Music Guest Edit: Ken Stringfellow – 2001

By Ken Stringfellow, December 2001

Co-founder of one of the biggest indie pop bands of the 90s – The Posies, Ken Stringfellow then joined Big Star with whom he has toured on and off ever since. Ken has also worked with a number of artists including REM (he appears on thier latest album Reveal) as well as producing. His latest solo project, Touched , is a collection of surprisingly fresh acoustic pop. To celebrate its release, asked to write about some of his favourite albums. The result was a certainly diverse.

Beach Boys, Sunflower / Surf’s Up
Were someone to randomly play tracks from these two early 1970s Beach Boys LPs, paired together and re-released last year, and not identify the performers, you might be hard pressed to identify even the decade of origin. The soundtrack of the shattered psyches of not just Brian Wilson but the ragtag dysfunctional family that still depended on him for left-field bursts of Stravinski-meets-Gershwin to offset their more pedestrian rock n’ roll-leanings, Sunflower / Surf’s Up showcases the beautiful results of being lost, unsure, hopeless–i.e., truly inspired. These songs are candles lit to guide the members–original cast members Mike Love, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, Brian, and newer addition Bruce ‘I Write the Songs’ Johnston–out of a tangible darkness that was (drugs, ego explosions/implosions) and wasn’t (end of artificial world innocence that had been in place since WWII, as evidenced by race riots, unwinnable wars in 3rd world hotspots, etc etc) their fault. Highlights include: “Deirdre”–wonderful turn-of-the-70s pop music; “Tears in the Morning”–complex/sublime blend of the Mamas & the Papas, the White Album, soul music, mental illness, etc.; “Forever”–vintage mid-period Beach Boys, evidence of a higher authority intervening in their creative processes; “Feel Flows” and “Til I Die”–modern hymns, albeit with truly indescribable lyrics. And I defy any of our contemporary quasi-eccentrics to assemble anything as disturbing/ likeable as “Take A Load of Your Feet”. And yes, you can skip over ‘Student Demonstration Time’.

Big Pun, Endangered Species
Following the grand tradition of hip-hop icons being more prolific from inside coffins than outside of them, Big Pun(isher), who died early last year, released Endangered Species, his most brilliant album, this year. With lyrics that surprisingly don’t attempt to set the record for “motherfuckers”-per-minute (one could almost imagine the clean version of this disc as being listenable-though I still despise cleaned-up albums as a matter of principle and taste). Hearteningly organic production that replaces the cheap midi-file sounds that typify the genre with reverby guitar samples, distorted analog delay echoes, piano, etc., this record is made outstanding by the wise keeping of the humanity of the artist on full display. You don’t get the sense, even at the album’s most ghetto-glorifying moments, that this man had even the remotest interest in becoming a thug. There is little boasting here outside of accolades for his formidable mic skills–Big Pun was a musician’s musician, operating in a world that suffers from the same style-over-substance preferences that all musical genres strive to combat from the underground up. He was one of “us”. Even the chore of providing the required sex jam (“Pina Colada”) is mostly shouldered by guests the Ruff Ryders. OK, there’s plenty of other moments that seek to glorify Pun’s, uh, lovemaking skills – see “Still Not A Player” – but the rhyming is so smooth that the subject matter doesn’t bash you over the, erm, head. Check out the delivery on the following couplets in verse 2: “We go back like D.A.’s and wearin’ PJ’s, now we reach the peakage, runnin’ trains for three days”. There are dozens of moments that made me stop and rewind and replay. Highlights include the organic live-instrument groove, chilling realism of “Mamma” and the masterful reworking (with full participation of the artist) of Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca”.

Francoiz Breut, Vingt a Trente Mille Jours
Surprise! Not all French people are space aliens! Despite the misleading p.r. provided by Daft Punk, Air, et al, there are Gallic folks making beautiful, innovative music with the following antique ingredients: guitars, basses, drums, and vocal mics not run thru vocoders/Antares pitch correctors. Tahiti 80 comes to mind as the agreeable bridge between the sci-fi camp named above (and I like both of those artists) and the organic music farmers-that camp ably represented by Ms. Breut on this haunting and lovely album. It has oft been said that rock was never the forte of the French, and thank Dieu. “Jours” is comprised by a high percentage of string-section augmented waltzes, dallying acoustic guitar & vibes explorations, snare drums played with brushes and the snares turned off, and so on. And, imagine, reverb that’s not a ProTools plug in, but real, murky, plate reverb (“La Chanson D’Helene” ‘s intro, e.g.). The albums softest moments-“Helene”, “Si Tu Diasas”, “L’Origine du Monde”-are the highlights, but there are also more bracing Dick Dale-gypsy guitar pieces that also satisfy-but they are delivered in a captivating, slow-build fashion.

Vashti Bunyan, Just Another Diamond Day
Beautiful turn-of-the-70s UK folk re-released last year. As soft as a beagle’s ear, these songs allude to an actual journey Ms. Bunyan took in a horse-drawn buggy from London to the Outer Hebrides (I guess the horses were pretty good swimmers), and the satisfying country life she found there, having abandoned the city after surviving an unrewarding attempt by Andrew Loog Oldham to turn her into a pop star. An album where the subject matter includes whittling and the dulcichord player gets star billing with the guitarist and pianist–in other words, an album needed more than ever in these discordant times. Producer Joe Boyd (Nick Drake & REM are two of his better known clients) smartly kept things unorchestrated, and thus instruments make dramatic appearances-like the organ in “Rose Hip November”‘s second verse. Her voice is the voice of one used to singing to themselves, a sweet murmur of absolute purity (check the bonus track, the demo of “Iris’ Song” for a prime example). Ms. Bunyan would only know a rasp as something a cooper uses to make barrels. An album with the sweetness of a child (“Lily Pond” is set to the melody of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”), but augmented with deep maturity and wisdom.

Johnny Cash, Solitary Man
The Americana icon teams up again with producer Rick Rubin for Solitary Man, covering a variety of familiar tunes by Tom Petty, Neil Diamond, U2, & Nick Cave, plus singing a few of his own compositions, some country obscurities and, inexplicably, a Will Oldham tune. Very rarely is he accompanied by much more than an acoustic or two, and Mr. Rubin utilizes the trademark of many of his productions, from the Chili Peppers to Danzig: vocals so dry and up front that the singer seems to be in the room with you. Like many good recordings, there are few cues to tie the music to any particular period. As much as the listener will be tickled by the novelty of hearing Mr. Cash’s distinctive wobbly vocals give “One” by U2 etc. a workout, I think the most impressive tracks are the ones that I hadn’t heard on top 40 radio by the original artists-Cash’s “I’m Leavin’ Now” & “Before My Time” and Egbert Williams’ (no, I don’t know who that is) “Nobody”, which has a one-liner that trumps Eminem & co. in it’s cleverness and unexpected delivery. Note to all you punks who think you can sing: these are all first take vocals.

Chamber Strings, Month of Sundays
A Chicago-area quintet led by singer/guitarist/ songwriter/human scarecrow Kevin Junior, the ‘Strings blend many classic American sounds: gospel, soul, country, 60s/70s popular music etc. In addition to the versatility of the players, the tracks on Month of Sundays are augmented by horns and strings throughout. The production is by the should-be-legendary Thom Monahan of the Pernice Brothers, and he pursues a lush, reverb-y, AM radio ballad atmosphere. “It’s No Wonder” is one of those compositions that sounds like someone must have already written and entered it into the canon at some point in history, but no one had until Mr. Junior corrected the cosmic oversight. Other highlights: the glorious ‘The Fool Sings Without Any Song’, for fans of Todd Rundgren/Motown/Gary Puckett; the “if Alex Chilton found Jesus” mood of “Our Dead Friends”; the instrumental “Beautiful You”‘s thick Motown ballad vibe.

Dakota Suite, Morning Lake Forever
More proof that rock is dead, but instead of being supplanted with that horrible techno crap that European taxi drivers seem to enjoy so much, the revolution has arrived in the form of music that seeks to soothe and hypnotize with gentle cellos, pianos, and other elements that don’t need to be plugged into a socket. Not unlike another fave of mine, the Chicago chamber ensemble Rachel’s, Yorkshire’s Dakota Suite let the melodies and moods speak for themselves, and seek memes outside of the rock lexicon to convey them. A significant portion of the Morning Lake Forever is instrumental (highlights: “Turk 1” and “About When We Met”). “Chapel Man”, the album’s opener, parallels Mojave 3 in its un-british-ness, indeed, it sounds not unlike a No Depression-leaning Codeine. The songs average 5 minutes-plus here, and they do not wear out their welcome by doing so. As a result, there are only seven tracks here, so I nominate each one for highlight status.

Buddy Greco, Talkin’ Verve
While not the best collection of Buddy’s work that I own (these would be CDRs of tracks culled from his 60-plus albums), it is the best available on at time of writing, and it’s certainly not a bad place to begin. The “Talkin’ Verve” series is a self-conscious effort by Universal’s recent acquisition to dust off the stars of the catalogue and put shiny new outfits on them to appeal to the “kids”. As if geniuses like Mr. Greco, Roland Kirk, Charlie Parker etc. need polishing. If anything, contact with these giants makes the modern dreck in our midst tarnish almost instantaneously. To Verve’s discredit, it appears that the producers of this series assume that anyone under the age of fifty can only appreciate the music of the 1950s as a source of kitschy humor – that people puruse the record racks for things like Robert Mitchum’s Calypso Is Like So album in order to trump the hipster who showed off his Adam West solo single at the party last weekend . Other than that, music in young folks’ perception apparently did not exist before Madchester and that “sixties music” means the stuff made by the unibrowed characters in Oasis. However, ignore all that. Buddy is a vocalist of such talent he can rise above any unfortunate repackaging attempts. First spotlighted as a vocalist for Benny Goodman’s band, Mr. Greco developed a swaggering, finger snapping style that is definitely NOT inimitable-Bobby Darin was biting Buddy’s rhymes big time when he recorded his massive 1959 hit version of “Mack the Knife”. Much of the time he mixes singing and speaking in the same line, for a kind of beatnik effect, proto-rap for the bachelor pad set. Listen to “It’s All Right With Me” or “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” to hear Buddy doing Buddy. Although Verve tends to focus on Buddy’s croonier moments (because that’s what singers did back then, right Dad?), there are plenty of examples of the Greco specialty. Other highlights: “Will You Still Be Mine?”, ‘Too Close For Comfort’, and a masterful take on “They Can’t Take That Away With Me”, which Buddy plays live to this day-and if you get a chance to check the 70-something Mr. Greco live, you must-did I mention he’s also a virtuoso pianist? Also, his new record is being released this fall by the Spanish indie label Houston Party – he’s still the man.

James Gang, Yer Album
1969 debut album by Cleveland, Ohio stoners fronted by future Eagles member Joe Walsh. At the time, this was the shape of things to come: long, funky jams played by white dudes without all the fruity stuff that the Beatles were putting on their records – choirs and oboes and crap like that. A back-to-basics philosophy that either came from a fusion of blues and rock roots, seeking the primal power of both without commercialistic sweetening, or from the fact that people who smoked 320 lbs. of pot on an hourly basis most likely didn’t have the energy to do arduous tasks like hire arrangers, end their songs, etc. Now, despite the fact that they are probably known more for their balls-out side, as represented here by ‘Funk #48’ and the epic 11-minute album closer “Stop”, (as well as a couple of stomping cover versions: one of Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird” that clocks in at nine minutes plus and a rave up of the Yardbirds “Lost Woman” of similar length) the ‘Gang has its purty side as well-the wonderful quasi-deep ‘Collage’ and the organ-centric “Take A Look Around”. Although they were well known in their day-Pete Townshend loved the band and had them open for the Who, plus they were headliners of numerous festivals and minted a classic rock radio staple in ‘Funk #49’ (from their second album, “Rides Again”)-they are highly obscure to most of the under-40 set. So, here is a great example of the music of yesteryear, the dawn of the post-Woodstock era.

Damien Jurado, Ghost of David
Latest release by the brilliant Seattle songwriter. Even though I produced his previous effort, 1999’s Rehearsals For Departure, I think Ghost of David, recorded at home, rivals it easily. And Rehearsals is a masterpiece of folky storytelling-so imagine how good this one is! Confessional, not-quite-folk-not-quite-country Americans are as common as the dirt they portend to have under their fingernails, but what sets Damien apart is his talent for weaving captivating stories about characters that you feel like you know quite well after the three minutes you spend with them. And what you know about them will generally make you want to either run away or pat their shoulders with pity, depending on your constitution. Even when he’s singing about subject matter that’s vaguely hopeful, Damien sounds nearly suicidal. His voice has a thick, muffled quality that just can’t sound ebullient under any light. Most of the arrangements are spartan-guitar and voice, with minimal augmentation-in “Medication” a simple 9th-chord organ note drifts in and out, and at about the third minute a xylophone starts arpeggiating between lines; in “Walk With Me” the only components are a lonely piano, about two lines of singing in the middle somewhere, and a submerged stolen answering machine tape, quietly suggesting a story in an oblique manner. “Parking Lot” is sung by one Roseanne Thomas, and is one of the most stunningly gorgeous vocals by someone you’ve never heard of that you will ever hear. Other highlights: “December”, which features Damien backed by guitar, mellotron, and some weird, wistful whistling sound that escaped from a Cocteau Twins record; and the album’s closer, “Ghost in the Snow” a melancholy instrumental, that ends heartbreakingly with a phone ringing, and never answered.