Lee Hazlewood “The LHI Years: Singles, Nudes & Backsides (1968-71)

I don’t want to get into an entire bio of Lee Hazlewood but I do have to include this legal disclaimer that he’s like my all-time hero, at least based on his style, singing, songwriting, and legend, and also the fact that he did the tile song (sung by Dusty Springfield) for my all time favorite movie (The Sweet Ride) as well as having a cameo part in that movie. If there are stains on his reputation or tales of bizarre behavior, there are other forums for that, but here I’m discovering this odd double LP with a much too specific title and questionable album art. Not because there are naked women or they are kneeling, looking up at him (you can only think about this humorously, right?) but because the women are all sporting fake LH-esque moustaches, and I’m sorry, but that’s where I draw the line.

This album is dated 2012, about 5 years after he died, and LHI stands for Lee Hazlewood Industries (his own record label in the late 60s) and it’s got a booklet with extensive notes which I unfortunately don’t have time to read, and it’s on this super heavy vinyl that someday is going to be cursed by the aching back survivors of record collectors (at least until they start selling the stuff off). Two records, 11 of the 17 songs written by LH, but they all sound like his songs. He sure knows how to pick songs to cover. He is joined singing, on a few songs, by Suzi Jane Hokom, Ann-Margret, and Nina Lizell. All the songs are good, most are weird, and several have those crazy kind of spoken introductions. Because of this modern packaging, it’s hard to remember that these were records that came out at about the time when I first started buying 45s. It would be cool to find the old versions. Pretty much, if you ever see a Lee Hazlewood record, no matter how dusty and scratchy it is, it’s worth picking up because it’s like a an artifact from a parallel pop music universe.



Silver Jews “Bright Flight”

I know something about this band Silver Jews, that it’s mostly this guy David Berman, and there have been a lot of collaborators, including Stephen Malkmus (in the past, not here), and they put out a few records and then broke up, or stopped playing, or recording (though I suppose that a band or person can just record a record again at any time, if they are still alive, and want to, no matter how much they are retired, so what does that even mean). Six albums, I guess, between 1994 and 2008, and this one is somewhere in the middle, 2001. But I’m pretending I know nothing, like I just picked this up out of a pile of random records (which I did, essentially) not knowing anything (which I don’t, essentially). The first song, the initial impression, is that this is country and western music (steel guitar, country piano, Nashville references, George Strait cover, picture on back cover wearing a too small western shirt with embroidered scorpions), that’s what it is, but something that would be considered “alternative country” in that David Berman’s singing has that quality that some people would call bad singing, but I call great singing—the closer you listen the more complex the person behind the voice gets. It also helps that the lyrics are at worst impossibly catchy and at best life changing poetry.

If one set out to create an uglier album cover than this one, just forget it, you’ve lost. It’s a flat, flash photograph of a nasty old couch with a tattered spiral bound notebook sitting on it, and there’s what looks like some colored stickers on the notebook creating an abstract design, and also what looks like the number “4” on the notebook. It occurs to me that it’s the 4th Silver Jews album and the cover photo and number 4 could be a reference to Led Zeppelin IV (if you squint, you can see a similarity between the two covers) (also, “Bright Flight”/”Stairway to Heaven”—get it?)—and now it occurs to me that IV is not just “4” it also means intravenous, and most likely “Stairway to Heaven” is about heroin. (If you ever find yourself on Jeopardy and the category is “popular song meanings”—just keep hitting the buzzer and saying, “What is heroin,” and you’ll probably come out ahead.) In fact, seeing how every other song on this record has a reference to horses, I have to assume either Berman is an avid equestrian or else it’s a lot about heroin.

All of my nonsense here is an attempt to not try and fail to express just how good these lyrics are, and how catchy these songs are, and how lovely it all is. I think this is my new favorite record of all time, no exaggeration. I think I just joined the club of nerdy, pathetic music fans who have “Silver Jews” tattooed on an important part of their brain. Now I know how people felt about JD Salinger. (Oh, wait, I was one of those people, too.) And it’s even worse with the internet. Look, I consider myself a songwriter, or former songwriter. I feel like there is no worse feeling in the world than to know you’ve come up with some kind of wonderful song, seemingly out of nowhere, and then not be able to do it again. It’s a wonder that any songwriter survives past the age of thirty. I guess the only thing to do, sometimes, is reinvent yourself. But then you probably already know all this. But if you don’t believe me, find a couple of these songs, like “Slow Education” or “I Remember Me” or “Tennessee”—and if they aren’t the best songs you’ve ever heard, go get yourself a new set of friends.


The Band “Islands”

Even though I’m a HUGE fan of The Band I know very little about their records  except “Music from Big Pink” which is my favorite, though I didn’t listen to it until decades after it was released. It wasn’t until the movie “The Last Waltz” that I really knew anything about The Band, but that movie is one of my favorite music documentaries ever; I’ve probably watched it a dozen times and will hopefully watch it a dozen more. Sometimes when I think about The Band I wish they had called themselves “The Honkies” (as Richard Manuel, in that movie, said they’d considered)—I don’t know why, the name “The Band” always seemed kind of unfortunate to me, but then, I guess most band names seem a little silly for anyone over 12 years old. The Honkies, though, that would have been kind of amazing. Maybe I’ll just call them that from now on, and anyone who knows me will know what I’m talking about.

It always impressed me how much these guys were ahead of their time, though in this case it’s not necessarily a good thing; I can often predict the general date of a record by looking at the album art, and I was thinking this nailed the dreaded 80s, but no, it’s 1977. If you didn’t see the words on the cover you’d guess it’s sunburned margarita sipping easy listening from the Miami Vice era, and in the picture on the back, the guys look like they all just had their hair styled. This very much sounds like a record recorded to fulfill a record company contract, especially the instrumental, “Islands.” Still there are some really good songs here that you would not get confused with anyone but The Band. The thing I always liked about them is their three singers. I’m always happy hearing Levon Helm sing, even on not that great songs. I like Rick Danko even more, and just because of his singing and some nice accordion I was really enjoying the last song on the first side until I actually listened more closely to the lyrics. And I like Richard Manuel most of all—there’s a special quality to his voice, and I hate to think it has anything to do with pain. Maybe it’s just that he really loves singing. I love him in “The Last Waltz”—he seems like this grizzled old-timer, but he was what, like 33? What’s really shocking is that he died when he was only 42. I’m kind of getting depressed. Time to move on to something else.


Nicholas Frank “Greatest Skips”

Not denying the irresistibility of a title such as “Greatest Skips”—my overwhelming hope was that inside this album cover with six pictures of people getting their picture taken (the inside sleeve is six corresponding pictures of people taking the pictures of the people on the cover, presumably) I would find a dozen well-crafted, personal, heart-wrenching songs performed by Nicholas Frank, perhaps with the help of additional musicians. For a moment, then, when immediately the familiar sound of a skipping record assaulted my ears, I thought PERHAPS this record has a skip right at the beginning, either coincidentally or as a kind of initiation joke, after which you’d move the needle onto the dozen well-crafted songs. But no. It’s a an entire record consisting of a collection of record skips. After looking around for a Nicholas Frank substitute to throw through the wall, for awhile, I relaxed a little and soon found myself enjoying the sound for what it was, as well as thinking about a few things.

I’ve never really thought about it, but the length of a record skip should be exactly the time it takes for the needle to get around the record once, right? And the record is turning at 33 1/3 times per minute, or so we’re led to believe. But when the needle gets down to the inside of the record, where it has less distance to travel to get around the record, shouldn’t it take less time? So how does that work? Why don’t records get progressively higher-pitched as they go along? It’s bad enough I’ll never REALLY understand what’s going on in those grooves, now I’m even confused about the speed. Anyway, it then occurred to me that in that this is a collection of record skips, played in succession, Mr. Frank had to make a decision on just HOW MANY skips (normally, one hears the number of skips it takes for you to realize the record is skipping, pull yourself out of the beanbag chair, spill your beer, and get to the turntable) he was going to allow us to hear before moving on to the next one, as well as the order they are presented. One wonders if the skips are a collection he compiled over a period of time or if he was able to manufacture or re-create record skips at will. And if, upon repeated listenings, I would be able to discovers a narrative or a message, or even a deep, weird secret, or instructions to unearthing a treasure.

I have to admit, I have my own collection of record skips, on a cassette tape that I kept handy for many years, available to pop in the recorder any time a skip randomly happened. I never listen to it, of course, but wouldn’t sell it for a million dollars. I also have a cassette tape I made from Lee Ranaldo’s lock-groove experiment record, “From Here to Infinity.” It would have been better to just buy the record, but cheapie that I am, I illegally home-taped it, but was then met with a decision to make on each track: how long to record the lock-groove? Now I’m thinking, how many people put lock-grooves on the end of their records, throughout history? There must be a list on the internet somewhere. And one more thing, it just occurred to me. What if THIS record gets an ACTUAL skip in it sometime? What exactly would that be like? I mean, besides annoying, would it blow your mind, if even for a few minutes? How does one create a skip in a record… peanut butter or something? But no, I won’t do it, this is not my record. I’m cat-sitting. But I suppose I could pick up my own copy somewhere, and figure out how to make REAL skips. It could be a project for a rainy day.


James McCandless “Faultline”

Again with the goofy fonts; I thought it said “Asscandles”—but closer examination clarifies: James McCandless, someone I’ve not heard of before now. This record is from 1985, which to me seems like yesterday, and I have to keep reminding myself it’s over 30 years ago. Also, magic-markered on the front and back cover are the letters, WNKU, which sounds like a radio station to me, and research reveals it’s on the Kentucky/Cincinnati border. Somehow this record escaped.

Further research turns up a James McCandless website. Apparently he died in 2013, nearing the age of 70. He lived most of his life in the Chicago area, playing all over the place, folk music, and this is his first record, on his own label, St. Christopher. There’s a lyric sheet, which is nice, because the lyrics are worth checking out, even though you probably can understand them as his voice is clear as a bell. This is the good kind of folk music; it’s plenty serious but doesn’t take itself too seriously. Songs are funny and they are grim. Some just voice and acoustic guitar, and some with a full band and some fine musicians.

I could go on and on but I’m trying to keep things short, and many of you will see the word “folk music” and go no further. You’re making a mistake. But go to your grave close-minded if you want to, there’s plenty of eternity to come around to things. Anyway, I personally cannot resit a verse like this: “Last night after work we all went to a restaurant / I ordered my usual BLT and fries / and while I was hunched over my friend Jerry put on his sunglasses / he said the glare off my skull was hurting his eyes.” It’s from a song called “Kareem and Me” about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and going bald.


Billy Bragg and Wilco “Mermaid Avenue Vol. II”

This record caught my attention because of the life-size photo of a tabby cat slightly out of focus in a crude, black and white photo-collage of some old cars and buildings, presumably depicting Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island. I was just there, and had I known, I might have made a pilgrimage, and had a little more focus rather than just being sad. But this is the first I’ve heard of this record, which is a project initiated by Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, to put music to some of Woody’s tons of lyrics he left behind when he died. I imagine that any number of songwriters would have loved to get a chance to write music to these lyrics, but it was Billy Bragg and Wilco (including Jay Bennett)—and then they made some fine recordings, and albums and box sets were released, all too involved for me to go into, but anyway, this is Vol. II, with a huge cat on the cover.

There is so much variety here I can’t even begin to mentally encapsulate it. I wonder what Woody Guthrie would think! On my first listen I felt a little annoyed, just because there is so much all over the place, and so much confident instrument playing that I thought, these are a bunch of guys you probably can’t tell anything. And while that is probably true, I warmed up to it more on subsequent listens, like right now. Some I like way better than others, but some songs I’m liking a lot. There are a few songs that sound VERY familiar, so I must have heard them somewhere, and I’d imagine most likely in some coffee shop. Anyway, I feel like I’m committing the largest sin in not paying much attention to the lyrics, and that’s where you could go very much deeper, of course. There’s a lyric sheet, which is nice for those of us with hearing/making out words problems (if there’s a word for that). And if you want to go deeper, there’s Vol. One, of course, and then I guess there’s a complete set with outtakes and other stuff, so you can really get emerged. And I suppose if you wanted to go even further, as a songwriter, you could contact Nora Guthrie about possibly making another record of more songs based on more of Woody’s lyrics. I’m sure you won’t be the first one to make such a request.


The Court & Spark “Bless You”

This pleasant, mellow, kind of country-sounding record is the first I’ve ever heard of The Court & Spark, and this was a case where I had to use the internet to determine the band name from the record name, “Bless You” – as well as figure out what that strange symbol on the cover is (it’s “&” – with an odd, deco-ish font). The record company is Absolutely Kosher, from San Francisco, and the label is chocolate brown with simple grey lettering. The band name and title is written so small on the spine it could fit on a vitamin pill. The photo on the front and back is of the sun rising or setting over desert mountains – the back could be a corny poster with an uplifting message. The front has what looks like a woodcut depiction of a large bird, like an eagle – it’s likely referring to something that I don’t know – because in itself it’s as meaningless as the album title, a phrase that I most associate with someone sneezing.

There is an insert with credits and the only place I can find the date: 2001. There are six listed members of the band, plus six other names with individual music credits. For all those people, the music is sparse and minimal, and the production pretty traditional  except for the drums and percussion which are really prominent and with a lot of personality. The band members are modestly without any instrumental or songwriting designation. Most of the singing seems to be by one guy (or it could be more than one) who has a kind of educated, boozy voice that sounds like he’s from the Midwest and moved around a bit, picking up inflections here and there.

On the third song, a woman’s voice comes in about halfway through (though she is subtly present on the first two songs) and for the first time I turn my head in the direction of the turntable to see if an otherworldly presence has been conjured. It has. Throughout the record, the acoustic guitars, the steel guitar, the silences and space, and the sometimes very familiar arrangements, the one thing that really stands out to me is this woman’s singing on roughly half of the ten tracks. I’m not working hard enough to pick up any of the lyrics, but if I return, it will be for the singing, so I might give the words a spin.


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