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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

The Index Masters

Wall of Voodoo

The Index Masters

I’m not typically one for nostalgia, and I’m particularly unsympathetic to 80s musical nostalgia.  Folks, the 80s were not a good time for music.  Vacuum tubes gave way to transistors and spawned a million horrible sounding guitars.  Cheap commodity synths made it possible for every kid who ever took a piano class to be a rock star.  (Keytar, anyone?)  The Michael Jacksons of the world turned the Motown sound into watered-down bubblegum pop.  Aside from east bay punk and harDCore, there’s not much music from the 1980s that interests me much.  I don’t want to relive the Debbie Gibson and Tiffany era, thank you.

But then, one night in the early 1990s, watching late night television, I received a broadcast from 1982:

Undeniably 1980s.  Crazy analog drum machines.  Guys in dark suits playing keyboards.  Crappy transistor-filtered guitar.  But somehow blended with spaghetti western themes and narratives and turned into something else altogether.  So I checked out The Index Masters, which included the original 1980 Wall of Voodoo EP and a bunch of previously unreleased live material.  A totally deadpanned version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”.  Covers of the theme songs from “Hang ‘Em High” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”.  The industry shrugged and called it New Wave, which was early 80s short-hand for “What the hell is this supposed to be?”

The Talking Heads they are not.  If Wikipedia can be believed, Wall of Voodoo was born from Acme Soundtracks, an attempt by Stan Ridgeway to make money writing film music.  A failed attempt at writing film music.  It’s hard to imagine what sort of films Wall of Voodoo would have fit into.  “Cowboys vs. Robots: The Musical” maybe?  There’s a genre there still waiting to be exploited.  (Or, crap, maybe Will Smith already did that.)  I don’t know why it works.  It’s like Wall of Voodoo tried to be kitsch, but they were just too weird to succeed at it, so they ended up something else.  Something spooky and good.

Now, by the force of circumstance
And by the belt that holds up my pants
I’m held responsible
For this idea that never had a chance

Old-Time Duets

Old Time Duets
Anya Hinkle and Jackson Cunningham
Old-Time Duets
I can’t claim anything like impartiality in reviewing this album. Jackson and Anya are friends of mine; Jackson has filled in with my band more than a few times. So if I say it’s a good album, you’ll have no reason to believe me. As it happens, it is a good album, but you’ll have to hear it for yourself to know I’m not lying.

Jackson and Anya had been doing the duet singing thing for a little while before they got picked up by the folks from the Crooked Road, Southwest Virginia’s juggernaut of cultural tourism. Carter Fold, the Floyd Country Store, Olen Gardner’s workshop, and a bucketload of string bands intended to showcase the authentic sound of the Virginia Appalachian mountains. This caused at least some anguish for Jackson: the thing is, he’s not from the Appalachians. He’s from Portland, Oregon. Like me, he cut his teeth as a punk musician, and has the tattoos and the piercing scars to prove it. For him, old-time and bluegrass music was a redemption, not a birthright. So it made him uneasy to be showcased as an example of the sound of the mountains.

I can sympathize with that. I have no idea how often I’ve been photographed, recorded, or videotaped by tourists in pursuit of some glimpse of a “folk culture” that largely doesn’t exist. Once money gets involved, it becomes more about entertainment than preservation. The Crooked Road is a fine example of it. When money came into the Floyd Country Store, it got bright lights, a professional sound system, and retail galore: brand new barrels of candy, a restored antique soda fountain, and a Carhart shop so the cultural tourists can buy authentic country overalls. None of that is necessarily a bad thing, but it is a manufactured thing. When you bring in the antique soda fountain with state grant money, you’re restoring the place to something it never was, but to what the cultural tourists want and expect it to be. And the irony is that it keeps things alive, but changed. The store can pay the bands now, which it never did before. The music hasn’t changed significantly since the money showed up. Our CD sales are up. How can you really complain? But I share Jackson’s discomfort. I’m an Dutch-Irish descended, California-born, Pennsylvania-raised punk turned old-time musician. I don’t make any claims to the contrary, but I’m sure it’s not what the throngs of tourists are thinking when they photograph me on stage. They think they’re getting Appalachian culture. And, in a sense, they are.

But about the CD: when it’s good, it’s very, very good. The duet singing on the slower songs is sublime. “Wild Bill Jones” will never again be the same tune for me. The bluegrass tunes impress me much less. Bluegrass is, by definition, kind of busy, and the vocal harmonies do best with more space around them. So of the 14 tracks on the CD, there are about four that I listen to, and usually skip the rest. But those few tracks are worth the price of admission. When you hear Anya and Jackson do “Moonshiner” a cappella, you won’t worry about where they’re from or whether the sound is authentic enough. You’ll be absorbed by great singing and a great melody, and that’s as much as any music lover can ask.

Foc’sle Songs and Shanties

Foc'sle Singers
Paul Clayton and the Foc’sle Singers
Foc’sle Songs and Shanties
At Les Bordées de Cancale in October, I got my first real taste of shanty singing, thanks mostly to the lads from Jenkin’s Ear. It was a great weekend of cider, singing, and stories. With my trusty field recorder, I collected a number of tunes to learn and perform at a gig later this year.
I’ve also started doing my homework and sifting through old records stored in the archive at the Virginia Tech library. It’s not a huge collection of material, but a few records, mostly put out by Smithsonian Folkways during the 1950s. Some of it is, to be honest, wretched stuff. It’s not hard to understand why so many of the old-timers have complained about the folk revival over the years. Some of the records of “shanty singing” that I’ve pulled from the library are actually records of revivalists finding shanties, and then performing them Kingston-Trio-style on acoustic guitar and/or banjo, with rhythms nothing like the original work songs. It sucks the life out of the very thing that makes the shanties great, which is big beats and unison singing. The folk-trio revival versions have about as much authenticity as minstrels in blackface singing slave songs with a rousing chorus of “doo-dah, doo-dah”. It’s not so much performing the source material as robbing it for fun and profit.

Paul Clayton and the Foc’sle Singers straddle the line uncomfortably. For some of the songs, they made the bewildering decision to include banjo accompaniment. What the hell? Why did the revivalists have to put banjo on absolutely everything? (Example: the Rainbow Quest videos, in which Pete Seeger can’t resist playing his banjo on f*cking everything, whether it makes any sense or not.) Banjo on eighteenth century sea songs? Check! Never mind that the banjo wasn’t actually invented yet when the damn things were written — it’s FOLK MUSIC! But there are some gems on the album, and those gems tend to be the a cappella tunes with minimal harmonies, like the outstanding rendition of “Haul Away Joe”. There are also a few diamonds in the rough, those tunes that actually have good material buried beneath the rather silly renditions.

I sound like a curmudgeon, and I probably am. Certainly I don’t have the standing to be much of a purist on anything, much less sea shanties. I’ve never been anything but a landlubber and a hack. But I do know what rings true for me and what sounds like hollow facsimile, and most of this sounds like facsimile trying to pass as authenticity. No doubt the same can be said about most of the music that I make, but nobody is offering me a Smithsonian Folkways grant to do it 🙂 It may be that some of this material would have vanished if the revivalists hadn’t preserved it under straight teeth and cardigan sweaters. Whether it’s better off dead or shrink-wrapped and packaged, I don’t claim to know.

Mr. Bungle

Mr. Bungle
Mr. Bungle
Mr. Bungle
I remember the first time my brother and I listened to the Mr. Bungle CD together. He started dancing around the room like a pornographic zombie clown. (You’d have to see the dance to realize just how apt that description really is.) It’s also the best description that I can offer of Mr. Bungle’s music: it is, without doubt, pornographic zombie clown music. I don’t think that Mike Patton would really disagree with the characterization. (See also: the cover art and the enthusiastically-banned video for “Travolta“, a… um, tribute… to John Travolta.) Is it art? Is it a freak show? Yes!

Caution: Not even remotely safe for work:

At least, not unless you work as a barker at an evil carnival.

It’s hard to pin down just what’s so great about Mr. Bungle, and that’s probably exactly what makes it so great. Unlike Faith No More, Patton’s slightly-more-straightforward metal project, Mr. Bungle hardly ever maintains the same groove for more than eight measures at a time. Hell, they hardly maintain the same genre for more than eight measures at a time. A few bars of ska, a few bars of circus music, a few bars of thrash metal — it’s like a schizophrenic kid with ADD left his iPod on “shuffle”. I guess we can expect no less from an album produced by John Zorn. And yet it’s coherent — the album, the artwork, the gimp masks — they all hang together and make my brother dance like a pornographic zombie clown. In my world, that’s a good thing.

Rebuild the Wall

Rebuild the Wall
Luther Wright and the Wrongs
Rebuild the Wall
Parody is an odd musical world to inhabit. Weird Al has made a career out of it. The classic Dr. Demento Radio Hour coasted on it for years. Hayseed Dixie make a living doing bluegrass covers of AC/DC songs; Dread Zeppelin had a good go of it doing reggae covers of Led Zeppelin songs with the added panache of an Elvis impersonator on lead vocals. It’s an odd space because you really can’t ever transcend the source of the parody. You’re always defined in the shadow of the original, and you have to have fun with that. You have to mock and pay tribute at the same time, which is a difficult line to walk.
Hayseed DixieLuther Wright and the Wrongs don’t so much much walk that line as teeter drunkenly down it. Rebuild the Wall is a start-to-finish cover of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, done in a bluegrass/country style. Like Hayseed Dixie, they’ve taken a simple gag and stretched it out beyond all reason and sense. If nothing else, you have to admire the attention to detail. Not only have they covered every song on the original album, but they’ve faithfully spliced in appropriate sound effects to retell the story in a country-western vein. Buzz bombs have been replaced by galloping hooves; distressed moans have become distressed moos.

Does it hang together? Yes — Rebuild the Wall is relentlessly coherent. Does it have listening longevity? Not really. It’s a fine joke, but once you’ve got the punchline, there’s not much to bring you back for more. Because, like other parodies, it just can’t transcend the source material, and ultimately it can’t be more than a footnote — which may be all it was intended to be in the first place.