Imagine if this column had been conceived, plotted and composed on the company tab. This act of not-so-subtle subterfuge hypothetically taking place during a particularly inconclusive, inconsequential, four-hour corporate meeting, replete with a pompous agenda, a zippy Powerpoint deck and enough action items to keep one guy busy for the rest of his sane existence.
With our scenario thus established, please pardon me if the rambling thoughts that follow appear fragmented, incoherent and chock-full of typos: such are the perils of multi-tasking in these dim, post-modern times.
That said, is it any wonder that the Scarecrow's lament, "If I Only Had a Brain," from The Wizard of Oz (Rhino) has been rattling through my meeting-addled mind over the past several months? The melody first hit me one night at a local tapas bar, whilst a bored jazz guitarist tossed it out in a the middle of a Django-inspired riff, as the warmth from microbrew number three weakened me just enough to let the tonal memory sink into my otherwise-selective unconscious.
The song's pleading message really hit home when I opened my bin of junkmail one October afternoon and found a whimsically packaged, digitally remastered Oz soundtrack CD lurking within. The Emerald City, The Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Dorothy literally popped right out of the gatefold CD as I opened it during a mind-numbingly dull conference call. Though I was never a big fan of the film as a facts-obsessed whippersnapper, my recent tapas bar encounter had me jumping at the possibility of probing the deeper meaning of the Scarecrow's signature number. So I popped it into my iMac's flimsy CD player, put the conference call on mute and realized that singer Ray Bolger had put my entire day-job advertising/Web development career into perspective: "If I only had a brain..."
Lest we spend the rest of this already-directionless column analyzing the hegemonic ramifications of "The Lollipop Guild" and "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead," let it suffice that this is one damned fun reissue, even for those of us who DON'T drive past the future site of the Wizard of Oz Theme Park every Tuesday en route to graduate school in the Land of Kansas. And since the movie was all wrapped up in conceptions of home, the Great Plains, the elements and lions and tigers and bears, the soundtrack qualifies for serious roots music consideration, at least in one mightily stretched sense of the word. See what writing your own column for no net income does for one's stringent editorial policy?
While we're knee-deep in self-indulgence, I must confess to really, really liking Golden Smog's Weird Tales (Rykodisc), the third of this supergroup's sideline projects. I have been getting mighty bored with the whole alt-country "scene" as of late, primarily due to my nagging suspicion that it all starts to sound the same after a few listenings. But a few tracks on this ragged, but exuberant effort were enough to lift my spirits for a few days and propel me through the grimness of another rain-soaked work week.
The album's stand-out cut is Jayhawk Gary Louris' soaring, gorgeous "Until You Came Along," yet another angst-ridden love song that somehow transcends its insipid lyrics to achieve the sort of timeless harmony and emotion that made the last great Jayhawks CD, Tomorrow the Green Grass, the magical achievement that got a lot of us through the difficult spring and summer of 1995. To overcome the bland presence of disappointingly dull Wilco frontman, Jeff Tweedy, Kraig Johnson keeps things poppily psychedelic and on-edge on "Looking Forward to Seeing You" and "If I Only Had a Car," and ex-Big Star drummer Jody Stephens lends the rythmic punch and background vocals throughout. I can't wait to see this incarnation of the Smog in action, loose-limbed and liquored-up in a down-and-out dive bar where no one takes themselves too seriously.
Singer/songwriter Tom Leach seems perfectly at home in gin mills and roadhouses, as well, as made clearly evident on his latest, Recorded Live, In Person (Slow River). This workboot-stomping collection is rocked-up trucker country for people who work hard, play hard and pray hard the morning after. Leach's blue-collar originals and searing, guitar-powered takes on Haggard's "Working Man Blues," Dolly Parton's "Kentucky Gambler" and Hank's "I Saw the Light" are the best bar band stuff I've heard since leaving Simon & the Bar Sinisters and the long-departed Ludlow Street Cafe behind one foggy Lower East Side autumn night.
Arizona folk-rocker Dave Insley has a deadpan, baritone delivery that calls to mind both Leach and the sardonic John Doe. But his spartan, acoustic instrumentation and wry way with words add a certain twangst to the proceedings on both the honky tonk paean, "Gilded Cage," and the more introspective "My Living Will" and "I Cashed in My Old Life" on Insley's Halo 4 Satan (Lonesome Coyote Productions). The number that sticks to your ribs, colon and esophagus (and not necessarily in that order), however, is "The Great Strip Mall Donut Shop Robbery," a bear claw-in-cheek tale of a West Texas-obsessed outlaw whose love of Ray Price and jelly-filled concoctions causes him to commit this truly "crueler cruller caper." Now that's the kinda song I wish I could have written (or at least eaten).
Ditto for many of the cuts on Michael Friedman's Stories I've Stolen (Brother Jack Records), the debut of an inventive West Virginia poet, English grad student and erstwhile St. Louisan. I first met Michael at one of several "song circles" I attended during my very brief passage through the Gateway to the West. While his vocal style then bore a certain resemblence to Lou Reed chanting Bob Dylan over a zen-like mantra, his enthusiastic delivery and the urgency and imagery of his highly personal lyrics made him stand out as someone to remember from these otherwise vaguely recalled evenings.
Stories I've Stolen teams a more vocally consistent, self-assured Friedman with an all-star cast of St. Louis folk and roots-rock musicians. Cheryl Striker, the vexing lead vocalist from One Fell Swoop, lends her rich, throaty harmony vocals to "Mountain State Moon" and "Elsah, Illinois," while Joe Phelan contributes some tasteful banjo and guitar throughout. The stand-out track is "I'll Fall in Love With Lucinda Williams (If I Want to)," on which co-writer Roy Kasten, Friedman and Sourpatch guitarist Adam Reichman create a gently loping piece of wisteria that successfully conjures up the mythic Lucinda of "Like a Rose" and "Big Red Sun."
Howard Iceberg is one of those writers whom I wish I'd discovered 15 years ago, right about the time I first tried to fashion a schizophrenic musical worldview and identity out of hissy Stanley Brothers cassettes, swirling Laurie Anderson live performances and a flood-damaged, early Johnny Cash LP that I salvaged from a rotting basement. With a Dylanesque vocal style that's a cross between an earnest warble and a sly, shit-eating grin, the shaggy, Kansas City-based Iceberg spins beatific tales that capture the essence of love, hope, remorse, escape and self-abuse.
His latest self-released effort, Hindu Equations (One World Productions), features Iceberg's typically strong songwriting, longtime guitarist Gary Paredes and the limber, country-rock backing of local roots rocker, Mike Ireland, and members of his band, Holler. It's an alternately bittersweet, goofy and gleeful affair, as Iceberg yelps about "Leaving Kansas City" and its "women by the dozen" to head on down to Tennessee "where I can marry my cousin" on one number, then cuts to a far more urgent setting on the title cut: "Standin' at the corner of Pins and Needles/I saw you cross the park by the love-lies-bleeding/You were pickin' up the pieces of a big collision/If you can't stand the heat, air-condition the kitchen."
Iceberg's traditional music roots show up most clearly in a live performance, when he balances his battered acoustic guitar against his hip and rakes it in a zither-like fashion, parallel to the floor, never letting the rhythm falter despite the apparently difficult technical demands of this anachronistic picking style.
One gets the feeling folklorist and musician Mike Seeger would get as much of a kick out of Iceberg's pickwork as his songwriting. Seeger's latest project, Southern Banjo Sounds (Smithsonian Folkways) is a rubbery, jangly, mystical labor of love. On this insightfully annotated, 26-track collection, Seeger traces the evolution of the banjo from its African origins on up to its present-day status as a bluegrass stand-by. The bewildering array of loose, supple, rhythmic sounds Seeger is able to create -- using an equally diverse set of homespun picking, clawhammer and strumming styles -- is testimony to the wondrous potential of this unfairly maligned and stereotyped instrument.
Songs of Christmas: From the Alan Lomax Collection (Rounder) starts from the like-minded assumption that folk music on any instrument is good music, and that this music should be preserved, studied and enjoyed above all others as a celebration of the unique cultures which spawned it. The series of field recordings the famous folklorist recorded on his rambles through the British Isles, Spain, Italy and Caribbean from 1950 to 1964 are compiled here in a loosely knit patchwork quilt of religious and secular holiday music. While the chantings from an English mummer's play or the sound of a conch shell proclaiming the oncoming Italian New Year are colorful and historically interesting in their own right, they (gasp!) just simply aren't that much fun... One gets the impression that "Santa Got a DWI" or "Christmas in Jail" would not get much more than a stern, disapproving scowl from otherwise jolly old Alan if they turned up in the middle of his holiday folk music mix tape.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers' Christmas Caravan (Mammoth) gives Alan and me something on which we can overwhelmingly agree: try as they might, these swing revival bands just don't add anything interesting to the sounds to which they pay homage. There's nothing distasteful, unpleasant or controversial about any of the eight originals or two covers here. In fact, the Zippers' version of "Sleigh Ride" is about as boppy as they come. But the whole production just washes down like so many Christmas cookies with a glass of milk: wholesome, inoffensive and utterly forgettable.
Though he could pull of the wholesome bit, '40s jazzman Spike Jones was never forgettable and often offensive, at least in a cheeky, sneaky, safe-for-the-airwaves manner. As one of the first performers to put the sound of farting to music, in the 1942 smash, "Der F¸hrer's Face," Jones was the right man to push the then-acceptable boundaries for the emerging Christmas music genre. His "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" and "Nuttin' for Christmas" firmly established grown men's rights to assume falsetto alter egos at least once a year.
Both of these Dr. Demento standards are included in Let's Sing a Song of Christmas (Verve), a reissue of the 1956 LP, Xmas Spectacular, which made Jones a household favorite. While the proceedings are a bit too slick and sincere for those favoring a more offbeat slant on the season, Jones' ingenious Pig Latin-ized "Jingle Bells Medley" will have you gurgling, "Ingle-Jay Ells-Bay" all the way to the poorhouse come December. And, yes, there are a few more songs featuring the little boy vocals of trumpeter George Rock, whose struggles to preserve his own sense of masculinity forge the basis for a future column dedicated to men in stages of arrested vocal development the world over.
While it's true what my ex-boss Kurt told me about our female ex-supervisor telling him about not his not being a little boy anymore at the office Christmas party some eight years back, I'm not sure how any of this relates to my slipping in two baseball music CDs at the end of this disjointed aside about new holiday music releases. But I'm going to do it anyway, so feel free to move on to a less romanticized subject like, say, bean curd, and have a nice holiday.
For those of you brave or fool enough to stick around, the good news is that there are two fine new collections of rocked-up music about the National Game out for you to add to your Christmas or Chanukah wish lists. Steve Vozzolo and the Rookies churn out a Springsteen-inspired Northeastern bar band sound that provides an all-American backdrop for their awestruck odes to "the game" on I Love Baseball (Vozz-Mann Music). While things get a bit too sappy at times for this old cynic's maudlin taste, "My Mother Threw Mine Away" is programmed on repeat play here at the leaky Roe homestead for its tuneful distillation of some of our nation's most potent collective childhood fears.
Diamond Cuts: Turning Two (Hungry for Music) hits a bit closer to home, as did its wonderful predecessor, Diamond Cuts: A Compilation of Baseball Songs and Poetry, on the same D.C.-based label. The strongest cuts on this able sophomore effort are: songwriter Chuck Brodsky's hopelessly hopeful "Lefty," a tale of a Steve Carlton-like hurler who can't pry himself lose from the game in his twilight years; David Thomas Roberts' ragtime ode, "Roberto Clemente;" and Garrison Keillor's hilarious, off-color take on "Casey at the Bat," delivered from the point of view of the opposing Dustberg fans. "Ten thousand people booed him when he stepped into the box," quips the radio variety show host in a thick Brooklynese accent. "And they made the sound of farting when he bent to fix his socks."
It's the closest thing to a Bronx cheer you're going to get outta me (or any other unpaid hack) this year. So count your blessings, fill up on peanuts and beer and go fix your socks in somebody else's column! And if I hear you typing on my conference call, well...
Most of the releases reviewed in Rootin' Around can be found at your local roots-friendly record/CD store, in the ever-expanding CD section of our very own Rootin' Bookstore or online at Miles of Music, Roots 'n' Rhythm Mail Order, Rockhouse Music and Village Records .
Addresses of harder-to-find labels and artists mentioned in this month's column are as follows: Rykodisc, 27 Congress St., Salem, MA 01970; Slow River, 27 Congress St., Salem, MA 01970; Lonesome Coyote, Box 9333, Scottsdale, AZ 85252; Brother Jack Music, 2053 Blendon, #2N, St. Louis, MO 63143; One World Productions, 708 W. 17th St., Kansas City, MO 64108; Smithsonian Folkways, 955 L'Enfant Plaza, Ste. 7300, MRC 953, Washington, DC 20560; Rounder, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02410; Mammoth, 101 B St., Carrboro, NC 27510; Verve, 825 Eighth Ave., NY, NY 10019; Hungry for Music, 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Ste. 384, Washington, DC 20006; VOZZ-MANN Music, Box 115, Torrington, CT 06790.
- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe