about class differences, but Maddy is not up to her best. For another, it came out weeks before the Sex Pistol's debut single, and popular culture is unforgiving.
Despite much going against the album, Rocket Cottage has a lot of very good music on it. Fighting For Strangers is a traditional song about mercenaries turned into a haunting anti-war ballad, on the order of Eric Bogle's The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. Orfeo/Nathan's Reel tells the Orpheus and Euridyce story in celtic folk/rock fashion, with a great fiddle solo at the end. Sir James The Rose is almost punk, a much harder examination of the kind of betrayal as told by the traditional song Whiskey In The Jar (or Gilgarra Mountain, as Peter Paul and Mary do it). London is a nice bouncy rock song while The Bosnian Hornpipes is a nifty 60 second a cappella instrumental. And once again, they end well. An uncredited version of Camptown Races slips into some banter by the band and then into the heartbreaking song of despair, The Drunkard. Maddy, singing a part written for a male, is at her finest and the band is emotional and cathartic. I'm always tempted to air The Drunkard together with van Ronk's Last Call, but I'd worry about my audience being driven to drink.
Storm Force Ten, their tenth album, featured a different lineup and different sound. Martin Carthy returns, and John Kirkpatrick adds an accordian where there had been a fiddle. This is a wonderful album that never quite caught on due to the break in momentum and the change in music style... and then the band broke up. Still, Awake Awake is a beautiful, mostly a cappella, song about lovers. Sweep Chimney Sweep is an hilarious a cappella song about class differences. Both song feature rich harmony and lovely imagery. The Wife Of The Soldier is another anti-war song, followed by the paean to Lord Nelson and The Victory. The Black Freighter, from Threepenny Opera, about lower class maid waiting for pirates to take her away, has never been done better. Maddy's true love has been stolen by Some Rival, the drudgery and harsh life of British sailors is told in Treadmill Song. And a flippant little ditty about meeting and bedding a young lass is giving full whirl in Seventeen Come Sunday. Another great ending song.
Steeleye Span broke up, but not without producing one live album, Live At Last! Not a particularly good album, alas, with the same lineup as Storm Force Ten. I've seen them in concert, and they're a whole lot of fun, but they are a studio band and none of their live albums comes up to any of their studio albums. The only real winner on the this one, though, is a doozy. A long, 15:15 min version of Montrose; complex and compelling even if you don't know (or care) about the political upheaval and betrayal in the song. The other songs are done well, though the performance of studio cuts suffer in comparison with the originals. Warning: The US and UK pressings are different, and I've been talking about the UK tracks.
Steeleye Span has reformed and broken up several times in the ensuing decades, but they never reached the heights of their first run (ten albums; twelve if you count Summer Solstice and Live At Last!). Their later material is uneven with the occasional gem. I don't even count their other live albums or compilations. Next up: Silly Sisters and solo other solo projects.
Merely listing all the albums by members of Steeleye Span would be a daunting task, so I'm just going to mention a few of Maddy Prior's efforts. Many of her recordings are available at from her British catalogue site. You can still find the lyrics to almost all SSpan and Prior songs here.
Silly Sisters was originally just a epynomous CD done by June Tabor and Maddy Prior in 1977 while Steeleye Span was on hiatus. Maddy and June are two of the finest singers around, with very different styles, but their voices blend so well, and in such unlikely keys. They're backed by some great musicians, including Martin Carthy and Nic Jones. The songs range from British Isle politics to a wife (June and Maddy alternating in a duet) bemoaning My Husband's Got No Courage In Him and other barely concealed baudy imagery. The centerpiece of the album, to me, is The Grey Funnel Line, referring to the British Navy. A sad, melancholy song of an impressed sailor too long at sea. This is not the usual celtic album of drinking songs or men having a quick one with a young maid. Many of the songs are slow, and most of them are earthy and all of them are gorgeously sung and performed. It's been one of my favorite albums for a long time.
Somewhat to everyone's surprise, twelve years later Prior and Tabor got together and released a second Silly Sister's album, No More To The Dance. At first, I didn't think highly of this one, since the first was such a large part of my life, but it's been growing on me. A more upbeat album overall, it still has nice long slow ballads and sad songs. No one comes to woo the daughter of the Hedger and Ditcher, and two people can't do the round Cakes and Ale any better (and probably not in that key). Not the first album one should get as an introduction to this style of music, but definitely worth getting to fill out a collection.
Maddy Prior really gets into the religious music of Gaudete and The Seven Joys of Mary. She's recorded four albums (that are listed here) with the Carnival Band, but they're imports and I could only afford one so went with A Tapestry of Carols. Most of the songs are done well, including God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, with traditional instruments and arrangements. The psaltry (I think) and sweet fiddle in Ding Dong Merrily On High and the country fiddle in Angels From the Realms of Glory will cleanse the musical palate from too many elevator rides and shopping mall visits too close to Christmas. This isn't really my kind of music, but if it were, this would be my kind of album. Reverent and playful; I assume the other Carnival Band collaborations are similar.
Maddy and SSpan basist Rick Kemp are married, so it seems only natural they have an album called Happy Families. The music isn't celtic and hops effortlessly from style to style. My favorite song is Alex, slowly and lovingly sung by Maddy, about letting go of her son. It feels like a vanity album done by some exceptionally talented people.
Preface and Disclaimer: Lojo, Steve, Adam and Emma were in a band called Cat's Laughing. Steve and Emma are in the same writing group and both write sf/fantasy as does Jane and Neil. Emma, Steve, Jane and I are Shockwave Riders and you can hear them on some of the Shockwave Distribution CDs and tapes or listen to the streaming Real Audio of PBS Liavek. We've known each other for a long time. It's always tricky reviewing work by your friends; most of the time I just invite them on Shockwave and let them talk. If anything, I'm harder on friends' music than others, since I know what they're capable of outside the studio. But the main reason for this recommendation now is that Will Shetterly and Emma Bull are going to be Guests of Honor at Minicon 37 this weekend (March 29-31), and Emma and The Fabulous Lorraine, aka The Flash Girls have recently put out their third CD and are likely to play at the con. Whee!
The two Flash Girls albums available are Maurice and I and Play Each Morning Wild Queen. Here in Minnapolis, you can get them at Dreamhaven or Uncle Hugo's, but you can also order them directly from their Online Catalog or through Amazon.com. Both feature Lorraine's fiddle and Emma's guitar and vocals, with several duets of the two of them. Indeed, what is currently my favorite song from the pair is an a cappella duet of a Neil Gaiman tune, All Purpose Folk Song (Child's Ballad #1). I suppose spending the last couple of weeks going over Steeleye Span made me all too susceptible to deconstructing Celtic folksongs. Their web site says they "play contemporary, traditional, and gothic folk music", which is an odd mix that works well for them. While much of their material is dark, especially on Maurice and I, there's an air of playfulness throughout, from Me and Dorothy Parker (based on Parker's writings, both dark and playful!) to another Gaiman-penned tune Yeti (which they apologize for, but sing anyway, thank heaven) to Buckingham Palace/ Dunsford's Fancy (words by A. A. Milne, full of literary references). They sing of love as a Personal Thing while warning A Girl Needs A Knife. The instrumentals tend to be lush Celtic reels, with good fiddle playing and drums.
The strong musicianship and song selection of The Flash Girls would be enough to recommend them, but they have the added advantage of talented friends. Of course, I would pick up, without knowing anything else about it, an album that has a back cover recommendation by Jane Yolen (a wonderful writer and a superb storyteller). Her son Adam Stemple produced and plays on Wild Queen. Adam is joined by drummer extraordinaire Robin Adnan, also of Boiled in Lead.
Boiled In Lead is another one of those great mostly local groups that deserves far greater exposure. They are ostensibly a Celtic band, but do thrash and world beat and almost anything else that suits their fancy. Their first incarnation's first two albums (1985-1987) are collected on one CD Old Lead. Go! Move! Shift! got some airplay here in the Twin Cities, and is about as angry as a celtic folk/rock song can be without slipping over into punk. Their odd, minor version of Twa Corbies and thrash version of Gypsy Rover draws the boundaries of their wide-ranging musical style, though what works best (for me) are their instrumentals, anchored by Robin's drumming. From the Ladel To The Grave won Album of the Year in the 1990 MInnesota Music Awards and still stands up. An eclectic range of musical styles from several countries and several sources. After playing The Microorganism, "A plague song" re AIDS, a listener called in to tell me "We love you!". Thanks. Sher was included on a Klezmer compilation while they scream out Pig Dog Daddy. They have several more recent CDs with newer band members.
Also on the Flash Girls CDs are Lojo Russo and Steven K. Zoltan Brust. I confess I don't have either of Lojo's CDs available, but she's a good musician and there is lots of crossover with the bands listed here. I can't find Steve's CD A Rose For Iconoclastes on the net, but you could try Dreamhaven or Hugo's. Steve has a wicked sense of humor and a sharp ear for lyrics, and Dr. Demento has played several cuts from this CD. Backward Message is credited with being "engineered by Satan". Latex Man is the flip side of The Microorganism and I usually play them together. Stream of Consciousness Blues is. It might seem obvious that War Is Bad but that's the point.
One of my favorite things about the digital revolution is mining music from eras past. We really don't appreciate that we have NO recorded sound prior to the invention of the phonograph in 1877 and very little up through the rise of commercial radio in the 1920s. Your grandfather's grandfather heard NO music that wasn't live. Fortunately for us, if the recording exists anywhere, we can still hear it, and probably better than they could at the time.
Al Jolson was the World's Greatest Entertainer, claims his website with much justification. He was the king of pop and the king of Broadway; the Michael Jackson AND the Nathan Lane of his time, which was the 1910s and 20s and beyond into the 50s. Several movies have been made about his life, and he's deservedly famous for launching talkies; despite previous attempts to add sound, the new media didn't take off until Jolson ad libbed dialog between songs (which were on record, trying to match the film speed) in The Jazz Singer (1927). The web site has MIDI files for you to listen to as you ride the wave (I love the net). My father used to sing us songs his mother sang to him, including When the Red, Red Robing Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin Along, There's A Rainbow Around My Shoulder, Mammy, April Showers and California Here I Come. He's been criticized lately for singing Swanee in blackface, but there's no indication that the black ministral shows he's emulating didn't enjoy it. From all reports, it's clear he could work an audience like no one else and the recordings are a shadow of his legacy. But they're what we have, and we can enjoy them.
The Andrews Sisters are probably best remembered today for their appearances in Abbott and Costello movies, but they had a long and very successful career spanning the 30s and 40s. Three Jewish sisters from Minneapolis worked hard at their sound and hit the bigtime in 1932, recording much with Bing Crosby and other notables until the group broke up in 1954 (with a couple of reunion attempts later). Their superb harmonies stand up past the lo-fi recordings. Their song selection would probably qualify them as World Beat in today's market, though they were playing to a whitebread audience, and are still quite listenable. While Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B was recorded by them many times (and by Bette Midler later), there are times when that note they hit a cappella is magic. Their more famous songs include Bel Mir Bist Du Schon (Means That You're Grand) with some German, The Beer Barrel Polka a Czech song by way of Germany, several tunes loosely based on Yiddish or Russian including Pross-Tchai (Goodbye) and Sha Sha, they journey via the South American Way to Cuanto Le Gusta and helped spark the Calypso trend with Holt Tight! (Want some sea food Mama). You can get many of their recordings here, and I'm not going to recommend a specific one to start with but the Best of collection has several of my favorites and the 3 CD set Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy - Greate looks like a good overview.
Jimmy Durante is an acquired taste. Most of his songs are not so much music as they are little skits and a chance for him to interrupt himself and make comments and jokes. Patter songs. In a way, anticipating rap or perhaps the music video. (Okay, that's a stretch, but what the heck.) He got his start playing ragtime and moved into vaudeville and later into movies and tv. He was known as the great Schnozzola, which he marketed with glee. He and Bob Hope sing a duet called The Boys With The Proboscis which sums up their reputation with their most prominent feature. Inda Dinka Doo is his signature song, rarely even attempted by anyone else. He urges you to Start Off Each Day With A Song and asks Who Will Be With You When I'm Far Away. While I have several records, the only CD in my collection is Inka Dinka Doo (that site doesn't have track listings, so I'm unsure if it's the same), which has a neat version of Black Strap Molasses with Jimmy, Groucho Marx, Danny Kaye and Jane Wyman. He was quite a character, but seemed to avoid all the negative things that go with stardom. His marriages lasted until death (the first, Mrs. Calabash, until her death and the second until his).
You can find CDs of early recordings from as far back as 1878 (which I hope to add to my collection someday), but at the time recorded music was a new technology and largely for the idle rich. It didn't become a mass market product until popular music was recorded with higher quality equipment and live radio created an itch that recorded music could scratch. Now, we can listen to Edison tinfoil cylinders that have been digitized. I love living in the future!
The protest song isn't dead, and isn't just reggae and rap.
The Washington Squares, in the decade or so of their existence, only released two CDs, with a third CD comprising their first two plus a couple of unreleased tracks. Their web site claims, "The Washington Squares were one of the most influential New York bands of the late 1980s -- leaders of the folk revival and all that." I have no idea if this is true, but their two CDs are very good and highly recommended for anyone who thinks Peter Paul and Mary are wusses, is pissed that Phil Ochs left us too soon, admires the craftmanship of Dave van Ronk's protest songs and still can laugh at Tom Lehrer's Folk Song Army.
Washington Square (second to last real audio clip) was an instrumental hit in the 60s by the Village Stompers, refering to the place in Greenwhich Village near New York University in New York City. Back then then the style was called Dixieland, now it's probably closer to klezmer, even with the banjo. Whether the group took the name from the song or the college hangout, The Washington Squares epynomous CD starts off proclaiming a New Generation, a folk/rock march announcing they are "coming down strong, filled with inspiration". Most of the cuts are protest songs, though closer to the 50s Beat Generation railing against society and unfairness than 60s anti-war polemics. Yes, they even use a bongo. Coming between the rise of Solidarity and the fall of the Soviet Union, their inclusion of Walls, a Polish Union Song, is almost prescient. Still, my favorite cut is D Train, a driving anti-coprorate song. "Get up each morning at the crack of eight... take a train in a hole to a job I hate... each morning I'm taking a subway train to a desk with a phone and a ball and chain." Imagine an angry Dilbert who commutes. While it was hard to be generically angry about employment in the late 80s or to sing Lay Down Your Arms when Reagan was wagging the dog in Grenada, they hammer out their protest songs. A freshman album that doesn't sound sophomoric.
Their second album shows a wider range and more maturity. Fair and Square starts out with a version of Leonard Cohen's Everybody Knows that I prefer to the original. A great song when you're mad at everything and everybody. Perhaps not Springsteen's Born In The USA, they effectively expose the puffery of blind nationalism with the rocker, Fourth Day of July. One of my favorites is Charcoal, a multicultural love song, at least as good as Three Dog Night's Black and White. Neal Cassidy is a eulogy to the driver/anti-hero of Jack Kerouac's On The Road and other works. Don't ever let La Roue De Fortune (The Wheel of Fortune, I think) break you. The third great song (imrho) on the album is Greenback Dollar, a cover of a Hoyt Axton tune that compares favorably with the Kinstron Trio version. Driving rock, angry and pulsing with an itch to move on needing only "women, song and a good guitar". Spoken like someone who doesn't like riding in the D Train; reminscent of the wanderlust in Green Green by The New Christy Minstrels with more about not needing money. They wind down the album with a love song and more protest songs to end with a short banjo reprise of Fourth Day of July.
Again, all tracks from both CDs and a couple of bonus tracks can be found on their 1997 reissue. When I sent him a copy of this review, bandmember Tom Goodkind replied, "We are absolutely, certified, and Arthur Andersen guaranteed out of print - completely!" but some of us haunt used bins and keep an eye out on the net. The yahoo link says it's currently unavailable from them but Spun might have it sooner or later. If I didn't have both CDs, I'd spend more time tracking down a copy for you.
Okay, so you're Rondellus, a renouned Estonian band that plays medieval and renaissance music. Who would you like to pay tribute to in your 14th century stylings? Of course, Black Sabbath.
Quote from their web site: "Sabbatum is a tribute album like no other - 12 Black Sabbath classic songs played by early music band Rondellus and sung in Latin language." (Sorry no links; I tried to access a Black Sabbath site and it crashed my browser...). Frankly, I'm hampered by not being familiar with the Black Sabbath oeuvre. Everyone I've played this CD for those who IS familiar with the group shake their head and mutter, "different arrangement". Even without knowing whether they're good covers or not, I can tell you: The songs are very pretty; gorgeously sung and wonderfully played. Sure, they're in Latin and sure they're arranged for instruments like psaltry and bagpipe when they're not solo voices or intertwining vocal harmonies. Of course.
You can order the CD through them, and they'll ship in the US. While I was initially attracted to them for the novelty (try playing the CD for your friends and asking "what is this a cover of?" None of my radio listeners could guess), I like the songs. Not enough to get me to listen to Black Sabbath, but enough to seek out more medieval music from Rondellus.
Richard and Linda Thompson are considered by many to be the best rock group that never made it big. Richard has been floating around the British folk/rock scene since the Fairport Convention days, and went out on his own with his wife Linda, and then she retired from performing and he settled into a solo career. Beat The Retreat is a tribute album to the songs of Richard Thompson, and like most such compilations the quality varies and which ones are good is probably a matter of individual taste. In retrospect, it's easy to see why Richard Thompson didn't hit the big time but he's loved by his fans: Most songs play to the modalities of sight or sound, and Thompson writes for the modality of kinesthetics. Most of his songs are about movement; to him, life is one big balancing act. My favorite song on the CD is The Great Valerio by (surprise!) Maddy Prior and Martin Carthy. A long, slow, song that I can't listen to frequently but is just the thing when I'm in the mood. June Tabor does well with the title song and Graham Parker and David Byrne to well on The Madness of Love and Just the Motion respectively. Many people contribute, from R.E.M. to Bonnie Raitt, even zydeco from Beausoleil. How much you like each cut is affected by how much you like the style of the individual artist, as well as your feeling for the original song. Definitely recommended for the diehard Richard Thompson fan; probably not the best introduction to his music for the uninitiated. He's worth checking out, but start with Shoot Out the Lights or perhaps the Best of.
You can get a video of Simply Mad About the Mouse, but I haven't gone that far. The CD is "A musical celebration of imagination", in other words covers of Disney songs. My favorite cover is Ric Ocasek doing Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, though other versions are worthwhile such as Billy Joel singing When You Wish Upon A Star, Bobby McFerrin singing both parts of The Siamese Cat Song and LL Cool J asking Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf. You may like how Harry Connick Jr or En Vogue do their songs; much is individual taste. Perhaps this is more Disney marketing to take over shelf space, but it works. Not really a children's album; more for adults who remember the magic of the songs.
There are many tribute albums, such as For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson and Roger Daltrey: A Celebration, the music of Peter Townshend and the Who that work if you like the originals and appreciate the artists doing the covers. Usually, I prefer originals to earnest covers but prefer creative covers over standard arrangements. Your mileage may vary.
I confess I'm a couple of Wally Pleasant CDs behind. They're hard to find in stores; you mainly get them from his Miranda Records. I first encoutered Songs About Stuff in the used bins, and liked it so much I got on his mailing list, and get alerted to tours but seem to have missed some new releases. Sorry Wally. "Wally will be touring EVERYWHERE! HE'S TAKING OVER THE WORLD!" and he will be happy to write and record a song for any occasion, claims his web site. Mostly, he hangs around the E. Lansing MI area, but does go on the occasional tour.
Songs About Stuff is his first album, from 1992. It feels like a first album; just Wally and his guitar. It's a staggering amount of fun, especially for those of us who weren't too stoned to remember college but sometimes regret we weren't. Wally laments your (not necessarily his) lack of success with women in She's In Love With A Geek, That's Evolution, First Love and Bad Haircut. If I Were is a flight of speculative fancy on the order of Simon and Garfunkel's El Condor Pasa or Cat Steven's Moonshadow. Musical legends get deconstructed in Dead Rock n Roll Stars, though still (I Wanna Be A) Pop Star. His Hippies Lament is more effective than your average Cartman insult, though he also regrets his Lost Weekend In Las Vegas. A lot of his songs are more spoken (or at least blurted out) than sung, sort of reminiscent of the patter songs of Jimmy Durante. Sort of. Frankly, this is my favorite of the three albums reviewed here. It's utterly without pretense or guile, never hitting a false note; full of clever lyrics and nice tunes. He must be a blast live. More sophomorically folksy than Loudon Wainwright III (another of my favorites) or as commercial as Weird Al Yankovic's original songs (alas for him), these remain unrepentent and listenable.
Welcome to Pleasantville has a lot of fun songs on it, and is an attempt to go commercial that doesn't quite take off. I Was A Teenage Republican, both the solo and the George Bush Megamix Version, deconstruct the Reagan/Bush years. With another Bush in office, the same jokes work. Hmm.... Anyway, his anti Smoking song also works and he goes back to talking about his profession in Rock Song and does the 50s in the Rock-N-Roll Yard Sale. His sense of humor, college-level searching for Truth-with-a-Capital-T and self-deprecating patter really shine in How I Got Lost On The Road Less Travelled But Then Got Instand Karma ON I-96. Sort of Weird Al's Albuquerque from someone who has taken too many Senior philosophy courses. Sort of.
By Houses of the Holy Moly, Wally has graduated (or at least left) college and wails his Post Graduate Overeducated Out of Work Blues before falling into his Stupid Day Job. Wally claims I'm Nice, a change from his selfish past. Didn't help him get a job at Enron. Just as well. Topics range from Alternateen to Toxic Waste Party and Wonderful Sex. The Cat Came Back has as many versions as there are returning felines, and he puts his stamp on this rock ballad variant. Still, what makes this album worthwhile, all by itself, is Song for Bob Dylan. Done Dylan style, he skewers folk singers and commercial expectations with a precise ear. This is the song that replaced I'm In Love With A Geek as the most frequently played on Shockwave. "Bob Dylan was the first Bob Dylan, who was billed as the next Woody Guthrie...."
There are two more Pleasant CDs that I don't have, but are on my list. I do want to hear Wreck of the Old 486, which sounds like a computer song I should collect...
Timothy Leary was a Harvard professor, counterculture guru, jailbird (got 10 years for being in the same car as a joint), stand-up comic, software pioneer and now rock star. I have two of his CDs (there may be more, but the ones I could find on the net seem to be interviews). One of the great charms of Leary's vocal arrangements is that he doesn't try to be something he's not: a singer. Mostly, the songs are spoken and in his range. While you probably have to be a fan of his message (which is pretty much, "it's your life, make the most of it"), many of the cuts work on the musical level.
He died in 1996, leaving two postumous (I think) albums. In Right To Fly, Leary starts out with No Regrets before having verbal fun with 100 Naked Kangaroos in Blue Canoes (hard blues about being happy), the cruel country Morality's Ugly Head while you party with Fugu Fish. PsychoRelic Rap is somewhat autobiographical while the CD ends with Right To Fly, about choosing how to die. Unrepentant, ecstatic and intelligent to the end. Review of Right To Fly and order CD here.
What attracted me to Beyond Life (and I got the other one at the same time) is the nifty diffraction grading cover. Not a hologram, but several viewpoints all at once, depending on how you look at it. Three months before his death, Leary recorded a conversation with the album's producer. Amazingly, they found a 1967 album he had done and remixed those swirly tracks with his words from 30 years later, and they work pretty well. As you might imagine, the first track, Afterlife, deals with dying, but for Leary dying is simply a transitional phase to an as yet unknown next level. Beyond Life is a prayer by cells and While Birds Sing is about remembering past lives. Leary's contributions are augmented by Allen Ginsberg expounding on his preface to Leary's 1967 book Jail Notes and by a new rendition of Legend of A Mind by the Moody Blues. The CD ends with Lions Mouth, odd rock poetry.
Musically, Right To Fly is a better album. Upbeat with clever lyrics on uncommon subjects in a variety of musical styles, this is the one to get if you're going to get only one and aren't familiar with Timothy Leary. On the other hand, Beyond Life is a marvelous exegesis on a long life well lived with hope for the future and extras for the fan of the era. While the Moody Blues cover of their own song is more a good novelty than a great updating of a classic, it is fun to play the newer version of Legend of A Mind to unsuspecting people who are only familiar with the original.
And while I have some space I might as well throw in a little about The Madcap Laughs by Syd Barrett. Barrett was the founder of PInk Floyd, and while I like their later works my favorite Floyd is still their first album, Piper At the Gates of Dawn. Utterly strange and brilliant. There has been nothing like it before or since. You won't find Britney Spears doing any of these songs while shilling soft drinks. After two Floyd albums, Barrett couldn't take the pressure, wigged out, and retired. Madcap Laughs was started in 1969 and eventually released as a CD in 1990 produced by David Gilmour and Roger Waters, Floyd band members, who came up with a gentle album where Barrett wrote all the songs (they claim) and adapted a James Joyce poem. This is by no means a great album, but there are overtones of the old Syd, my hero.
Lots of people like to reduce the 60s to a phrase or style of dress, and that just won't wash. Marketing gimmicks are not insightful historical commentary. It's quite possible that these three albums don't work well outside the broader context of the people and the time they influenced. I dunno. But I'm just as happy they exist to reveal another picture when viewed by the diffraction grading of life after fame.
Back in the dim dawn of time -- say, 1985 -- it took a lot of resources to produce a vinyl album for an unsigned artist to distribute their music. Now, thanks to computers, the same technology that changed book and magazine publishing can be used to make your own commercial-quality CD with significantly less of an investment than pressing 1,000 albums. Herein are a few CDs that you can probably only get directly from smaller publisher; beer has microbreweries, CDs have micropublishers. I'll try to stick to ones you can actually get online. Also note that several CDs I've already reviewed fall into this category.
Tonic Sol-Fa is trying to be N'Sync or Backstreet Boys, and to my ears they're significantly better, closer to The Nylons. On the other hand, I'm not a teen girl, so I may not be their target audience. I love their a cappella vocals and doo-wop arrangements; they approach the intricate harmonies of Manhattan Transfer with the enthusiasm of Sha Na Na. I saw them live at the Minnesota State Fair (it's a great place for music) and I picked up a CD, in this instance Style. (Go to their web site and click on Tonic Store; the site relies too much on Flash for my tastes. They should have put some of this effort into the album, which lists the songs in the wrong order.) While the original songs are good and the CD starts off with the pyrotechnic boy-band song Na, Na, Na, the cuts that blow me away are their gorgeous cover of Eleanor Rigby (one of my fave Beatles songs) and a live doo-wop version of Man of Constant Sorrow. It's the nature of Shockwave that the song I play the most is Scooby Doo, Where are You? Someday, I might try slipping Tonic Sol-Fa's psychedelic a cappella version of Land of 1,000 Dances into Patti Smith's Land instead of her's. I hope they come back to the Fair so I can pick up their other CDs.
Sandy Andina is a sliced-crosswise-only-on-Minicon friend of mine, and it's with great pleasure that I recommend her "vanity album", Ghosts and Angels. While I like most of the songs on the CD, my favorites are Fog, cool jazz about the city of Chicago and Ink and Pen, about collecting pens (and featuring Corky Seigel on harmonica). If Pigs Could Fly is a "kid's song for grownups" ("if pigs could fly... we would never need a root canal...") and Ghosts and Angels is about her past singing in a coffee house. What elevates Sandy over other worthy folksingers is her experience as a performer, command of her lovely voice, excellent arrangements, strong backing musicians and the wide range of subject matter. She's great live, too.
I also saw Bur at the Minnesota State Fair a couple of years ago, since he was listed as a celtic performer. And indeed he was, on stage with the Acoustic and Electric Celtic World Orchestra. Lots of rock, lots of bagpipes. Fun to watch, and the CD I picked up is interesting too. The epynomous CD Bur has the celtic folk/rock of the concert, and even contains his cover of The Beatles Come Together (more good Beatles covers, yea!), though my favorite cut is the rock/squaredance mandolin/whistle instrumental The Other Side of Mr. Gloomsbury. Oddly, the one album listed on his micropublishing site isn't that one, but Strange Kind of Light as "Australian artist Bur explores his Scottish heritage". The album I have can be had here, unless they're out.
I got Cab City Combo's CD Pork Side of the Moon in the mail, out of the blue, about the same time as the anthrax threat was looming. I was careful, and thank heaven I didn't get hurt. These guys are fearless and strange. Not every comedy song works, but a lot of them do. 25 cuts of diabetes and Buster Keaton and deconstructing Christmas and entropy and other stuff. My favorites (so far!) are Louis, Louis, a clearly spoken rendition of Louie Louie, the ballad of Jesus Jr., "the country-western Christ" and the snack-food chant Indiancorn. Sulu's Day is a long conceptual piece about the routine on the Enterprise while Kirk and Spock are having an adventure on the planet; I'm glad this cut exists, but you don't really need to hear it more than once. Cab City Combo inhabits that wide gulf between your average sophomoric college comedy troup and the sophisticated unabashed humor of the Bonzo Dog Band: nicely done music from unexpected vectors. Not for everyone, but my suspicion is that if you like them a little, you'll end up liking them a lot.
What makes a "hit song" is a combination of factors, very few of them under the control of the artist. Many performers go on to long lasting careers, doing the occasional crowd pleasing museum piece but often prefering their later work. Here are a few CDs from former chart toppers.
Pete Townshend smashed his guitars on stage while writing songs about Tommy, the deaf dumb and blind kid who plays a mean pinball. In addition to his work with The Who, he released several solo albums. "Autumn 1970, Townshend started on Lifehouse. A multi-media piece with a movie script about The Who, its audience, and a science fiction plot concerning virtual reality, alternative reality, experience suits, and Sufi spirituality" says the web site, which goes on to say, "In 1993, Tommy opened on Broadway to become an eventual Tony winner. Townshend released the album PsychoDerelict based, in part, on the science fiction plot of Lifehouse." Lifehouse might have been groundbreaking in 1970, but the science fiction isn't very good in 1993 and the reason to pick up PsychoDerelict is the music. Horribly packaged (the lyric sheet is worse than useless) and the little plot dialogs are not banded separately so I've had to snip the aiff files to make them playable. Still, several of the songs are great. Now and Then (about falling in love) and Meher Baba (about virtual reality) are my picks. You can get the CD and others by Townshend here.
Dion DiMucci is simply Dion to most who remember him from his 1950s rocker days with the Belmonts. He's continued touring and writing songs and has several CDs. I confess I picked up 1989's Yo Frankie because of the guest stars: Dave Edmunds, Bryan Adams, k.d. lang, Lou Reed, Paul Simon and more. But there are no star turns and no personality gets in the way of the music. A bunch of good rockers got together for some good old fashioned rock; no gimmicks, no nostalgia, just a driving beat.
Steve Marriott goes back to the British band Small Faces where he had hits like Tin Soldier and Itchycoo Park, then in 1969 joined Humble Pie and wrote Natural Born Woman. He kept going, through reuinions and a solo career. This latter produced 30 Seconds to Midnight, which (according to the web bio) he doesn't like for the production elements, but I think is a pretty solid blues/rock album. Mostly covers (which is probably why the songwriter Marriott is a bit down on it), he and a tight band do very creditable versions of songs by Curtis Mayfield, Donovan, David Byrne and Bob Marley. My favorites are the non-reggae version of Get Up, Stand Up ("fight for your rights, don't give up the fight"), the driving rock of One More Heartache and the electronic blues version of You Rascal You which may be so far over the top that Louie Armstrong wouldn't recognize it.
Harry Belafonte's 1956 album Calypso is one of the great albums of all time, a massive hit that helped spark an interest in island music that continues to this day with reggae and ska and beyond and helped launch the multifaceted career of Belafonte which also continues to this day. Classic songs like Day-O and Jamaica Fairwell have stood the test of time and the test of different artists' arrangements. Of the 11 songs on the album, eight are written or co-written by "Lord Burgess". That turns out to be the stage name of Irving Burgie, who among many songs wrote the national anthem for his native Barbados. Forty years after Calypso, Burgie released his own CD of many of his songs made famous by Belafonte in Island in the Sun. Alas, neither the years nor the charts have been kind to Burgie. The songs (can't really call them covers) are pale imitations of the best versions. His Day-0 is a gentle ska and Jamaica Fairwell is richly arranged and he brings an earthy tempered enthusiasm that doesn't really overcome his weakened voice. I'm very glad to see that he's still around and still working, but this album is not the best introduction to his work. I can't find it new on the net, but amazon has it used, if you want to hear how the original writer handles his own songs in gentle, upbeat arrangements.
As an offshoot of the rise of Latino Music, which is basically pop music in Spanish, a return to the roots of the music of the Andes is surging at the local level. There's a lot of it and I can only comment on a few. Most people are familiar with the music of the area from Simon and Garfunkel's El Condor Pasa for which they wrote new lyrics and is about as authentic mountain music as Ritchie Valens' La Bamba is Mexican. Andean music has gone through the folk process, as music must to grow, and here are a few to start you off.
Karullacta is a local Minneapolis group (!) and I see them at various local events. The one CD I have is simply called Karullacta Traditional Music from The Andes and is lush with pan flute, bandolin and chakchas. Most cuts are instrumentals, with the occasional lyric (in Spanish, I presume). While my favorite cut is Jueves de Otoño, they do a credible cover of Uriah Heap's Lady in Black and several cuts are tuneful and upbeat. Get the CD from them or link from CDDB.
One day I was walking in New York City near Times Square and stopped to hear the street musicians, in full Andean dress with racks of flutes and harps and a suitcase of CDs. The group turned out to be Ch'uwa Yacu Bolivia and I picked up Tinkunakama, Instrumental Music From The Heart Of The Andes Vol. II. Once again, the best word to describe the music is "lush". Well-produced with superb music. The flutes and guitars are augmented with nifty effects, such as the storm on their version of El Condor Pasa. While all instrumentals, you can tell the musicians get into the spirit of things by the occasional enthusiastic yelling as in Yamor. Unfortunately, wherever these guys came from, they have disappeared into the ether, or at least don't have a net presence, though you can hear a bit of their music and find contact info here. Let me know if you get to them that way.
A bit more ambitious is Up, Bustle, and Out (what a name!) with the Light 'Em Up, Blow 'Em Out. "Funked up fusion is the flavor of our disk" claims the liner notes. The tunes range from Coca Conga, a tuneful conga with a beat to Coffee at Senor Rudi's, another tuneful mostly instrumental cut with good drums to Compared To What, driving rap jazz to Y Hora Tu, a hip-hop jazz instrumental. Their web site is full of information and if you don't want to order from the UK you can go to amazon.com.
Also on amazon.com, in near the bottom of a long list of South and Central American music, is LaserLight's El Condor Pasa. For a cheapo series of knocked off CDs in the late 80s/early 90s, LaserLight managed to produce a good range of music, though the CDs vary in quality. This is one of their more successful efforts, and I liked all the songs with their arrangements for harp, flute and guitar. Traditional and unadorned; enthusiastically played. A good introduction to this area of the world: Andean music for cheap.
Poi Dog Pondering has one of the worst web sites I've ever encountered, and apparently they've broken up and reformed and done videos and other projects and stuff. Oh well, I learn a lot researching these recommendations. I'll only talk about the three CDs I have. Their music, based around the song writing and singing of Frank Orrall and can be described as "rock" or "electronic folk" but I tend to think of it as "new age bluegrass". They sound like a bunch of talented musicians got together and jammed, decided which tunes they liked, did a bit of rehearsing, wrote some lyrics and recorded an album. Whether this is the case or not, their music is tuneful and tightly played to give an overall effect of looseness and musicians enjoying themselves.
According to their discography, they had one album, From Texas to Hawaii, before their epynomous CD Poi Dog Pondering, though their web site lists it as "the CD that started it all". I'm confused; not for the first time. It's generally a bad sign when a group's best song is the first song on their first CD, but such is the case. Living With The Dreaming Body is a nifty song, with tin whistle and accordian and violin and a rock beat, though it helps to just let it wash over you and not pay close attention to the lyrics, which are about a guy who doesn't get laid because his drunk girlfriend is whiny and maudlin. In general, the music on the album is much better than the lyrics, which tend to be interesting images that don't really gel into a narrative. Songs about touch and water and the turning of the years. The only other time I've encountered this CD, it was being played in a counterculture store called Global Village that sells incense and moccasins and candles and such. Perfect.
Their second (?) CD, Wishing Like A Mountain And Thinking Like The Sea, is much more successful, overall. U-Li-La-Lu is a great song about living life to the fullest. The Ancient Egyptians is about walking and enjoying the trip. The Me That Was Your Son is a poignant ode to a dead mother. Sugarbush Cushman exults the simple life in Vermont, and ends with an emotionally powerful vibrato that I haven't been able to listen to all the way through more than once. Good music well played, and the lyrics work pretty well and Orrall's innocent singing is steady.
On Volo Volo, they went punk and it doesn't work. The only song I like is Te Manu Pukarua, which is in Tahitian (I think); a fast bluegrass island dance. The person who introduced me to the group likes the album, so perhaps this is just personal taste. And certainly, I don't mind that a group explores new styles and doesn't just produce the same music over and over. Still. Because of this one, I haven't sought out their later albums. Oh well. YMMV.
Bad political satire is easy to find. Too many right wingers think that making a scatalogical joke is somehow a political statement. The right wing's obsession with sphincters and excrement and other people's sex lives is disgusting. A conservative is someone who was improperly toilet trained. That stuff was funny when I was eight, but I grew up. Most of the "satire" on right wing talk radio is just recycled bathroom humor that made the girls cry in fourth grade. And it still does, which explains a lot about the conservative movement.
Good political satire is harder to find, but worth the effort. The songs of Tom Lehrer, many written in the 50s and the rest from the 60s, still resonate today and he's part of the vocabulary of musical political satire. It's tempting to talk about him here, but there are many many many sites dedicated to Tom Lehrer, as it should be. I'll go for more recent music. Not all good political satire skewers the right, but somehow the left/center commentary is more cleverly written, more entertaining and more likely to be worth listening to years later.
The Capitol Steps specialize in topical humor, and they'll take on anybody. They're a bunch current and former Congressional staffers working out of Washington DC, and their web site has songs about events in today's headlines. Many of the songs are recorded in front of a live audience. They write new lyrics to old songs (what might be called "political filk"), and are usually dead on. In addition to their parodies, such as Enron-ron-ron (to the tune of Do-Ron-Ron) and Mine Every Mountain, about drilling in ANWAR (both songs can be heard on their site), some albums have an original piece called Lirty Dies, commentary done completely in spoonerisms. They skewer everyone and are frequently hilarious doing it. Their current CD is When Bush Comes To Shove. Get it quick: sometimes the parodies get dated awfully fast. Still, these guys are on top of current events and have a devilishly cynical take on the news. And sometimes, a political joke is funnier when the cycle comes around to it again.
updated 7/03 The Foremen only have four albums out, and much of the first two is in the third (heck, two of them have the same name). They are technically out of print, but you can try to get them from Roy Zimmerman's site (or start at Roy's homepage). Folk Heroes (1995) and What's Left (1996) (boasting a quote from Ollie North, "Friends, this is a very weird group") are the two I have. The first one has their best song, Building For The Future ("When the hopeless hordes have found their voice, and a priest can marry the man of his choice, and no one plays bagpipes or quotes from James Joyce, you'll be there, Buddy you'll be there.") They wander into partisan territory in Ain't No Liberal and My Conservative Girlfriend and come up with a staggering amount of euphamisms for masterbation in Firing The Surgeon General (hey dittoheads: this is the way to use sexual innuendo for political commentary). What's Left has a number of really good bits, from the right wing announcements at Scorched Earth Day to the brilliant What Did You Do On Election Day and California Couldn't Pay Our Education to Gingrich's Hidden Agenda to cutting funding of independent radio in Privateers of the Public Airwaves. Highly recommended: even though a few cuts are a shade dated, many are still fresh and relevant.
Reverend Billy C. Wirtz is a force unto himself. Take Tom Lehrer's ability with language and audience interaction, the Foremen's propensity to skewer the right, and filter it through Jeff Foxworthy's southern viewpoint, and you have the Rev. Billy. I only have a couple of his albums. Backsliders Tractor Pull isn't so much political as it is deconstructive. Honky Tonk Hermaphrodite is about a good ol' boy... and girl. He has a Sleeper Hold On Satan and does an ad for Junior's Discount Frozen Embrio World and precisely bounces off Southern stereotypes in A Pinhead Will Survive. I should probably play Mennonite Surf Party right after The Electric Amish... By Songs of Faith and Inflammation, a live CD with introductions and audience laughter, Rev. Billy slips more direct political humor with Right Wing Roundup, though my favorite cut is the string of metaphors he uses to express his love for his wife in Song For Judy ("...the way Elvis loved his mama, the way the Dalai loves his Lama..."). Pro wrestling gets the treatment in Grandma vs. the Crusher and We Dismember These is about nostalgia for political and pop cultural seven-day wonders. While the least overtly political of the three groups discussed here, he's the one I'd most like to see live.
Of Cecilia Eng's three CDs, I only have Harmony in Practice, but I'll have to rectify that omission at some point. She and her fellow musicians sing so sweetly about being a faster-than-light space merchant in Star Rovers, do an a cappella Star Chanty about flying to the future ("... as the stars in the aft port Doppler away..."), warble about her feathered friends in Birds of a Feather, and do songs of the X-Files and vampires and an Indian war in Idaho in Heart of the Appaloosa. Sure voices, strong arrangements, good production values, great songs.
Barry and Sally Childs-Helton started off in the Black Book Band with the tape/CD First Contact, and then released a solo album Tempus Fugitives. First Contact is a good album, with all the strengths and weaknesses of a live recording and features Hope Eyrie, Leslie Fish's archetypal filk-that-might-be-too-good-to-be-filk song about Apollo 11. ("But the Eagle has landed, tell your children when. Time won't drive us down to dust again.") They do a nice version of Van Morrison's Moondance and several others. Still, to my ears, Tempus Fugitives is the better of the two; better produced, more interesting songs. Monorail to Atomland, ("A Cold-War nostalgia lament for a Disneyesque future that never was") is much better in the studio than live. (Goin' Down the) Cosmic Drain, about the black hole in the middle of the galaxy and Alpha-Male Star Pilot, a sort of Barry White-ish silver-suited come on, are my other favorites.
Bill Sutton's Passing Through is another album, not necessarily filk, where the conviction of the singer/songwriter is more important than vocal quality. (Face it, Bob Dylan writes great songs, but is a terrible singer...) Sutton is a very good storyteller, specializing in blue-collar science fiction, as in Bask Ye Samplers, a space miner's chanty or The Pilot's Eyes, the ballad of a blind pilot who seeks redemption, or his take on Jack Chalker's Midnight At The Well (of Souls). He even takes on white-collar science fiction in my favorite cut, 9-5 Barbarian ("...I'm a killer with a vengence and a profit sharing plan..."). Around veteran performers/Recording engineers Gretchen and Bill Roper, Tom Jeffers and Dave Clement, Bill Sutton's performances of his own songs transcend the filk circle.
Half the fun of filk is seeing your friends perform in public and/or singing along with them. It's even better when they're singing good songs and performing them well. I don't know any of these filkers, but their audiences must be very appreciative.
Way back when, on a panel on Greenwich Village Memories, I turned to Dave van Ronk, who lived there while Partch had his studios in the Bohemian hang out, and asked him a question I had saved up for nearly ten years: "So tell me. What was Harry Partch really like?"
"Never met the man."
Oh well. Not all cool people know each other.
Harry Partch was one of the people that made Greenwich Village's reputation as a place for cool avante-garde music that the unhip just couldn't understand. Eventually the hipsters and folk singers took over, but for it's always been a place for experimentation. For a detailed explanation of what Partch was doing, go to this site or this one, but if you'll allow me the attempt (composers, please don't yell at me too much):
If you want to play in the same key all the time, life is a lot simpler for musicians and instrument makers. Musical tones are a mathematical function of the wavelength of sound. But a piece of music only sounds good in that one key. Modern "tempered" music was championed by JS Bach and is the stantard in Western music nowadays. Do re me and all that. This means that you can change keys on a piano or guitar pretty easily, but also means that you're faking it in small ways. What Harry Partch did was develop a 43 tone scale that allows you to come as close as possible to the natural, untempered, notes AND change keys easily. Well, as easily as you can on an instrument where there were 43 notes when you were used to 8. Since this was decidedly non-standard, Partch had to write his own music, invent his own instruments, train the musicians, and give his own concerts. Only later in life (he died in 1974) did Partch get a larger audience.
Harry Partch is an acquired taste. You can get what Composers Recordings claim is The Definitive Harry Partch Series. I'm not sure which of the four CDs to recommend to start you off, if you don't just want to immerse yourself in him. I kind of like Barstow, which is music set to eight examples of graffiti at the major hitchhiking crossroad in California. I confess that I haven't heard all of his work (and don't have any of these CDs; my Partch a tape of his 78s), so you're sort of on your own. But if you want to be a cool daddy-o, and have a response to hipsters going on about Ginsberg and Kerouac, just pop out the Harry Parch CDs, and and listen to the fingers snap.
Meanwhile, there's Charles Ives. Called by one site as "the most original and significant American composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries", Ives was the son of a band leader in Danbury Connecticut, a quick motorcar jaunt but a world away from Greenwich Village. He often composed music for incredibly non-traditional venues, such piano for four hands, or circus band. You can hear samples of his works here (go to the links on top of the page). His works are fun to listen to, as he does the unexpected while throwing in American folk tunes. He's not more famous because he was in ill-health most of his life, and his music doesn't fit in most orchestral arrangements. Indeed, he was a proponent of aleatory music, " in which the composer introduces elements of chance or unpredictability with regard to either the composition or its performance", of which John Cage was also a practitioner.
Again, all my Charles Ives predates CDs, and they haven't reissued the albums I have. I suspect that Michael Tilson Thomas does pretty well, and he's the conductor for Symphony's #2 and #3. He won the Pulitzer in 1947 for Symphony #3, an accessible, introspective piece. You can hear samples of #2 and #3 on the Barnes & Noble site, so you might want to start there. The recording of Symphonies 1 & 4 might be a good introduction, though #1 is the least experimental of his work, #4 is a good example of it. Still, try to find a live performance in your area.
Sorry to make general recommendations, but Harry Partch and Charles Ives deserve wider recognition. They're fun to read about, if nothing else, and are great names to drop at parties.
Okay, I admit it, I'm a sucker for this stuff, and I play it all the time on Shockwave. If anything, Dr. D doesn't go far enough. That's why I'm on the air...
Dr. Demento is the Mad Magazine of the radio, corrupting young and old since 1970. In the music biz, odd, funny, unusual songs are called "novelty" numbers; the concept goes waaaay back and slopped over into recorded music Over the years, Dr. Demento has collected some of his favorites (and the ones he could get the rights to) in CDs. While you can get some of them at other various online shops, probably quicker, the most complete collection is from the Dr. Demento web site catalog.
He's released 20th Anniversary and 25th Anniversary and 30th Anniversary 2-CD sets. While I appreciate the effort, there's a lot of redundancy between the 20th and 25th and I think the 20th Anniversary collection is better. It has, and the 25th doesn't: Dead Puppies, Cocktails for Two, Existential Blues, Star Trekkin' and Witch Doctor. The 25th repeats many of my least favorite cuts but does have Highly Illogical and Tip-Toe Through the Tulips With Me. The 30th has less redundancy, and does have Bulbous Bouffand, Dead Skunk, I'm The Urban Spaceman, and Lumberjack Song among others. Frankly, I think he should just give up and put out a 5-CD set of everything, and add on as necessary. In the meantime, get the 20th and 30th, and maybe one or two of the individual ones (below).
Dr. Demento's Country Corn is a good collection, and his Christmas collection has both A Christmas Carol by Tom Lehrer and Green Chri$tma$ by Stan Freeberg, as well as Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer and All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth instantly making it worthy if you don't have these songs individually. This is No. 6 in a series of CDs, no longer listed on his site. You can get cassettes of compilations of songs by decades, which can be fun but I tend not to catalog the songs that way. Being a member of the Demento Society is kind of amusing, but you don't get all that much; maybe it's gotten better since I joined (a looong time ago).
Also available off that catalog is a 3 CD set of Tom Lehrer, including his songs from The Electric Company. Ah, I should generate a Wish List... I have a bunch of Spike Jones, but the 2-CD collection listed here would be a marvelous place to start if you don't have any. The Ray Stevens collection has all my favorites, and Stan Freeberg may be an acquired taste, but if you're going to acquire it, start with The United States of America Vols 1 and 2.
I just picked up The Very Best of Dr. Demento (one of the premiums available during our Pledge Drive! Become a member of KFAI-FM Fresh Air Radio today, and tell 'em you're pledging to Shockwave, and we'll send you an interesting CD as well as a mug and... excuse me, I'm getting carried away...) issued for his 30th Anniversary in 2000 that is an interesting update of The Greatest Novelty CD of All Time from 1988 that doesn't seem to be available anymore. Well, there's a lot of redundancy including Dead Puppies, They're Coming To Take Me Away Ha-Haaa!, Poinoning Pigeons In the Park and so on, but I'm just as happy to have The Homecoming Queen's Got A Gun and Monster Mash and Purple People Eater on the older one as I am to have Bulbous Bouffant and My Dead Dog Rover and Don't Eat the Yellow Snow and Marvin I Love You on the newer one. Both come with nice booklets with descriptions of the songs and artists. Since you can only the newer one, making a recommendation is easy, but see above about issuing a more massive project. Oh well, maybe there are problems with rights.
If you don't recognize most of these songs... what the heck are you waiting for? Especially if you have kids, circa 9-15, these are the songs that will linger long after Britney Spears is consigned to the used toy bin. If you just want to get your feet wet (novelty songs aren't for everyone), then the Very Best is a single CD start. If you get hooked, well, Dr. Demento has a weekly radio show, not heard in many places of the country (including here, darn it) but you can find out if you have a local station here and he has a few of the more recent shows here in Real Audio (I assume this changes from week to week) and if it's possible to listen to the show over the radio after the latest decision about music fees over the net, it'll be listed here.
If ever anyone made a deal with the devil for instant fame, money and love only to have her soul cruelly taken at the height of her fame, it was Cass Elliot.
From the folk scene in the late 50s to early 60s, musicians formed groups and broke up and reformed. One web of interrelationships is chronicalled by the song Creeque Alley, but it's weirder than that. By 1964 the Beatles had arrived, shifting pop from folk to rock, and journeymen folksingers John Phillips, Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty went off to the Virgin Islands for a change, chased by groupie Cass Elliot who "followed them, primarily to be with Doherty.... 'Cass and I had a very strange releationship,' he reports. 'She wanted my parts.'" (These and all other quotes from the liner notes of Creeque Alley: The History of the Mamas and Papas, sadly out of print.) "John says he changed his mind about Cass when her voice changed: 'She had always been about two tones too low for my arrangements,' explains John. 'She just couldn't get there. Michelle has a very high voice. Sort of a coloratura. I needed a really strong alto. Cass's sound was perfect but the range was wrong.' Then one day, while wandering around a construction site, Cass was hit by a copper pipe. 'She was in the hospital for about three days with a concussion,' says John. 'I don't know if her sinuses cleared or what, but her voice got higher. It was just what we needed.'"
Once Cass was in, things happened fast. They left (got kicked off) the island, rand into Barry McGuire (of Eve of Destruction fame), hooked up with producer Lou Adler (one of the founders of the Dunhill label). Barry recorded California Dreamin' for his album, but they also recorded a version with Denny singing lead, and that's the one that charted. Their version was released in November 1965, just 19 weeks after being recorded, very fast in the music biz, and quickly became a hit. Said Denny, "David Crosby [then of the Byrds] stopped me on the street and said 'Congratulations!' I didn't know what he was talking about." The first album by the Mamas and the Papas, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, was released in January 1966.
After years of hard work, they were an overnight success. The group had no lead singer and didn't play instruments, but their sound was unique. They rehearsed constantly. "By all accounts, including his own, Phillips was a taskmaster in rehearsal and an 'obsessive tinkerer' in the studio." On the other hand, their newfound fame and money let them throw great parties. "The Mamas and the Papas were having so much fun at home that, by John's estimate, in the two-and-a-half years the group was together, they played only 30 concerts." John said, "'We always lost money [on tours]. The room service bill would be eight billion dollars, and Cass would invite the entire city of Chicago to breakfast.'" They went on Ed Sullivan and American Bandstand.
"It all looked like so much fun. But inevitably, there were problems." Problems included an affair between Michelle and Denny. Nothing in show biz quite dies, and there was a 1971 album that didn't do well, but in reality their commercial career was between their first album in January of 1966 and their fourth (fifth, counting a compilation of their first three) in April of 1968.
Dave's Observation: About 18 months. That's how long you bake in the limelight. Everyone may get 15 minutes of fame, said Andy Warhol, but if you have real talent and are lucky you get a break, and your time on top seems to last about a year-and-a-half. Use it. For every Paul Simon or Rolling Stones who has a career that last decades, there are a hundred who last a few albums and a thousand who barely make it into public consciousness at all. For better or worse, it's your defining moment in the sun. Life is a vector: It has direction and strength... and inertia. You can cruise on your reputation, grow from it or try something new; all have been tried with varying results. Up to you.
The only member of The Mamas and Papas to hit the bigtime in a solo career was Cass Elliot. "A popular TV personality, she hosted The Tonight Show no less than a dozen times, and her her own television show, Don't Call Me Mama Anymore. ('She always hated being called Mama Cass,' says Michelle.)" And then she died. Reports that she had died from drugs or choking on a ham sandwich were untrue; she had a heart attack. For many, her death proved that her flaws outweighed her talent. The devil had lived up to his contract: She had fame and fortune with her boyfriend and ultimately showed that she was greater than him or any of her friends... and he took her away, stealing her soul: She is still known as Mama Cass, and had no life beyond the wording signed in blood.
"Today, the three Mamas and Papas are each flourishing", said the liner notes in 1991. Denny carved out a career in Toronto, "writing songs and acting in theater". Michelle was on Knot's Landing among other acting roles. John went into a tailspin, got hooked on drugs and did them with his daughter Mackenzie (of One Day At A Time fame) before drying out and toured with a new version of the band until his death in March 2001. I've never quite decided: Is it Rock and Roll Hell to have to sing the same hits over and over to people who have one chrystalized image of you from your past, or is it Rock and Roll Heaven to be appreciated for your genius and reap the rewards of your best work and have the the adulation of fans?
No one can say if there is a Devil or if Cass Elliot signed a contract or if there is a Devil who bothers with paperwork. Still, pick your life:
Before a brief set of links to CDs still available, I'll leave you with this parting thought:
"I always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific." -- Lily Tomlin
The Mamas & The Papas: Quick discography of essential albums with notes; more complete discography and rarities (and prices) and a Mama Cass discogrophy. It doesn't have Once Was A Time I Thought, but the Greatest Hits available at amazon.com (and likely others) has most of my favorites: Dancing Bear, Dedicated to the One I Love, Twelve-Thirty, Monday, Monday, California Dreamin', etc. All the Leaves Are Brown, also from amazon.com, has all those including Once Was A Time I Thought and many others on a two disk set.
At first, television followed radio and was a venue for music. But early on in the game, tv went on to become a producer of music with the tv themes becoming hits and spin off records and CDs featuring fictional characters. Considered the first in this line was The Ballad of Davy Crockett. Says the Davy Crockett Home Page: "Even before the Davy Crockett television series aired, there was the song The Ballad of Davy Crockett, which premiered on the very first episode of Disneyland, October 27 of 1954. It was placed there as a coming attraction for the upcoming Crockett trilogy.... In the first six months of 1955, nearly seven million copies of the song were sold, making it the fastest-selling record up to that time." They never looked back, and the song that kicked it off is still around.
Television's influence on music is so pervasive that I've already mentioned a few, since kids are a natural audience for this sort of thing. I've already talked about Big Songs from the Jim Hensen show Dinosaurs, which is loads of fun and Barney Rocks! which has a few great children's songs on it. So I won't go into them again here. Still, this set is really the first of several on music from tv and the fifth in the Children's Music set. Oh, the fun we have.
As The Ballad of Davy Crockett showed, sometimes it's the throwaway music that captures our attention and endures. (I'd bet more people have sung the song in the last 40 years than seen the show or worn a coonskin cap.) Schoolhouse Rock was an attempt in the 1970s to add some culture to the pablum on Saturday Morning tv by adding three minutes of educational material per hour to all the noise. Naturally, educational material couldn't have reached the air if it weren't mandated by the FCC. Somewhat to everyone's surprise, it succeeded. My favorite is still the first one made, Three Is A Magic Number, though I'm fond of The Preamble and Interplanetary Janet. If you agree (or if you have different choices), you can vote for your favorite at the Disney site. I have the boxed set of four CDs available at Rhino's site. I hate the packaging because it doesn't fit into my CD racks, but as a stand-alone tribute to the songs it works pretty well. A ring binder, like a school notebook, has the CDs and a fair amount of commentary on the creation of the series and the artists behind it. I'm not entirely sure if the videos are available, or even if the crude animation holds up after 30 years, but that's where they came from. MTV, eat your heart out.
In the wake of 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, children's cartoons enjoyed an all-too-brief Renaissance, mostly thanks to Executive Producer Stephen Spielberg and Producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall who went on to produce, among others, Tiny Toons, Freakazoid, and my favorite of the bunch: Animaniacs. The Animaniacs CD with songs from the cartoons has some songs that don't work as well without the visual accompaniment, but lots of them are just plain fun tunes. Yakko's Universe puts us in the Total Perspective Vortex just as well as Erid Idle's Galaxy Song. Yakko's World is nothing but the names of as many countries as they could cram into the Mexican Hat Dance. Wakko's America is the states and their capitols. The Planets is all the planets... except one. ("G'Night folks.") I Am The Very Model of a Cartoon Individual, The Senses and Let The Anvils Ring are some of the others which may be familiar to fans of the series.
The early 90's were a Golden Age of tv animation. The Spielberg afternoon cartoon shows were great. Even some of the Disney series like Aladdin were pretty good. Adults had Duckman and The Tick and a few others. Times were good but, like the Clinton administration, all good things must come to an end. Still, the grandaddy of modern cartoons is still on the air and about to begin its 14th Season: The Simpsons. Early on, they had a minor hit with Do The Bartman; dumb but fun rap. Typical of them, they produced a CD to capitalize on the flash-in-the-pan hit but didn't rush out a cheapo crass marketing insult. The Simpsons Sing The Blues is an album Bleedin' Gums Murphy would be proud of. Only Bartman and Moanin' Lisa Blues are actually from the show. Moanin' Lisa Blues features Joe Walsh on slide guitar and Tower of Power on horns. Walsh also plays on School Day, a drivin' cover of Chuck Berry's School Days ("Hail hail rock and roll") with Buster Poindexter singing lead with Bart. Bleedin' Gums Murphy adds his soul to God Bless The Child while Homer and Marge sing the sweet duet, I Love To See You Smile. Marge cooks up a band in Springfield Soul Stew, a cover of Memphis Soul Stew. Mr. Burns raps Look At All These Idiots. ("Mr. Burns, you make Muddy Waters sound shallow and cheerful by comparison." "Thank you Smithers; meaningless but heartfelt compliment.") B. B. King and DJ Jazzy Jeff and probably many other blues/rap artists I don't recognize add their talent. It won't make you forget Billie Holiday, but Sings The Blues is a pretty good intersection of a popular phenomena and traditional blues... and a way to sneak some culture into a tv addict.
Without really knowing who he was, Ernie Kovacs was a seminal influence on me. He died when I too young to appreciate him, but his influence was great and lives on. His characters, his conceptual style of comedy, the little bits he developed that other people used to great effect are all underappreciated. One of the prime creative talents in the new medium of televison in the 50s ("Television is often called a medium because it's so rarely well done." said Ernie, and he should know.), he took tv where few had even dared. You can see Kovacs in his few movies, his tv show(s) are excerpted for in tapes and DVD. And now you can listen to Ernie Kovacs Record Collection. He had a keen ear for music, and more than just The Song of The Nairobi Trio (aka Solfegio). The CD had Ferrante and Teicher, Yma Sumac, a good version of Prokofiev's Lt. Kije as well as Ernie and Edie singing. A more full listing is here. The odd instrumentals and diversity of music appeal to me independent of the Kovacs Touch with video and comedy. This works as a music compilation, even if you're unfamiliar with Ernie Kovacs. And if you aren't, you should be.
Maybe television wasn't their first medium, but the Warner Bros. cartoons are a broadcast fixture and have been for fifty years. I suspect that there are kids who have heard Mel Blanc's voice more than their parents, and he's been dead since 1989. One of the distinuguishing features of WB cartoons is the music. "Smellovision replaces television" says a very old Elmer Fudd in one episode. A subheadline reads: "It'll never work, says Carl Stalling". Ah, in jokes. Carl Stalling wrote and/or directed the music for many cartoons, and stayed at Warner Bros. for 22 years. While there are several releases in the Carl Stalling Project, I'm going to go on about a related CD, Bugs Bunny on Broadway. Opening with the Merrie Melodies Main Title Music and closing with the Merrie Melodies Closing Theme -- "That's All Folks" (both newly recorded as are several cuts), the cuts are not so much songs as soundtracks to cartoons. Jumpin' Jupiter has the Power House Theme (you'd know it if you heard it; for a much more in depth look at this piece go to the site of composer Raymond Scott) plus the Wagnerian What's Opera Doc? and the fun The Rabbit of Seville are played in full. I was surprised how well the music works independently of the cartoon. And if you're making a video (for personal use), you need the closing theme...
Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego started off life as a computer game, and remains so. But for a while it was on tv, and generated some pretty good music. Carmen Sandiego: Out Of This World is a bargain at $2.99 (though I got my copy in a dollar store) and has not only a good version of the theme, but boasts Cake For Breakfast (my favorite cut; such bad advice for kids that there's A Brief Disclaimer beforehand...) and songs by They Might Be Giants and Rockapella and Lynne Thigpen and XTC. Eleven cuts is short but sweet. Kids learn geography and music, and you get to have fun too.
From a mention here on Bartcop-E, I picked up When Pigs Fly. (They sent me a copy. More and more people realize I'm world famous.) I am, I confess, mystified by their marketing strategy. They keep pushing it as a collection of novelty numbers; unusual covers by people who wouldn't otherwise be singing these songs. It isn't. Lots of people record other people's songs; that's common. I was expecting something weird, and with one or two exceptions the songs are pretty straightforward covers. I listened to the CD without reading the hoopla and kept thinking, "that's a poor Jackie Chan imitator... they could have gotten someone better to do Don Ho." Ah, but they really are singing; no celebrity impersonators here, for better or worse. Chan knows he isn't a good singer, and doesn't try very hard; Ani DeFranco does most of the work on Unforgettable. Don Ho singing Shock The Monkey would work in his lounge act. Etc. etc.
The flip side is: The CD is pretty good. The producers seem to be trying to reach the same market as Golden Throat, and I hope that's not going to work. Several of the covers are better than the originals. The Oak Ridge Boys do a really good version of Kansas' Carry On My Wayward Son, my favorite cut on the CD. The Fixx's version of These Boots Are Made for Walkin' is better than Nancy Sinatra's primal scream (not that it would be hard to be better...). Get It On (Bang A Gong) is rendered quite well by The Neanderthal Spongecake (a group of whom I've never heard but admire their name; perhaps even more than I admire the name of the original artist T. Rex.) Most of the other covers are okay, but no better than that. Devo doing their techno/electronic take on Neil Young's Ohio is interesting, but not better. Your mileage may vary, I suppose, but this is a good CD without actually being funny or conceptually interesting beyond the song listings.
I've reviewed cover CDs here and tribute albums (see above) any of which are stranger than these, but as long as When Pigs Fly is spending money pushing unusual artist/song pairings I'll mention individual songs from as yet unreviewed CDs. Country singer Willie Nelson joins Polka bandleader Jimmy Sturr for several cuts on Polka! All Night Long. I don't know which is the more unusual pairing: A polka band behind Nelson as he sings Big Ball In Cowtown or Nelson fronting for the polka Tavern In the Town. A good, unexpected CD.
I've never seen the movie Tokyo Pop, and have no desire to do so. Still, the soundtrack has some interesting covers. The thrash version of Home on the Range and the Japanese references in Blue Suede Shoes are good. I may get around to reviewing Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and related Erik Lindgren CDs, but for the nonce just let me mention their odd electronic instrumental covers of the themes to Rocky and Bullwinkle and The Simpsons. One of Erik's other projects is The Space Negros, and Dig Archology Vol. 1 has several oddities, including In A Gadda Da Vida, Back in the USSR and Little League (aka Take Me Out To the Ball Game).
Did you know that the theme to I Love Lucy has lyrics? Desi Arnaz sings up his hit. Similarly, Nichelle Nichols does a good verson of The Theme From Star Trek, with lyrics by Rodenberry. (More on this CD in coming weeks.) Mojo Nixon and the Toad Liquors does a verson of Mr. Grinch that's slimier than the original from the cartoon, but I can't seem to find anything but references to it on the net. Similarly, I feel moderately guilty talking about the covers on the Resident's Commercial Album because they're all bonus tracks not found on the vinyl and aren't listed on their website. Still, their version of Hit the Road Jack and It's a Man's Man's Man's World and Jailhouse Rock are not to be missed if you can find 'em.
Don't look up. You may get some porcine droppings in your eye.
No, I'm not going to talk about Golden Throat. Bad music is bad music. If you're that desperate, go here. Fair warning.
For years, Leonard Nimoy was trying to escape being typecast as the vulcan from Star Trek. He failed, going so far as the title of one of his books, I Am Not Spock. In many ways, he deserves more: He's a fine actor with many other interests and talents. Still, tv eats reputations alive. While the show was running he issued Mr. Spock's Music From Outer Space, which includes a rock version of the Star Trek Theme, Music To Watch Space Girls By, Highly Illogical ( his first flirtation with having a hit), Spock Thoughts (a take on Desiderata) and others. As the show was winding down, he tried the transitional title The Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy. He has several albums and books of poetry out. More on his music here. While he may not be a terrific singer (or poet, though his photography is okay, and you can send Nimoy e-postcards), I kind of like several of his songs. I seem to be almost alone in liking The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins, (with a music video...) but what the heck. I remember watching on some Hullabaloo-like program, opposite Star Trek no less, to see Nimoy singing it. Highly Illogical as an import. I think it's sad that these are really hard to find, and the best place I've found, and one of the few that has Bilbo Baggins, is a compilation with William Shatner called Spaced Out. Bio and discography of Nimoy. And some sound bites here, too.
During the heydey of Star Trek conventions, in the mid-to-late-70s, Nichelle Nichols had the reputation of being a very good singer. You can't really prove it by the CD Out Of This World, but it does have a few good cuts. My favorite cut is Rock the World, about world peace. She does a creditable job on the disco version of the Star Trek Theme, and a few others are interesting. I wasn't all that impressed with Uhura's Theme or her poem for Gene Rodenberry. The CD contains a long (25:21) interview with her. Still, she's good enough that I'd like to hear her do other stuff, but alas they're are not released.
Possibly the best actor as a regular on a Star Trek series was Brent Spiner. He's also the best singer. He spoofs his own character while singing straightforward Tin Pan Alley songs in Ol'Yellow Eyes Is Back . "One of the twelve songs feature back-up vocals by The Sunspots, which consists of his ST:TNG co-stars LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Jonathan Frakes, and Patrick Stewart" says the web site, though I don't offhand remember which one. He does a creditable job on standards.
As befitting the large number of tv shows and movies it generated, there are a LOT of Star Trek soundtracks and DVDs and such. If that's your thing, fine. I appreciated the Star Trek: The Motion Picture 20th Anniversary Collectors' Edition because of all the interviews on the second CD, Inside Star Trek. Gene Rodenberry, Nichelle Nichols, William Shatner, deForest Kelly, Isaac Asimov... an informative and often hilarious set of reflections.
Commercials are why tv is free, and why you have no say over what's on. Commercials are a part of your life as much as any program; more, perhaps. Many ads write their own jingles, the more annoyingly catchy the better. Some grab already famous music for recognition, like hiring an actor or sports figure to associate with a product. Sometimes even beer frogs get famous... too famous. TeeVee Tunes: The Commercials has 55 cuts, mostly recognizable. And (I hate to say this), a lot of fun. From the Slinky song to Plop Plop Fizz Fizz to I'd Like to Buy The World A Coke, these are the music of our lives as much as the Beatles or Rolling Stones. Perhaps I'm dating myself, but any age could write a similar sentence using different ads and different groups. Indeed, just check out a CD commercializing commercials, As Seen On TV: Music from the commercials. While some of those songs go way back, many are music only young whippersnappers appreciate. Still, the whole idea of selling music for money (imagine that) is more than a little controversial for Pure Artists (tm). Frankly, if I could write a hit song and then 20 years later sell the commercial rights for several million dollars while keeping the rights to perform it in public and sell albums, I'd be hard pressed not to go for it. Not that I'd buy the product...
Indeed, commercial music has become so, er, commercial that they even track the Top 5 Most Popular and keep records of past seasons. Some people brag about their commercial music. You can, of course, commission some. None of this is to be confused with the Residents Commercial Album, which is highly recommended for other reasons.
Aside: The recent (Feb. 20, 2002) ruling on web broadcasting of music affects only commercial stations. It seems that the musicians don't mind so much, but the ad agencies wanted to get paid for the commercials! This led to a ruling saying that web broadcasters had to pay musicians more money than their royalties generated. An overview of the legalisms around web broadcasts here and an angry story about the ruling here. Fortunately, Shockwave broadcasts on a Fresh Air Radio a non-commercial radio station, so I just sit back and let the techies argue with the lawyers.
It's sometimes fun to recognize an obscure song dug up. Many years ago I picked up an album by The David, Another Day, Another Lifetime because I liked their name and it has a stylized picture of Michealangelo's David on the cover. Not a particularly great album so I haven't upgraded to the CD, but it does feature a song called Time M, which has been used as background in several commercials. The CD Now link will let you listen to a bit of it.
Hmmm... a short one this week. Time for a Bonus Review.
The Ruling Class, starring Peter O'Toole is described such: "An institutionalized schizophrenic with a Messiah complex inherits the position of an English Earl in this cutting satire of British society". While the film was released about the time of the Watergate breakins, it sure could be about George W Bush today. Except that it's hilariously funny, not dark and scary. O'Toole plays a member of the British nobility who thinks he's Jesus Christ, and is protected because he's the son of a very rich man and has inherited his wealth and title. Alastair Sim, Arthur Lowe and many others do a great comedy turn, but O'Toole is notable for his role in the movie, one of my favorites. The Ruling Class Fan Club doesn't seem all that interesting, but you can get movie memorabilia.
Just like the Bush administration, the adults in The Ruling Class are desperate in their attempt to present the best face possible to the world, even if it means covering up the horrible truth. The other side of the politics, how a member of the lower class can become a member of the ruling class, is portrayed much more darkly in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Both films only work if you take them as fiction. The reality of both situations is too frightening to contemplate, even as we see it played out on the news everyday.
You can rent The Ruling Class from Netflix and other places, so there's no excuse not see it, if you haven't already (or want to see it through slightly different eyes these days). Scathing satire about class warfare, religion and just who gets to run the world and why.
Previous reviews have covered some CDs but not necessarily all the CDs in a field or by an artist. Since they first appeared, I have acquired some that would have been included in the original were I to have had them. Time for some catch up.
Wally Pleasant's first three CDs are a lot of fun, and his most recent two fit nicely in the pantheon. Wally World continues his keen observation of politics with The Day Ted Nugent Killed All The Animals, continues his admiration of musicians with Bigger than Elvis, and where he had been talking about Dungeons and Dragons he's now graduated to Life and Risk in Let's Play Life. Quincy is a nifty spoken word piece on the tv show. He sings of Ty Cobb, amusement parks and has a cool samba. Hoedown gets into computers with Wreck of the Old 486 (he'll probably have to upgrade that song soon), claims that it's hard to have a protest song when things are going well in the 90s in the Folk Singer Manifesto (he'll probably have to downgrade that song now) and pays homage to another classic group with the Kingston Trio song Scotch & Soda. Wally continues to tour and continues to put out albums that are a lot of fun. Get on his mailing list to find out when he'll be in your area!
On When Pigs Fly, the group I hadn't heard of was The Neanderthal Spongecake. It turns out that they are a band from the same record company, Xemu, and have their own CD, The Side Effects of Napalm. You can listen to clips in Real Audio from the site. Not many groups will write a song about a Tapeworm, and fewer will write a GOOD song about a Tapeworm... Similarly disgusting but fun is Swamp Gas. They do two versions of Quiet Riot's Mental Health: Metal Health '98 and Slacker Health. Yes, I'm amused that the best place for the lyrics to the song are from Weird Al Yankovic's site... Mental Health is yet another song I have two covers of and not the original (three, counting the two on this album). I prefer the Slacker version, with mentions of Brent Spiner and Bob Crane and such. While it's disturbing to think that the heirs to Punk were Grunge and the heirs to Grunge are Slackers, the progression seems obvious in retrospect. If The Neanderthal Spongecake were more pissed off, they would be punk. As it is, their clean sound, understandable lyrics and solid musicianship give them an edge. Maybe I grew up. Maybe they grew up. Maybe producer Cevin Soling actually has an ear for pop. I dunno. Solid slacker rock that you'll never hear on an elevator (though I should be careful of predictions like that), but also not for everyone. I liked it, though.
As I type (7/14/02), Leonard Nimoy and several other veterans of the original series are preparing to give a talk at a Star Trek convention here in Minneapolis. Let's hope he doesn't sing. Meanwhile, let's hope Tim Russ does. Russ, who played the Vulcan Tuvak on Star Trek Voyager, has three CDs of which I have two. Kushangaza is a short, 7 song, EP (the link has clips) dedicated to his daughter. The title track is written by Russ about her, in the same way that Tiny Dancer is about Elton John's daughter, and Russ does his song Holiday Inn. Several songs have to do with religion, or at least spirituality, with We... a techno song about machines stealing your soul and Soapbox Preacher about a preacher and The Door, where a person is down but crawled up to hope. Russ packs a lot in a short CD. The epynomous Tim Russ (same link) is produced by Neil Norman, who is in charge of production at GNP/Crescendo Records. I have several of his CDs, including his Star Trek instrumentals. The man has a good ear for music, and it's helped Russ. Russ wrote several of the songs, and while none of his music has anything to do with Star Trek or even much about space or science fiction, the first cut, I Can't Imagine, starts off with "Can you imagine walkin' on Jupiter's Moons?" That's about as stfnal as he gets, though it's a solid love song with literary references. He's equally at home with jazz, Cat Stevens, Randy Newman, Bruce Hornsby and my favorite cut Love The One You're With by Stephen Stills. Frankly, I wish there were more science fiction so I could have more excuses to play them on Shockwave. Oh well. I rather liked Tuvak, though Voyager was disappointing overall, and am happy to see that Tim Russ has a life outside the Star Trek universe.
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