Never Leave Me
The Stratfords Never Leave Me b/w Enaj 45 (O'Dell, 1964)
Ahhhh here is some brilliant haunted pop. Lots of reverb'd darkness, eerie vocals, and a laconic beat, the Stratfords' "Never Leave Me" was a minor hit in their native Baltimore but nowhere else. While the song is as good as any Brian Hyland number of the same sound, I think what it lacks to have gone national is a step up in production. Chances are that "improvement" would have slickened the song and ruined not only its slight edge but flattened the mood. For the band, no national exposure probably sucked, but for the music freak, it makes for a pretty great record. The flip is also a great noir instrumental. Even though this was a local single, it is not too difficult to find.
Work Resumed on the Tower
News from Babel Work Resumed on the Tower LP (Recommended, 1984)
The first Recommended record I stumbled upon was a pure impulse buy for me. When I was in my mid-teens, Tower Records - which was headquartered in West Sacramento - had a warehouse sale. A bunch of friends piled into my station wagon and off we went to look for records. Inside the warehouse there were hundreds of boxes of records, all with top edge spray painted a different color, each color signifying a certain price. Me, being the skinflint that I am, I went for the dollar box (color green) and, after an hour of digging, had a stack of twenty or so records. Because I can only remember two (which are still in my collection) I assume 18 of the 20 sucked. The two keepers were Skrewdriver's All Skrewed Up, certainly one of the best no-frills punk records ever made, and Chris Cutler & Fred Frith's Live in Prague & Washington. Both records were mysteries to me. "You didn't know Skrewdriver?" No, this was when 77 punk was being overshawed by American hardcore and before Skrewdriver become the face of the National Front. The record cover looked punk so I bought it.
I had no idea what a Chris Cutler was but I'd seen Fred Frith's on inner sleeve Ralph Records' ads in Residents albums. I was a big fan of the Residents, so anything associated with them was game for me. I had no idea what to expect of Live in Prague... and what I got was not only a nice surprise but one of those mind changing disks. Here was really noisy guitar improv, really noisy. There didn't seem to be any form or structure and being a captive of 1-2-3-4 punk rock (though an admirer of anything "weird") and not have heard free jazz, I didn't know where to place it. I had a SPK album (Leichenshrei) which was also really fucking noisy and some Throbbing Gristle. And while those records were close in volume, they also seemed to have a musical center. Cutler/Frith didn't, at least I couldn't hear it at the time. Good thing, as it made me realize that not only were there no emotional limits to music (something punk taught me) but there were also no creative limits. Soon after I formed a band (Satyagraha) composed of two drummers, guitar, bass, moog, and obeo. We played a few punk shows with Subhumans and Flipper, pissing off the hardcores but pleasing the Flipper freaks with a set that pretty much started out with "Okay ready? One two three four" and everyone pretty much playing whatever the fuck they wanted until the drummers needed a rest. I don't know if it was any "good" or not, but it sure was a hell of a lot of fun.
So since scoring the Cutler/Frith record, I kept my eyes open for more. Bought some Frith albums on Ralph and was disappointed. Too slick and no noise. Cutler, I couldn't fine and at the time I hadn't clued in on looking for stuff on certain labels, outside of a few punk imprints. Besides, Recommended titles weren't easy to find, even in a town with a store that had a great import section. However over the years, I picked up Recommended titles here and there. Also learned that Cutler was in Henry Cow and the Art Bears and, the few times I found records by those bands, I'd buy them. Then in the late 90s, in the days when a website took ten minutes to come up through dial up in your netscpe browser, I found the Recommended Records website, which had new copies of dozens of titles at discount prices (because vinyl was dead) postpaid from the UK. Even with the crippling UK/US exchange rate, I was paying no more than seven bucks a record with shipping included! Of course, I splurged. What else could I do? And I got some great stuff. But this News from Babel album I didn't get. This came a bit later.
The first time I listened to News from Babel, I thought: Great shit, sounds familiar. Of course, it does! Three fifths of the band are Henry Cow/Art Bears alum - Lindsay Cooper, Chris Culter, and Dagmar Krause are the familiar names (and Phil Minton as guest). Rather than rattle of the band's history, I'll just go on to the music, a great combo of art, rock, and experimentalism, something which pretty much describes Recommended.
Outstanding Contemporary Composers of Texas
Outstanding Contemporary Composers of Texas: A Sampler & Comprehensive Study 2LP
(International Contemporary Music Exchange, 1984)
Every now and again, you'll here some grumblie state that all the good records are gone. If they haven't been snatched up by roving collectors, they are priced to unaffordable on the interweb. Poppycock! The key to finding good records is to keep your mind open, your wallet willing, and your eyes askew. In other words: take chances, be willing to spend a few bucks (and by few I mean a few), and look for things beyond what you already know. Here's what I mean:
I walk into a local record store and start digging through vinyl. The place is somewhat legendary because of past finds and clients, but legendary means that it is pretty picked through. Still, good things appear time to time and the staff have their blind spots. So I see this double album in a plain sleeve, Outstanding Contemporary Composers of Texas. It is priced at seven bucks. Seven bucks? Not one dollar, but what they hell. I am sure only a thousand, maybe two were made and most of them are stuck in univeristy music libraries. Could be some good shit on it and, at the very least, I will now know what Texas composers were doing in the 1980s.
That last bit is important. People have come to expect that every record must be a winner that they are unwilling to look at the act of listening to music as one of discovery, of self education. So what if a record sucks, now you know that and why. Or maybe it sucks just a bit. Or maybe it doesn't suck but is a little off-putting because you aren't used to the sounds on it. Or maybe it fucking cracks open you skull and blows your fucking mind. In all cases, you are experiencing something first hand. Your life, your music is not being mediated by a third party (and that includes me).
So there are pretty extensive liner notes that come with these records, but I am not going to rehash them for you. Most of the text is background on the composers and what they were trying to accomplish with what piece. International Contemporary Music Exchange or ICME is a pretty nifty organization. Though the Seventies and Eighties they produces lots of album by composers who no major label would touch, as well as avant garde giants such as John Cage and Charles Ives.
Note that this collection is a sampler, so some of the songs are excerpts. Fine by me, the sounds are still good.
In one of their better decisions, Sacramento's city fathers went crazy with planting elm trees. Throughout Midtown Sacramento, there are plenty of 100+ year old elms, though because they often drop branches on cars and a few have been afflicted by Dutch elm disease, we lose some every year. My street is lined with elms. In the Summer, they provide a tent of leaves, cooling the neighborhood on freakishly hot days. In the Fall, when the leaves drop, their bare branches provide a mood that dovetails nicely with the season's cold and fog. And on Winter evenings, after it rains, the crows gather.
The video above was taken a couple days ago. I was walking home. When I turned the corner onto my street, I was met by a rush of noise: The crows had returned. As I walked closer to my house, the caws grew in intensity and in volume. Thousands of crows dotted the elm's branches and hundreds soared from tree to tree. The cacophony was always present, but the volume rose and fell in waves. If there was a conductor orchestrating the swells, it was nowhere to be seen. I went inside to grab my camera and even behind closed doors the din could be heard clearly. On the street, I filmed the one minute my camera allows and went back in doors. As soon as dark hit, the sound was gone, as were the birds.
A note on the video: The image is a pretty good representation of what the scene looks like, however the sound is not. The volume of the crows is much louder than what I've captured, often drowning out the passing cars. When the video starts up, you might first think that what you are hearing is background noise with caws atop. That is not so. Other than the sound of automobiles - which should be pretty obvious - everything else you hear are the birds.
God Will Take Care of You
The Harmonizing Four God Will Take Care of You LP (Up Front, 197?)
I've said it before, nothing beats a great gospel record. There are a few things that match it, but top it? No way. Here is a pretty damn fine album by the Harmonizing Four, a gospel quartet out of Richmond, Virginia. I've heard other records by the Four, but this odds & sods collection is my favorite. The recording is nice and raw, and, while the vocals are excellent, the music is a little ragged at times. Chances are that these recordings are outtakes, as Up Front was a pretty sleazy operation, often buying unreleased sessions from studios or producers and releasing the music with out the musician's permission or compensating them. Legally, they didn't issue bootlegs, but this is about as close as you can get without getting hauled into court. Because the label is so sketchy, recording dates, let along the release date of the record, are not known. For more info and sounds by the Harmonizing Four, check this out.
Lux Interior 1948 - 2009
The Cramps Dance of the Cannibals of Sex 7" (Famous Lux, n/d)
Lux Interior, singer of The Cramps, a true rock & roll legend, and former Sacramento resident, died this morning. I am not going to blab too much, because if you read this blog there is a 99% chance you know who Lux Interior is. Up to the very end, Lux was a great frontman, one of the best of all time. And with the Cramps, he released some wonderful records. For music freaks, perhaps most important is that Lux and his partner Ivy were avid record collectors and through their music and in interviews turned lots of people on to obscure rock & roll, weird lounge acts, and a whole mess of obscure sounds. I don't know how many record tips I picked up either directly or indirectly from paying attention to the Cramps, but it was a lot. I am confident in stating that many a music blog owes something to Lux and Ivy's vinyl archaeology. The thing is that Lux (and Ivy) were more than members of a band. They were/are total music freaks who happened to form a band, which turned out to be great. And as they got popular they never lost that sense of wonder than fans have. And, they seemed to live to turn people onto music. Lux was like the coolest music appreciation teacher who ever lived.
In rememberance, here is something off a bootleg 45. Here the Cramps do a fantastic version of Red Crayola's "Hurricane Fighter Plane." It is one of my favorite pieces of primitive rock & roll. It was recorded at Max's Kansas City in January 1977 with the original Cramps line-up of Lux, Ivy, Bryan, & Miriam.