The Red Krayola – The Red Krayola Drag City DC52CD (1994)
The Red Krayola re-formed in the mid-1990s. Mayo Thompson was joined by a host of Chicago musicians, who were associated with groups like Gastr del Sol and Tortoise. The first album by this particular version of the band, the eponymous The Red Krayola, turns out to be one of the most approachable albums of the band’s more than 50 year existence. It draws from the “post-rock” and indie/college rock trends of the day without ever really being beholden to them. The songs are short, but they are mostly real “songs” in the conventional sense — not always a given for this band.
This is certainly strange, left-field rock, but it might be the most listenable album with the band’s name on it. That is due not just to the songwriting but also to the presence of overtly “rock” style drumming (by John McEntire) and plenty of guitar solos that would fit — only slightly awkwardly — on an alt/indie/grunge rock recording of the day. This still maintains the warped humor the band has long been known for. Take “I Knew It.” The lyrics consist of the statement “I knew it” repeated over and over and over and over again. The vocals seem electronically manipulated to eventually speed up and overlap — a bit like Steve Reich‘s epochal “Come Out.” It is a fantastic combination of obsessive, ominous compulsive chanting and I-told-you-so snarkiness.
I was rooting for “Raspierre” — a song about Maximilien Robespierre (“The Incorruptable”), one of the Jacobin leaders of the French Revolution — which hearkens back to the prior decade’s Art & Language collaborations like Kangaroo? that used non-sequitur left-wing political sloganeering over music. But it is more in line with Red Krayola’s early 1980s material, and would have been better replaced with “T (I, II)” from the following year’s tepid EP Amor and Language. The next few songs “(“Stand-Up” and “Art-Dog”) are also among the weakest on the album. These are, however, minor points overall.
If The Red Krayola resembles any of the band’s other recordings, it would have to be some of the punk/post-punk stuff from the late 1970s and early ’80s, like the EP Micro-Chips & Fish and the soundtrack single “Born in Flames.” Which is to say that this has more tangible rock drive than many of their other recordings, which are far more abstract and conceptual. Yet The Red Krayola is steeped in the sort of music that indie-rock and so-called post-rock groups were making contemporaneously. So it has its own texture and feel. This is one of my go-to Red Krayola albums, up there in the top tier somewhere.
Cyndi Lauper – She’s So Unusual Portrait BFR 38930 (1983)
Occasionally, mainstream pop/rock albums succeed. The odds are against them, but Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual beats the odds to succeed. This is really a great summary of a lot of things happening in pop and rock music at the beginning of the 1980s. There are, of course, the huge hits “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Time After Time.” But most of side one of the LP is great. There is a cover of Prince‘s “When You Were Mine” that is filler. Yet if you must have filler, why not a good Prince song? The opener “Money Changes Everything” is one of the album’s best, with somewhat of a Springsteen flavor and featuring a melodica solo in the style of The The. Side two is even more eclectic. “All Through the Night” was a minor hit (also somewhat in the style of The The). It is followed by a second-wave ska number “Witness,” then a new wave rocker similar to “She Bop” from side one. There is a skit, “He’s So Unusual,” that kind of references Betty Boop. The album wraps up with “Yeah Yeah,” a zany rock song with synth horns and punchy keyboards, done in the style of Oingo Boingo and carrying over the Betty Boop vocal affectations from the skit. So, everything here has clear precedents and influences, worn on their sleeve. She’s So Unusual works partly because Lauper is actually a great singer, with a heavy New York accent but also ample range. The other secret to the album’s success is how convincingly each of the styles is reproduced. There isn’t a misstep to be found anywhere. Even decades later this album is a blast and hasn’t hardly aged. This album was a huge commercial success, as was the follow-up True Colors, though Lauper was less of a commercial force in later years. Yet she evolved. Just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, she appeared on a John Lennon tribute show “Come Together: A Night for John Lennon’s Words and Music” performing “Strawberry Fields Forever” in Central Park. It was probably the most impressive performance on the program, and a good example of how Lauper stayed relevant beyond being just a camp icon.
The Red Crayola – Malefactor, Ade Glass GLALP 035 (1989)
Malefactor, Ade is a bit of an odd album even in the catalog of a band that was strange from the very beginning. On the one hand, parts of this bear resemblances to the “performance art” music of Laurie Anderson, the open-minded ambitions of the so-called “Rock in Opposition” bands, and there are still remnants of the funky no-wave punk that The Red Crayola had pursued (often in collaboration with the art collective Art & Language) over the prior decade, now more minimalist in delivery. But on the other hand, this is music that is built up from surprisingly non-musical elements. Often these songs are just a bunch of bloops, bleeps and banging, with sing-speak vocals on top, a single guitar and some drums or cheap synthesizer keyboards that point towards melody, or the semblance of melody. The lyrics draw on non-sequitur humor. This points towards an effort to place the musical and the non-musical on equal footing — a nod towards a universalist political philosophy. These sorts of elements also point toward the music made by the re-formed group (back under the spelling Red Krayola) in the United States in the mid-1990s, which was more surrealist and linked to the “post-rock” scene. There are some “jazzier” instrumental bits too. So, this should be viewed as a transitional album. This is one more for the converted than newcomers, but it is a solid little album and one that is much better than its reputation suggests.
Contortions – Buy ZE Records ZEA 33-002 (1979)
James Chance‘s band The Contortions weren’t the only group melding funk, punk rock and free jazz at the end of the 1970s and early 80s — there was also Public Image Ltd., Defunkt, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Essential Logic, and others. But The Contortions offered one of the most succinct and brash statements, grounding their dissonant, atonal squawks and noise against heavy, grooving static funk rhythms. The key to this music is that rhythm ties together in a nominally pop music way avant-garde building blocks that normally are mutually exclusive of “pop” music as such. Granted, this is still eccentric stuff. But there is always a strong beat to carry each song. This “no-wave” music draws a distinction from earlier free-jazz-meets-rock hybrids from the likes of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band (at least prior to Doc at the Radar Station). James Chance plays alto saxophone Ornette Coleman style. He is actually quite good at it. He adopted a kind of Buster Poindexter persona (before Poindexter of course), with the attitude of a slick, arrogant proto-80s materialistic consumer, always in a suit. I may turn to James White & The Blacks‘ Sax Maniac (1982) more often, but Buy is still probably the most innovative and polished offering by this band (and all its related offshoots).
Cody ChesnuTT – Landing on a Hundred One Little Indian TPLP1171CD (2012)
After Cody ChesnuTT gained some modest success based on his lo-fi “bedroom” recordings on The Headphone Masterpiece, he succumbed to some of the vices of (semi) celebrity. It took almost a decade for this next recordings to appear, the EP Black Skin No Value, followed by Landing on a Hundred a full decade after his debut. His second full-length album is a hi-fi collection of studio-recorded retro soul tunes. The influences are obvious — Marvin Gaye, especially, but also Curtis Mayfield and others. The opener, “‘Till I Meet Thee,” for instance, sounds like a successful meeting of the light soul of Marvin Gaye and the pop reggae of Peter Tosh. Unfortunately, the songwriting flags a bit as the album wears on. There is some decedent stuff here in the first part of the album, but overall things are a bit middling.
Elvis – Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite RCA Victor R213736 (1973)
Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite is a landmark in Elvis’ career, even if on purely musical terms if falls a little short of other live recordings of the era. His manager Col. Tom Parker arranged the concert for broadcast via satellite, a historical first made possible by recent space-age technological advances, allowing a worldwide audience to watch the show live. Well, almost. The concert took place at the same time as Superbowl VII, meaning it did not air live in the United States. But that didn’t matter. Elvis performed regularly live all across the United States. The global broadcast, however, introduced him to Asia. The event is often cited as a key reason for Elvis’ enduring popularity in Japan — a sitting Japanese Prime Minister (Junichiro Koizumi) even visited his Graceland home decades later.
As for the music, the songs track the standard Elvis set list for the time period. The videotaped performance shows Elvis unnerved. He seems to be chugging along in some form of drug stupor. But which one? Nevermind. While he may have been a huge star, a show this big and unprecedented surely put even him under stress. He sings well, though not at his best. This is big, gaudy, bombastic stuff. So the songs that lean most heavily on the surging orchestra behind him tend to work to the greatest effect. This is another fine live offering from a time when Elvis still “had it.” It’s long, covers a lot of different types of songs, and walks right up to the line in terms of its kitsch factor. It’s a good album to listen to just about any time.
Due to the novelty of a live satellite broadcast, the possibility of technical difficulties was significant. So Elvis pre-recorded an entire show (later released as The Alternate Aloha), to be used during the broadcast timeslot if needed. It wasn’t needed though. Everything went as planned. There were, however, five songs recorded without an audience appended to the original TV broadcast omitted from this album (posthumously released on Mahalo From Elvis).
Johnny Cash – I Walk the Line Columbia S-30397 (1970)
As a somewhat forgotten soundtrack to a somewhat forgotten movie, I Walk the Line (not to be confused with Johnny Cash’s earlier album of the same name) is actually a fairly decent album that fits perfects into Cash’s aesthetic of the early 1970s. After big success in the late 1960s with a more “rock” sound courtesy of Carl Perkins on guitar, and getting a national television program in mid-1969, he turned back to a more “folk” sound. This sound was established with Hello, I’m Johnny Cash (1970). With Cash at the absolute peak of his popularity, choosing him to record the soundtrack to I Walk the Line made sense. The movie was kind of a bust, as director John Frankenheimer has said that the studio insisted on Gregory Peck for the lead but that Peck was cast against type and not the right choice.
As for the soundtrack itself, it opens with the magnificent “Flesh and Blood,” which would be Cash’s last #1 country hit single — the only time he ever came close to topping the pop singles charts was with “A Boy Named Sue” at #2 in 1969. The song is grounded in a gentle acoustic guitar part set against a very mellow walking electric guitar rhythm part, with a romantic lyric and sweet, almost saccharine, string accompaniment typical of what was regularly featured on his TV show. Next there is a new recording of his hit “I Walk the Line.” It’s a fine version, perhaps unnecessary, but it’s hard to argue with having another performance of one of the man’s best compositions. The rest of the album is made up of mostly spare acoustic numbers, a few being instrumental versions of songs also presented with vocals. “Hungry,” “‘Cause I Love You,” “The World’s Gonna Fall on You” and “Face of Despair” are just Cash with an acoustic guitar, reminiscent of the urban folk on Orange Blossom Special (1965) and looking toward the bulk of Man in Black (1971) but also re-establishing the basic format used on Cash’s American Recordings comeback in the early 1990s. But it concludes with the medley “Standing on the Promise / Amazing Grace” sung by The Carter Family. The closing song stands in contrast to everything else on the album (much like “Amen” on Orange Blossom Special), but it’s also quite endearing in its homespun, country church stylings. On balance, this album doesn’t deliver much in the way of songwriting, save for “Flesh and Blood.” Yet Cash’s performances are steady, assured and impassioned. If you like any of Cash’s material of the early 1970s, this is one to seek out at some point.
Johnny Cash – Blood, Sweat and Tears Columbia CS 8730 (1963)
Blood, Sweat & Tears is a prime example of the great possibilities and nagging limitations of Johnny Cash’s string of concept albums of the 1960s. First off, the album is a bit unwieldy and uneven. That would be an almost universal characteristic of these concept albums organized around a particular theme. Many of the songs, the opener “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer” especially, mix actual singing with what amount to skits. Cash is often doing theatrical interludes, which are woven throughout the song in a way that prevents skipping over them entirely on subsequent listens. So as much as his singing sounds great, it always seems like that enjoyment is broken up by a switch to narration and other theatrical radio-drama segments. It’s not that these transitions are poorly executed as much as the premise behind them gets a bit tedious quickly and doesn’t bear out repeated listening well, especially when it drags on a bit too long as with the more than eight-minute opener. Yet, on the plus side, the thematic premise of the album makes the whole something greater than just the sum of its parts. It would be hard to call any songs here classics of the Cash cannon on their own, but they fit together well. Lastly, it’s pretty apparent that this collection of work songs, railroad songs and folk standards was designed to appeal less to country fans than to listeners interested in the still-burgeoning urban folk movement, whose well-known names included Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, and others. It makes the enterprise seem a bit forced at times. So, honestly, Cash has done better concept albums, though this one is still decent.
Robert Wyatt – Cuckooland Hannibal HNCD 1468 (2003)
Maybe the comparison might seem strange, but Robert Wyatt’s Cuckooland is something of a latter-day counterpart to Van Morrison‘s Astral Weeks. The latter embodied the hope and optimism of the late 1960s. Cuckooland, on the other hand, embodies the sense of caution and pensiveness, and the limited opportunities for the same sort of agenda 35 years later. (The political agenda is [new] leftist, as is clear form the liner notes if nothing else). Wyatt’s album is like a series of vignettes that evoke particular times and places of the past, good and bad, in order to preserve them and carve out some sort of respite from the onslaught of forces trying to erase them — and the possibilities they represent. While there is a slight sense of resignation in this approach, Wyatt also brings each song vignette to life, as a kind of underground safehouse for those in the know. As such, most of this leans toward exaggerated theatricality. It is an appropriate way to make music like this, given that the forces that were at their peak in 1968 (when Astral Weeks was released) were at their nadir when Cuckooland was released.
I do find I have to be in just the right mood to hear this. It doesn’t garner a lot of repeat listens for me, because that particular mood just doesn’t come along often. But I love Wyatt’s solo piano rendition of “Raining in My Heart” under any circumstance — it is probably my most favorite recorded version of the song.
The Endtables – The Endtables [AKA Process of Elimination] Tuesday 40983/4 (1979)
Forgotten Louisville, Kentucky punk band. This was their only release during their existence. Deserves reevaluation. That singer might be the epitome of a disaffected punk. He could hardly sound more disengaged and uninterested he’s so far behind the beat. Yet the irony is if he really wasn’t paying attention he would probably end up on the beat at some point, by accident at least. Good guitar too.