I know it’s a couple years old, but I recently picked up Harvey “Doctor” Karp’s audio DVD The Happiest Baby on the Block. This debut is a concept album, of sorts, loosely relating to baby/womb sounds. The bonus film that comes on the DVD (oddly listed first on the menu) explains a little of the workings of Karp’s mind in the creation of this ambitious, yet flawed, album.
The set opens inventively with “Calm a Crying Baby,” using ambient whooshes as both the beat and the melody (what there is of it). Drawing from a minimalist tradition, the song suddenly drops in an industrial thumping that smooths out the 140 bpm of the whoosh effect. I’m not so well-versed in the genre, but it strikes me as a truly unique moment.
The novelty quickly wears off, however, as the Doctor uses the same tactics for the second track, “Soothe Your Baby,” which also lasts exactly 10 minutes and relies on the same techniques and repetitive structure as the first track. What initially sounded inventive to me is now suggesting a lightened version of Merzbow’s static from the upcoming album Boris. ‘m still intrigued, but I’m wishing Karp would develop his idea a bit.
The third track, “Prolong Sleep” takes things to an extreme. The whoosh slows down to the speed of an adult heartbeat and the industrial effects are less noticeable. This music seems to function best at a high volume, where it can fully envelop you. Karp still hasn’t changed things — and apparently the kids are responding to this like a Vivaldi fan at a Glass concert — but he makes an artistic statement by running the same loop for 40 minutes.
The aggressive presentation reminds me of Jeff Tweedy discussing live endings to “Misunderstood”: (and I paraphrase) if you repeat something a little, it loses all meaning, but if you continue to repeat it, it takes on a new meaning as you hear it differently. That’s what happens here; at 10 minutes, you’re bored, but by 30 you’re completely transfixed, both lulled and engaged.
So “Doctor” Karp might have created an album based on very little, but it doesn’t come across as a novelty so much as a philosophical aesthetic statement.
How this man hasn’t been given a ceremonial post in the American Government by now is beyond me. Oh wait. Either way, his entire body of work from the early-seventies seems as relevant now as ever. A songwriter of the first order, he seems to have been mistaken for a Disney-backed soundtracking artist by now. But when he was at his best, he was one of America’s most poignant lyricists. His quiet satires, songs of subtle protest and caricature, strike right to the heart of the American Dilemma as surely as when written.
For whatever reason, Good Old Boys has long been my favorite. A loose, ramshackled concept album about the quietly seething, and loudly drinking, American South, Newman quiets his rabid sense of irony with piano-plonked songs that sound right out of the Depression. The desperate late-night needs of “Guilty,” the dixieland breakout of “Kingfisher,” the scathing resentment of “Rednecks.” Newman’s raspy, storyteller-voice seems at times to brittle for such attacks, incapable of anything more than a quiet good-night, a last fairy tale before sleep. But he keeps on moving; anyone unfamiliar with the man’s work would be well-advised to give this one a whirl.
So I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the live incarnation of Clap Your Blog Say Hype–I didn’t know what they looked like, or what their stage presence would be–but I do know what I wanted. Given Alex Ounsworth’s caterwauling and the young-in-the-scene nature of the lyrics, I wanted the freakiest, skinniest little diva-queen indie rock had to offer. Donna Summer (the real one), minus the melanin, plus Prince, and an oversized suit. Genitalia optional.
Alas at my discovery that Ounsworth is just another twiggy, balding, and basically-shy indie nerd with little in the way of stage presence. He doesn’t even have the good sense to look all constipated when he reaches for those high notes. There’s no banter. The most diva-licious thing he does is waving at us crowd-folk with the back of his hand after the set–someone should tell him that comes off a little derisive. In fact, really only one person in the band looks happy to be there, and he’s the keyboard player, stuck all the way in the back, jumping around in his spot and singing along.
The songs sound fine, I suppose, and the guys are as tight as you’d expect, but there’s no attempt to stretch out or expand upon the songs we already know, and, for some reason, Ounsworth completely redacts the awesome pitched wail at the end of “The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth,” which is my favortite part. There are a clutch of songs unfamiliar to me–either very new or very old, no one’s saying–that mostly resemble, say, any indie-jangle-pop you can think of, except for one riotous disco number with a chorus that goes, “Satan, Satan, Satan, Satan, Satan SAYS DANCE!” which, as we all know, is one of few pure truths in our world.
So apparently the best way to get over the disappointment of seeing live a band that really only exists purely on the Internet is to catch some sexy polka-punk. And so on come Devotchka, a quartet from Denver (the lead singer speaks in some untraceable accent that may or may not be fake, or may or may not be Spanish), who I knew next to nothing about before this show. They cover all the bases of good old camp-kitsch, which normally goes sailing right over my head, but the tunes here are good enough to allow. And make no mistake, these people have chops to spare–everyone here plays at least two instruments, and exceedingly well. They run the gamut from straight violin-and-tuba led polka stylings, to something like a balalaika, to something like a disco-fried combination of those, plus. The lady with the tuba rolls out the funky disco bass on the unwieldy thing, just after a song where she gently humps her upright bass (just a little; just enough). The drummer, on more than one occassion, dumped his sticks and picked up a trumpet (you couldn’t hear him of course; either the sound-guy at the Seaport sucks, or he just wasn’t prepared for that). The guy on violin, after tearing through a speed-freak coda, picks up an accordion and pulls the same trick on that. The lead singer, at one point, plays both an oud and a theremin simulataneously. But even all those tricks can’t obscure the barnstorming, worldish tunes they pull off with this set-up, a glorious noise of conflated European-ness, complete with slow over-the-head handclaps and much waving of a wine-bottle. At one point, it encourages your hack here to attempt to start a hora with a few of his friends–to no avail, those jaded bastards. Highly recommended.
Surprisingly, the CD I’ve listened to this summer more than any other has been Squeeze’s Singles 45’s and Under. Nothing in particular made me get into it — it’s not like people go around today and say things like, “Man, wasn’t Squeeze awesome?” My dad had always had this tape in his car, and I listened to it years ago, and all I remembered from it was that every song sounded different, so I liked it. I suppose this is what made me return to it.
Singles 45’s and Under is basically a greatest hits-type compilation, but it’s very brief, only twelve songs. This is a very good thing for two reasons: 1) Squeeze didn’t force it so that their greatest hits album had to be 20 songs (few things are worse than a greatest hits album with tons of filler, which defeats the whole purpose), and 2) the record’s brevity gives it the feel of an actual album, something that can’t be said for many other greatest hits collections.
Singles proves that Squeeze were in fact a terrific singles band. They mixed up their sound regularly, but they never strayed too far away from the key elements that make up memorable pop songs. Their signature song is “Up the Junction,” a classic boy-loves-girl number with an instantly recognizable hook, and an extremely catchy melody that carries each verse.
Squeeze, like their contemporaries XTC, were fortunate in that they had not one but two skillful songwriters, Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook. Their work comes straight from the double-frontman mold, two separate styles fused together to fuel a singular vision. Neither have particularly tremendous range as singers, but they do have undeniably pleasant voices, and always nail the notes they aim for.
Occasionally their lyrics can be especially poignant, as on “Tempted,” which soundtracked an incredibly ubiquitous jeans commercial a couple years ago (I can’t remember the brand). “Tempted” opens by detailing the protagonist’s morning routine, peaking with the line, “I said to my reflection, ‘Let’s get out of this place.’” On “Goodbye Girl,” Difford references Bob Dylan and plays a neat syntactical trick, singing, “If you see her, say, “Hello, goodbye girl.”
Squeeze wrote the type of pop songs that one doesn’t easily tire of. Singles 45’s and Under, despite its short length, is yet to wear out its welcome with me. I duly recommend it to any fan of late 70s-early 80s era British pop.
When I made my last post, I wondered if I was fighting a battle than didn’t need fought. But more related illogic in this Robert Hilburn article (originally in the LA Times). Hilburn suggests that what’s on the radio is what the people want. I can’t decide if this is naivete or blindness. In one sentence, here’s what I think: People want what they’re given.
It reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George and Jerry propose their sit-com to the network. When asked why people will watch the show, George says, “Because it’s on.”