For much of my life, I have not been self-determining even in terms of the music that I listened to, instead relying on friends and acquaintances to point me in this direction or that. Sometimes this worked, sometimes, not so much. I remember my friend BC knocking out a cassette of tunes for me by an artist named Dick Feller. Twangy country ballads. This would fall into the category of “not so much.” But then BC’s tastes always did run in that direction, with the Cash family and Asleep at the Wheel being the picks of his that I can not merely tolerate but also enjoy.
Among the very few musical artists that I ever discovered for myself through my own devices were Renaissance (in their second iteration with Annie Haslam on vocals) and Steeleye Span, and I’m proud to say that I think I pointed a couple of friends in their direction.
The whole time that I knew her, my sister did only one good thing for me: she brought stuff home from college. She brought books home and so as a sophomore in high school I was exposed to, and devoured, William Faulkner, Summerhill, P. G. Wodehouse. And she brought music home: in particular, Jimmie Sheeris and Orchestra Luna. Sheeris is dead now and Luna has been defunct a long time with one of its key members dead from AIDS. The two have little in common other than that they travel well beyond the mainstream of music, Spheeris into Jazzy drug-addled mysticism, Luna into a kind of retro-funk-Broadway-pop-classicism. Both were absolutely great in their own way, and I was overjoyed to be able to replace the vinyl records last year.
Left to my own devices, I realized at last that I really like that sort of stuff, the odd and off-beat, the unusual, the kind of music that still holds together melodically but carries a healthy dose of eccentricity in one way or another.
But, left to my own devices, I go for long periods of time, years, without discovering anything new. When I realized this a month or so back, I decided it was high time to change that and go looking for some New Tunes that would be all to my own taste.
I hate labels and this is a subject for another post, but I had a sense that it might produce some interesting results if I went to the music section and typed in the word steampunk. I was right. Oh, yes, I got a lot of junk right off the bat that I was able to dismiss outright: anything with the words “steam” or “cog” in the title, anything with the band members dressed up in souped-up Victoriana, the Dr. Steels and that ilk. There was a band called Abney Park that the Steampunk crowd seem to have crowned their official band. I listened to samples, and wasn’t impressed.
(Oh, I take that back: I did spring for one item with the word “steampunk” in the title: The Roots of Steampunk 1903 - 1929, and I ask you: forty cuts for $8.99, among which are songs like these: “Yes Sir, That's My Baby” (Ace Brigode & His 14 Virginians); “Minnie the Moocher” (Cab Calloway); “You're the Cream in My Coffee” (Colonial Club Orchestra, Scrappy Lambert); “Darktown Shuffle” (Seattle Harmony Kings); “Ain't Misbehavin'” (Eva Taylor); “Make Believe” (Ben Bernie, Scrappy Lambert); “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along” (Ben Selvin & His Orchestra, The Keller Sisters); “Blue Skies” (Harry Richman); “With a Song in My Heart” (Franlyn Baur); and “It Had to Be You” (Broadway Broadcasters) -- if labeling music like this “steampunk” will bring it to a new audience, I’m all in favor of that; meanwhile, there’s lots of great stuff in this collection that I didn’t have!)
Discounting the obvious crap and moving on down through the list, spending a lot of time and following links of things that were connected to other things that were connected to other things, gradually the mine started to produce some results, and -- with some bands and albums still ahead of me to try -- I came away with a handful of new “discoveries” that are all, to one degree or another, pleasing me very much, thank you.
Right at the top of my list was Rasputina. We are just beginning when I tell you that their music is nearly all performed on cello. Some banjo. Some drums. Melora Creager, the bandleader, songwriter, cover artiste, founder -- Man O Man, that woman is what we used to call a “character,” which makes her one of My People. Rasputina’s songs dart about like Victorian butterflies that have been imbued with an ancient familial curse. Imagine a string quartet that has gone slightly wrong, that’s missing an instrument or two, that’s covered in cobwebs, that’s reaching out to grab you by the sleeve. A warning seems to lie underneath the elaborate tapestrywork of the melody. Their latest album is Sister Kinderhook, and I wish I’d had it in my head during my last stay at 4 East. The song titles tell you something: “Calico Indians,” “Sweet Sister Temperance,” “Dark February,” et all. It’s not Easy Listening. It’s the kind of music that’s intended to alter your DNA, and I like that sort of thing very much indeed.
Next I went with another compilation, The Electro Swing Revolution, Volume 2. If you’ve seen the delightful French animated film The Triplets of Belleville (which was Really Unjustly stiffed for a Best Animated Film Oscar in 2003 in favor of the egregiously sickening Finding Nemo, in my opinion far and away Pixar’s worst movie), then you know exactly what kind of music is collected here. It’s the Jazz Age all over again, baby -- only this time it’s been plugged in, turned on, amped up, the Big Band era filtered through Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; with exciting, pleasing results. The names of the bands meant nothing to me, but one listen to the first cut (“Box of Secrets” by Zarif) was enough to make me push the “buy” button. I can’t put this album on and listen to it from beginning to end, because after a while it becomes too enervating, but taken in small doses, it’s like a straight shot of excitement to your cerebral cortex.
In the same vein, the French band Caravan Palace is remaking the 1930’s in the image of the Space Age. The very expressive cover of their latest album, Panic, which shows a giant retro robot atop a redesigned Empire State building being menaced by Flying Saucers, says it all. In a very real way, the band are jazz traditionalists, with some of the basic riffs of their music sounding just like they came off of a scratchy old 78 RPM record. But from there, it’s almost as if the music has been filtered through a bizarre, gigantic, Max Fliesherish cartoon Bop Culture Machine; you know the kind of machine I mean; the kind that belches and whirrs and beats like a heart and burps steam and grows a face, chugs on coffee, sticks its tongue out at you and then receives a shock so deep that it lights up so that you can see its bones clear through. That’s Caravan Palace. Again, it’s not Light Fluffy listening, but music to chew on. I guess all these albums have that in common.
Finally, and in a completely different vein, and I do mean vein, I came upon The Birthday Massacre. I really like these kids. They’ve chosen violet as their official color, and it suits them perfectly. This sort of thing doesn’t usually appeal to me; the music is L-O-U-D with a capital L, the guitars don’t do anything so much as create an almost physical wall against which the rest of the band can throw anything they want. And yet. . . and yet. . . there’s a really invigorating mix of sinister gothic punk themes (“You build it, we break it / You feel it, we fake it”) and, believe it or not, bright and light, almost cheery melody-driven pop (the keyboard player shapes most of their music), all brought into focus by lyricist and lead vocalist “Chibi” (the band uses nicknames, birth names unknown), who often manages to be vulnerable, menacing, evocative and seductive all at the same time.
Of all the albums I’ve discussed here, their 2007 effort Walking With Strangers has been getting the most play here at the all-new, all-different DuckHaus. Its driving loudness seems to help push me on. Its violet anti-social qualities ring true. Except for its eccentricity, its combining of genres, it’s not like anything else I’ve ever chosen for myself before. Perhaps this is part of what I need: New music for a new life.