Author Archive for Ray Speen

17
Nov
20

Gibson Bros. “The Man Who Loved Couch Dancing”

There was a time (in the late 1980s, I guess) when the Gibson Bros were my very favorite band, and I suppose one moves on, but I’m still quite fond of them. I have a number of their records on vinyl, CD, and cassette. This 1990 release might be their most bizarre record, and funniest. It’s all over the place, from an intro by a radio DJ that sounds kind of manufactured, but might be real—as well as some other collage songs that seem to be constructed from roughly recorded bits, and found sound pieces. I’m not going to try to explain the Gibson Bros for people who aren’t familiar with them—it would be too daunting of a task, and I’d get it wrong and just confuse you. You’d be better off getting confused directly from the source—that is if you can find this record (there’s always the internet). It’s a great record, at any rate, and would be the perfect one to clear the room at parties—I’d be all about that if I was still going to, or throwing, parties. You put this on to find out what people are made of.

The two “Bros”—at this point—are Jeff Evans and Don Howland (who both have gone on since to similarly hard core, country blues roots music that is seriously informed by punk rock—apart from each other). They are pictured on the hilarious album cover, sitting with 40s of Colt 45 and Olde English 800, looking through the legs of a stripper, who is looming over them. It looks exactly like a low-budget imagining of a stripper bar scene, which it is—meant to illustrate the title song, which is nearly as funny as the cover. The two sides are subtitled “Homes” and “Abroad”—the latter being live recordings (though I think the first side also has live tracks, or who knows what). Anyway, taken as a whole, this album really captures the essence of the Gibson Bros—especially the more bizarre and inscrutable spectrum of their art. I can’t really pick out a favorite track on this record—I find it works best as a whole. Also, of note, Jon Spencer plays on the live side. Between the three of those guys, you’ve got a lot of bands and almost-band projects that approach the blues in a way that some purists find offensive or annoying—but I really appreciate, as I think their their take on the music is to get at the essence of it by finding the insanity at the heart of the best of what’s out there—with equal parts dumbness and intelligence, and never too far from humor.

13
Nov
20

The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz

This is a 1973 box-set of six records, a nice overview of jazz history, with a 50 page booklet. I mean, it would be sad if you were a jazz fan and it was the only record you had—I mean, if it was the only music available (most people have no records). I bought this at a library book sale for nothing—not a library copy, but one donated to the library, virtually unplayed. It’s fun to listen to from end to end—a few of the artists I know very little about—and it also has a few of my favorite recordings. The most exiting thing for me about finding it, though, is my personal history with this collection.

In 1981, I moved into my first apartment, in Sandusky, Ohio, an old place across from the public library. I had no TV, maybe a radio, and an old record player. I made a point of not moving my record collection with me, for some reason—I guess I had the idea of reinventing myself (at the age of 21!)—or maybe I wanted to proceed with a fictional, experimental persona—which I guess is pretty much the same thing. I didn’t want my my record collection (which I stored at my parents’ house) to dictate my identity. When I turned 21, I began work in a full-time job, and every paycheck I bought a different kind of liquor. I cooked, and drank, and started work on a novel, while only listening to music from the public library—trying out a lot of stuff I had no idea about.

I checked out this jazz box-set and played it over and over, trying to remember who was who. Most of the artists I was hearing for the first time. Most notable of impact on me were the Thelonious Monk tracks. I may have heard a bit of his music before, but never made note of it, but he’s prominent here, with six tracks, the first being “Misterioso”—which was one of those musical experiences—you might only have a dozen in your lifetime this big—where everything changes. I’d never heard anything like that. I would never be the same. Nothing would ever top that, for me… except, three songs later… his version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” with his quintet—and then I believe my head melted. What was that? What was that I just heard? Were you even allowed to do that? If Thelonious Monk was allowed to play that song that way (I mean, it’s the Smithsonian!), then what wasn’t possible? I haven’t been the same sense, and for that I’m grateful.

07
Nov
20

Steely Dan “Katy Lied”

This is the fourth Steely Dan LP, from 1975, and it may have been the first one I bought, as a 15-year-old music fan. I’m not sure though—I think I might have bought the first four all roughly around that time. I don’t remember what I made of it—I liked it—some songs more than others. I hear it somewhat differently now, of course. I have a page on my website (rspeen.com) where I write exclusively about individual Steely Dan songs—one at a time (selected at random, similar to here). At some point I realized that the only way to really appreciate SD music is to listen really closely, and also to attempt to analyze the lyrics. Otherwise, you’re only halfway there. For example, you might appreciate “Rose Darling” as a terrific pop song about a fictional woman named Rose, rather than a twisted coming of age masturbation saga in the form of a terrific pop song.

There are ten songs on this record, all of them really good. My all-time favorite was, and still is, “Doctor Wu”—which is one of my favorite Steely Dan songs—I’ve only listened to it thousands of times, yet it still puts goosebumps on my spine. It rivals the ten best movies of any given year—though in a four minute song, no CGI, no images at all, except in your mind. The song that I didn’t appreciate at all 45 years ago, but now has become one of my favorite SD songs is “Any World (That I’m Welcome To)”—kind of an epic in four minutes—it would be one of the 10 best TV shows in any given year. The music and the lyrics align in such a vision of affirmation that you can’t help but wonder just where lie the mines in that field of Hallmark emotional health—but since it’s a Steely Dan song, you know something lies beneath—though in this case, possibly dormant for a half century, or more.

The album cover is a blown-up photo of a grasshopper that’s pretty much almost all out of focus and quite striking and beautiful—it’s all but abstract. The back cover is an odd set of photos—by now, they’re pretty much strictly a studio band, I guess—they could have easily just included Becker and Fagen (or no one)—or maybe a couple dozen artists integral to the making of this record. Included: the great drummer Jeff Porcaro, looking like a 12-year-old (as do Becker and Fagen). Also, there’s “Mike” McDonald, snapped in the very process of—I read somewhere—inventing “Yacht Rock”—and the proof is “Bad Sneakers”—whether or not any of these guys could sail. As a teenager, oddly, the thing that made the biggest impression on me was the entire, pretty lengthy, recording tech paragraph at the bottom of the credits. I didn’t yet know how some adults could be totally serious and total goofballs at the same time, so I found this deliciously confusing. I particularly liked the line: “some very expensive German microphones.” Who says something like that? I was, at the time, working on my second or third “album” myself, on cassette—with $1.98 of gear. And that didn’t stop me—when I designed the “album cover”—from constructing my own inscrutable myths.

30
Oct
20

The Cramps “Psychedelic Jungle”

I use a random number generator to pick what record to write about next, and today it landed on this one, which is highly appropriate for Halloween! (I don’t make this stuff up, as much as it might sound like it. Alphabetical, right there between Crabby Appleton and David Crosby.) Actually, I was surprised I hadn’t written about it yet—well, I have, but not on this site. It is one of my 10 favorite records of all time, and I don’t mean the 100 that I say are my top 10. It’s definitely the best LP to come out in the wasteland of the Eighties (1981). The album cover is just a fisheye photograph of the band in a spooky attic (or your mind) but it’s just kind of the perfect album cover. The first time I saw The Cramps (can’t remember the year or where!) is one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. As a band, they’re basic and inevitable, as if they have always existed, generation after generation after generation. It’s hard to describe the position they occupy in my brain. It’s like they are extreme at the edges, and there’s no middle ground. On a scale from 1 to 10 (1 and 10 being both the best and worst) they get all 1’s and 10’s. Not for the squares.

This is their second LP, but it was the first one I heard, and I remember when—it was one of those experiences that are rare—when you hear something and can’t believe what you’re hearing—it makes no sense based on previous knowledge. Ron Metz (drummer for The Human Switchboard) played it for us in his apartment in Kent, Ohio, summer of 1981. He found it baffling—this is when punk and new wave was getting faster and poppier and louder—and this was the slowest, most droning, most minimal thing I’d ever heard. Ron put the record on at 45 RPM, just to try it, and at that speed it sounded like normal music. But it’s not normal, and that’s what makes it great. You don’t want to get to know these people. They sound like they might legitimately drink your blood—they must be either a cult, on drugs, or some form of un-human—likely all of those, to some degree. Or maybe it’s all an act, in which case, it’s more fun to just be scared.

There are 14 songs on this record and they’re all excellent. Half originals, and half covers—by people (until I heard this) I’d never heard of. I couldn’t tell which were which, and for years paid no attention to that. It all sound like The Cramps, and no one else. The originals are by Poison Ivy Rorschach and Lux Interior. She chews gum while playing guitar, and I maintain is the coolest person in the history of rock’n’roll. Lux Interior was a local guy, from near Kent, apparently from a normal family, if such a thing exists. He definitely went over to some version of the other side—that shadowy, depraved region of no return. Nick Knox was the most minimally extreme drummer I’ve ever heard. And then, on this record, Kid Congo Powers joined them—the only person to ever play guitar with The Cramps and The Gun Club and Nick Cave (the Rolling Stones probably should have hired him).

“Caveman” and “Can’t Find My Mind” were always my favorites—two of the most druggy extreme songs you’ll ever hear. “The Natives Are Restless” is almost shocking in how upbeat it is—the most danceable song about cannibalism I’ve ever heard. I think ultimately my my favorite part of this record are the first two songs, which—both fit the whole perfectly—and sound like nothing else on the album. It starts with “Green Fuz” (a cover, originally by Green Fuz, naturally). And then “Goo Goo Muck” (Ronnie Cook and the Gaylads—it’s very much worth finding that version!), which has my favorite guitar solo of all time. The way those two songs work together, the atmosphere they create, and the world they introduce you to, and the way it sets up the rest of the record… It’s kind of like reliving, all at once, the first time you did all those bad things that are going to send you straight to hell.

23
Oct
20

Kitty Wells “The Kitty Wells Story”

I’m just not passionate about Kitty Wells the way I am about some other country singers, but I do appreciate her, and I’m glad to have this substantial double LP, which includes 24 of her hits. She certainly laid down the golden carpet for a lot of singers, particularity women country singers—seeing how her first hit, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” was way back in 1952—and was about “cheatin’” and such. (It was written by veteran songwriter J.D.”Jay” Miller.) Kitty Wells was known as Queen of County Music—and I’m sure some would argue, but maybe not. (As far as who is the King of Country music, no one can rightly agree.) She had a lot of respect, and a long, serious career. I wonder if anyone’s made a movie about her, whether dramatic or documentary? I have not heard a lot of tragic, crazy, and depraved stories about her life, like you hear about a lot of successful country singers, or just singers, or just artists. I’m sure she had her share of heartbreak, though—everyone does—and she puts some in these songs.

14
Oct
20

The Dave Brubeck Quartet “Jazz at Oberlin”

A 1953 live Dave Brubeck Quartet record, recorded at Finney Chapel in Oberlin, Ohio. It’s on the Fantasy label, and is on red vinyl. The quartet includes Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Lloyd Davis, and Ron Crotty. This is a fine record, and I can listen to it any time, day or night. I guess it’s considered “cool jazz,” but also, in places, Brubeck on piano, to put it in technical terms, plays some “crazy shit.” It’s a live record, but nicely recorded—my crude ear couldn’t tell it from a studio recording, and the polite applause doesn’t get in the way and, more important, no one is bantering between songs, or saying stuff like, “How many of you like to take a taste of alcohol?” This is an early Dave Brubeck record, I guess, and he kept putting out records for about six decades. Also, signifiant, according to the liner notes, is this concert was a catalyst for jazz being a big deal at Oberlin, which known for its music education. I grew up a bike ride away from that college, and sadly, never considered it for studies; my grades probably weren’t good enough, and it’s one of the more expensive schools around there—it’s akin to Ivy League in a lot of ways. This performance was held at the renowned Finney Chapel, where I did see a concert once (Michael Stanley Band)—though probably the only connecting threads with that show and this Brubeck one was that I attended with a bota bag filled with grain alcohol fruit punch. Years later, a band I was in, The Chanel Masters, played live on a radio show in Oberlin, which is a musical, and lifetime, high point for me. Finally, I may as well take this opportunity to announce that I intend to move to Oberlin in the not so distant future.

10
Sep
20

Eddie Schwartz “No Refuge”

This record came out in 1981, in an uncomfortable space between classic rock and new wave—which reminds me of people like Graham Parker and Joe Jackson and Herman Brood & his Wild Romance—nothing wrong with all that stuff, I just can’t listen to it. All I know is when I see any date after the mid-Seventies, the odds grow exponentially greater, the later it is, that it’s going to be unlistenable. The title song does sound like it could have been the title track for a movie with Rob Lowe and Demi Moore, thus adding, at least, an element of comic relief. A quick glace at the internet tells me that’s just my imagination, but also that Eddie Schwartz wrote Pat Benatar’s 1980 single “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”—a song that always made me uncomfortable—but it’s catchy, famous, part of the larger culture—so that’s impressive. His voice reminds me of someone, but I can’t place it—it’s an interesting voice. He’s Canadian, and I’m guessing you could have seen some energetic live show back when the record came out—if I was there in the club, in close proximity with a woman I had a crush on, was 21, and drank enough Crown Royal, I might have gotten emotional over songs like, “Spirit of the Night,” “Tonight,” “Heart on Fire,” “Auction Block,” and “All Our Tomorrows.”

05
Sep
20

John D. Loudermilk “Suburban Attitudes in Country Verse”

I’d heard of John D. Loudermilk, as a songwriter, though I don’t recall when or where, but that’s a good last name for remembering. He’s was roughly my parents’ age, and he recorded a few records in the Sixties. I don’t remember offhand where I got this album, but it’s got an intriguing cover. At first glance it looks like something the library might file under “educational.” But when you look more closely, besides the really nice guitar and ridiculously ornate music stand, you might notice a filtered cigarette burning down in a glass ashtray, a half glass of beer, and a bottle opener hanging by a string from the music stand. On back there’s some extensive liner note, written by John D. Loudermilk—he really went to town with the the old typewriter. He’s talking at length about living in Brentwood—I’m assuming the one in Tennessee—and how “country people” are “different”—it’s fun to read. Musically, this is the kind of folk music that doesn’t do much for me. It just kind of drifts by, and if I try to concentrate on it, I’ll soon find myself engaged in something else, like cleaning, or planning my escape. I’d be interested to hear his other records, though. Anyone who writes a song called “Bubble, Please Break” is okay with me.

21
Aug
20

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra “Town Hall Concert Plus”

I’m not sure where I picked up this record—I’m guessing they pressed a million of them and you can find it in a thrift store—and if you do, buy it. It sounds great—even this copy, that looks like a truck drove over it, is very fine. This is a live Louis Armstrong record from 1957, that doesn’t really sound live—I mean that in a good way—a lot of live records strike me as a kind of compromise—in that you’re not there seeing and hearing the performance live—and the sound isn’t as good as a studio record. I’m just not a fan of the “live record”—with a few notable and major exceptions. It’s funny, I was just out walking and a guy rode past me on a bicycle, playing music so loud I could make it out, and it was: “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends!” Ha, that’s the part I heard (I suppose the guy could have had, like, a loop of that playing, the weirdo.) That’s an Emerson, Lake & Palmer record, which I believe is a triple album, with songs that are way, way too long. I make fun of that band, a lot, but I did see them live once, in Cleveland, late Seventies, I think—and they were pretty great. It’s not every day you get to see a guy act like he’s having sex with a Hammond B3 organ.

That was a diversion, but anyway, as good as some of these live rock acts were in the Seventies, I’m sure it would have really been unforgettable seeing Louis Armstrong, at any point in his career. You might not directly hear it, but all popular and rock music owes everything to him. All good songs on this record, and the orchestra—all excellent. From the credits, it seems to be a mishmash of live performances—but it comes across a pretty uniform. Maybe I should read the extensive liner notes. Half of the text is a quoted introduction by Fred Robbins, when he introduced Louis Armstrong and orchestra at a Town Hall show in 1947, NYC. It’s a pretty inspired statement—part of what he said is similar to what I just said, above! So, six of the songs are recordings from that concert, and the rest are various other numbers—they seem to be well selected. His fine rendition of “Pennies from Heaven,” that starts out the second side, it occurred to me, is so great, you could drop it into any movie, or any situation, at any point, and it would both change everything and make it somehow better. And that includes my afternoon, today.

15
Aug
20

Charley Collins “Charley Collins & Friends”

“What can you say about Charley Collins?” That’s what it says on the back of this 1974 LP on the Royal American label. It goes on to say he came to Nashville in 1967, and lists the people he played with, some big names in country music. The black and white cover has that flash-photo crime look, kind of harsh. I presume it’s Charley Collins—he’s wearing a suit and tie and is sitting on an iron bench, painted white—taken outdoors at night. He looks like he might be your pastor, or high school principal. I put it on, not expecting much, because I’m not a fan of bluegrass music, sorry to say—but by the second song, this record has won me over. Even though it’s jaunty and twangy, as bluegrass music is, it immediately gets to me—I guess there’s just a realness to it, and a soul, that I can hear right through my speakers. I guess what’s not so important is the kind of music you like, or your preconceived “standards”—what really matters is the music itself, and you might find yourself in love with any music, even that which you don’t understand.

I especially like the songs with singing, which is Charley, along with J.T. Grey, and “Oswald.” There are credits on the back, along with eight small photos of the musicians on this record, in the studio. As far as I can tell, they’re all first-rate. I notice there is a signature, in black pen, “Oswald”—under the photo of Pete “Oswald” Kirby. It’s signed, nice! So I looked this guy up—he was also known as “Bashful Brother Oswald” (born, Beecher Ray Kirby), a musician from Tennessee who popularized the use of resonator guitar and Dobro. He played with Roy Acuff (as did Charley Collins) and was a session musician. I got that from the, you know, internet. He did record a couple of solo records, apparently, so I’ll keep an eye out for them, as well as more by Charley Collins. I mean, I have no idea where I got this one, even. It’s like someone breaks into my apartment at night and puts them in with the other records, which, I suppose, is better than the other way around.




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