The Eclectic Guy's Incomplete Index of Underappreciated Vinyl
In late 2001, the Eclectic Guy began to compile this index of those albums in his record collection that he had (purposefully) overlooked for many years. Here are some low (and high) watermarks from an era of lower fidelity, endangered species of a vanishing medium.
Tyrannosaurus Rex. some lore from the books of Agadinnar or A BEARD OF STARS. Dedicated to the Priests of Peace, all Shepherds and Horse Lords and my Imperial Lore Liege—the King of the Rumbling Spires. Right. Circa 1970. I dug this gem out of my collection when Guitar World magazine declared the solo in “Elemental Child” one of the hundred worst in rock history. From the intro, with the aimless electric guitar playing and the irritating finger cymbals, you get the sinking feeling that you’re stuck in somebody’s vision. Evoking images of Pan, Marc Bolan’s vibrato sounds like the braying of a sick goat. “Fist heart mighty dawn dart” is thought-provoking, provoking thoughts such as “is one of my speakers shorting out or are they twiddling the ‘pan’ knob on the guitar for a mythic effect, while Tony Visconti looks on, horrified?” Here’s a songwriter who is funny but humorless, and capitalizes “Peace,“ “Truth,” and “Dworn,” which, as a footnote helpfully clarifies, is machinery of war with the horns of a gazelle, but which I suspect is actually a stoned misspelling of “drown.” As in: "Hey, Mickey Finn, put down that hookah and your Moroccan clay drums, and learn to play an instrument, Bolan’s drowning." This record is an embarrassment, but, as usual, the laugh’s on me, because I own it.
Carole King. Tapestry. 1971. I bought my boss's record collection and this came with it. I paid him too much, but he was my boss, and he had an original “Pictures of Matchstick Men” 45. Every song on this album is one you already know intimately but thought was by somebody else. It's the most breathtakingly competent, sincere songwriting you've ever heard. You might not be ready to enjoy it: you'll have to drop so much of your ballast of angst, irony, and kitch that you'll feel uncomfortably weightless. This is music WITHOUT AN ANGLE. There is nothing two-sided or clever here. It seems to predate everything but is relevant, female but androgenous, white but grey, professional but believable. It might be dangerous for someone born after 1970 to listen to this, because you can't sneer at it, categorize it, or sub-categorize it. It's neither so bad it's good nor so good it's bad. Neither obscure nor overplayed, slick nor ragged. It's not selling out, nor is it weird just to be weird, or even weird. It's... honest. Just avoid it. It might do permanent damage to your knowing cynicism. You might get in touch with your feelings, and that can be a disgustingly squishy experience.
Spooked. Robyn Hitchcock. 2004. Once again Robyn Hitchcock is releasing a vinyl version of a CD with a different selection, as he did with Storefront Hitchcock, Moss Elixir/Mossy Liquor, and the rerelase of the Soft Boys' Underwater Moonlight, all of which were great. But you know what, Robyn Hitchcock? For once I have no idea how to get my hands on your weird new vinyl release and I don't mind, because you fell off a cliff when Jonathan Demme left your life and I heard the CD and if you can't get it together to make a heartbreaking record with Gillian Welsh then, frankly, I'm disappointed, and doubt the vinyl has anything to offer me. Well okay I'll order it anyway. You still the man. You know what: never mind.
This is Our Music. Ornette Coleman Quartet. This is a high fidelity recording. Atlantic uses a specially constructed 8-channel Ampex (300-8R) tape recorder for its recording sessions. Individual microphone equalization is not permitted. The sound created by musicians and singers is reproduced as faithfully as possible, and special care is taken to preserve the frequency range as well as the dynamic range of each performance. Too bad I listened to the whole fucking record at 45 RPM and didn't even notice. Dude this jazz is out but not that out.
Sesame Street sings the Alphabet. 1971. All the turbulence and dreams of the 1960s find voice in this triumphant masterpiece of aural art. Remember when you first heard Ernie sing "I dont want to live on the moon"? Well this is the Sesame Street ensembles Sgt. Pepper, before Ernie and Bert were fighting so badly that they couldnt be in the studio at the same time, and all their duets were overdubbed. C is for Cookie, the original. The young Cookie Monster, on fire, before he made his Vegas comeback with the awful Sesame Street Fever and died of a pastry overdose in a bathroom stall in one of muppet rocks most embarrassing catastrophes. Four Furry Friends is a heart-drenching drinking anthem for blue furry ambiguously sexual mammals. Sammy the Snake is the sexiest thing since old blue eyes. And "Z-The Zizzy Zoomers" (as performed by the Anything People) is a whiz-bang ending. Literally: there is a whiz and a bang in this track. The CD is fraudulent, beginning with a forgettable Elmo number not on the original vinyl. Elmo is the Sammy Davis Junior to Grovers Lennon, in my opinion.
Dead City Radio. William S. Burroughs. 1990. It would appear that perhaps half of these tracks are William S. Burroughs performing his work, and the other half mumbled outtakes and impromptu readings of the Bible. Curiously, Sonic Youth puts in an appearance for a brief instrumental interlude. On the whole, the raunchy and ecstatic mumblings of William S. Burroughs set against odd arrangements that call to mind old-time radio theater is the right collision of beat prose and studio polish. If I ever get married, I'll have Hal Willner arrange the music for the reception.
Sonic Youth. 4 tunna brix. 1989. Four knowing covers of songs by the Fall as performed by Sonic Youth. It seems that Sonic Youth are not skilled enough instrumentalists to be able to play sufficiently few notes to reproduce the Falls sub-minimal arrangements accurately. And to replicate the chalkboard-scraping dissonance of "My New House," it may be necessary to tune ones guitar. And nobody can enunciate like Mark E. Smith. These New York art punk superstars wish they could sound like they had suffered Manchester. The only thing authentic about this record is that it is probably about as hard to find a copy of as the original Fall records. Sounds like it took less time to record than it does to listen to. This record is silly. I bought it.
Camper van Beethoven. Tusk. 2002. Okay, remember the awful breakup of Camper van Beethoven? Jonathan Segel had already left and there were crazy rumors that the master tapes of the new album had been stolen from a vault (professional alternative music thieves?). Camper van Beethioven broke up and then there were no records anymore, only CDs. Well, my CD copy of their second album (Camper van Beethoven II & III) skips worse than my vinyl copy. The early CVB is intensely special music that could only have happened by accident. So what is this Tusk? Let me see if I have this right: the 2CD set Tusk (2002) was apparently recorded in 1987 during rehearsals for their third album (Camper van Beethoven). It is a cover of a Fleetwood Mac album. They never finished recording it, the tapes were lost and/or destroyed, "finally discovered in the storeroom of Greg's parents' shop," and this release was painstakingly reconstructed with computers. Weird. Weird enough to buy, maybe even weird enough to listen to. One problem: RELEASE THIS ALBUM ON VINYL. The albums they recorded at this time were released on vinyl. This is not headphone music: the only advantage to a CD is the inclusion of a quicktime movie of a rehearsal of "Z.Z. Top Goes to Egypt," (a bonus track arguably cooler than the album itself for purists - I mean in order for Camper van Beethoven to do what they did, they needed to be having a good time, and Tusk is self-flagellation). HEY CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN AND PITCH-A-TENT YOU NEED TO CUT THIS ONE ON VINYL. Eugene Chadborne does not play on this. I was never able to get into Fleetwood Mac. Neither were Camper van Beethoven, apparently.
Skeleton Crew. Learn to Talk. 1983/84. Goddamn, but this is good. Spastic, haunting, virtuosic, bellicose, churlish, kinetic, sometimes beautiful, sometimes outright unlistenable (their Sousa cover, for example). Fred Frith and Tom Cora are the dynamic duo of commercially infeasible art punk. The Eurythmics, Van Halen, and even David Bowie need to step down: this is the music of 1984.
Fripp, Robert. The League of Gentlemen. 1981. Sounds like a good idea: surviving members of XTC, Shriekback, Gang of Four, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, King Crimson, Fripp and Eno, whatever band Johnny Toobad was in, and throw in Danielle Dax on Hamsprachtmuzic, whatever that is. Sounds like Philip Glass on speed, machinelike but played manually. Highly repetitive music spliced together with talking and what sounds like a woman climaxing (are we to take it that two of these amazing musicians are having sex? which ones?!). A great idea for a record, all that's missing is some writing. A tempo change? And maybe some cover art.
King Crimson. Lizard. 1970. This gets the Eclectic Guy's vote for most lavish King Crimson record, though the competition is, anyone will admit, fierce. Listen to this record wearing robes. The CD has egregiously compromised cover art, but this music is the sort of rock that actually sounds better without crackling. Not just another violin band.
Slack. Bigger Than Breakfast. 1987. This record has a lot to offera great band playing tight speedfunk, Bruce Fowler on the bone, a bright orange and green record coverbut still not quite enough. Like a sterile, disciplined Tar Babies. Is this what John Lennon called "plastic soul"? But "Brain Toast" makes me long for that Oregon inertia.
Hüsker Dü. Zen Arcade. 1983. For some reason, umlaut bands all sound alike to me. This punkpop is fast and ragged but is still ultimately unexpressive: canned angst. The last song is thirteen minutes long. It is energetic but vague. There are lots of long hums: a conscious tribute to Metal Machine Music? "The Tooth Fairy and the Princess"... Wow, for a second I thought I was backward, then I realized it was the song. But nobody's backward pop music tops Camper van Beethoven's.
Rio. Duran Duran. 1980s. Bliss. Jungle gym. Candy pink 80s hair. Standard electric guitar motifes fusing with stock synthesizer sounds create unique timbres. Baroque sequencer. Dramatic nonsequitur. Anachronistic sax solo. Competent bass. Orgasm. Prettyboy sinister. You’re lonely in your nightmare, let me in, said MTV. Seductive images of Simon Le Bon knocked off the edge of the dock by an inexplicable bouncing ball representing a songwriter's relationship wiith fashion.
Rascal Reporters. Riding on a Bummer. 1984. Any record that has Fred Frith playing on one of its songs can't be more than 9/10ths bad. Another thing I was able to learn about this record without having to listen to it is that there are two songwriters, and each of them wrote one side of the record. Now that's something you can't do on a CD. Even if you could, the CD is much smaller and easier to flip over so it's not the same. For the Eclectic Guy, the litmus test of a record like this is whether the songs (a "song" is a piece of music with lyrics) are good. The few instances of singing here are unintelligible, and the lyric sheet (printed with fading gold ink on maroon paper) is illegible: these guys apparently have something to hide from their former English teachers. The works of Kretzmer are chaotic with dense and muddy arrangements and pretentious titles. The works of Gore are cheesily majestic, but with a sense of humor ("does anybody have a brain?") and the sort of weirdness that has integrity. The attempts to be lyrical and serious are kind of painful, and the straightfaced use of casio keyboards doesn't help. The sixteen-minute track will have you tapping your foot & glancing at your watch. If, in the unlikely event that you've heard all the records of Henry Cow and this has left you wanting more, you might consider a quest to the used record stores of Detroit to find a barely-scratched copy of this pressing from the almost-certainly defunct Hebbardesque Records. And lest you think I am accusing these guys of being too indulgent, note that, according to the liner notes, this was originally intended to be a double-album. Less of too much is more. UPDATE 2005 November: “It's alive!”
Snakefinger's History of the Blues. This record failed to make an impression on me for a long time, and, certainly, for those of us who love Snakefinger, this music is scandalously conventional. Rather than bring his reptilian sensibility to these numbers, the late Mr. Lithman and his orchestra actually deliver surprisingly faithful covers of these already-familiar tunes, making the overall listening exerience not much different from that of an ordinary blues compilation. But, as Snakefinger produced (to my knowledge) only five albums before his untimely and tragic demise, let's not be picky. Worship him.
Death of Samantha. Where the women wear the glory and the men wear the pants. 1988. Please excuse my sincerity when I tell you that this record rocks. The vocalist has an unbelievably sinister and rabidly articulate delivery (bet you didn't know "fire" was a three syllable word) and the guitarist has at least a record's worth of tricks. The rest of the band can keep a beat. The songs are good and the production is thoughtful, with understated horn and string arrangements, including a weird French horn solo dropped into the middle of a song as if by accident . The song about Sylvia Plath is weird but touching, and the extended tantrum "Lucky Dog (Lost my Pride)" is dazzlingly cynical. What happened in Cleveland in 1988 that could have inspired this overlooked masterpiece of independent rock? And where is John Petkovic now? And has he calmed down? Buy this record somehow.
Soft Machine. Peel sessions. How British is it. This music suffers from some of the excesses of 70's art rock, such as unrestrained use of saxophone. Still, as I listen to these people spin elaborately long-winded songs about obscure topics, I can only think that these are my people. The introduction is pretty amazing; it stands alongside King Crimson's "Lament" as one of the only pieces of Meta-Art-Rock I know of. It's a song about the Peel Sessions, and the trials and tribulations of writing songs that are too long for rock audiences to pay attenti
The Kinks. The Village Green Preservation Society. I never understood why so many cool Chicago record collector guys are into the Kinks. Sounding more like oldies than classic rock, this is a collection of psychedelic music whose vision is that of an uninteresting England. It sounds a little bit like Rubber Soul. Go figure, maybe its the tambourine, I'm sure these guys weren't trying to sound like the Beatles off drugs.
The Kinks. Something Else Again. This album leans closer toward emulating the Who than it does the Beatles and this helps it. Some good acidic treatment of the instruments gives this potentially limp music a certain punch. I am especially fond of "Harry Rag." What is that song about, anyway? Tin Soldier Man, is a political number, or at least cute. But by the time "Afternoon Tea" comes along, I start to get this weird craving for... any other music by any other band.
Davis, Miles. Bitches Brew. 1969. Moody jazz, very low key and mellow. Kind of smoky. I'm not sure I get it. In fact, I'm not sure I get jazz. But listen to this record because it has wild cover art.
The Higsons. Attack of the Cannibal Zombie Businessmen. 1987. Good music to vacuum to. Uninteresting pop numbers. But listen to this record because there is a Robyn Hitchcock song called "Listening to the Higsons" which is cooler than this whole LP, and has the line "gotta let this hen out," which is a mishearing of one of the lines on this record.
Lonely Trailer. Test. 1988. What is there to say about this out of print record by this defunct Urbana power trio..? Nice bright harmonies.
Material. One Down. 1982. Techno pop with a great cast of sidemen, including Fred Frith on guitar and Whitey Houston on vocals (one song each). The cover, which depicts a one dollar bill with holes shaped like a map of the continental USA, seems to be making some kind of statement about how people living in the United States tend to use American currency. At the time it was released, this music must have sounded really interesting, in a slick and repetitive and by now very familiar way.
The Nazz. Best of Nazz. 1960s (obviously). Competent psychedelic rock from, I presume, the late 1960s, though no date appears on the record. In the music I hear echoes of a lot of songs by other bands that probably came later: plagiarism by anticipation? Todd Rundgren is, in the end, as always, totally boring. "Meridian Leeward," the vapid song about the porcine aviator, is a real low point for me. "Under the Ice" carries the record though: somebody get the drummer a towel.
REM. Life's Rich Pageant. 1986. "Swan Swan Hummingbird" is easily my favorite song by REM, indeed the only REM song I like. Though "Superman" is charming in an empty kind of way.
Renaldo and the Loaf. Arabic Yodeling. 1983. Ralph Record's commercially defiant experimental pop duo Renaldo and the Loaf is not for everyone. The comparison with the Residents in unavoidable (especially the squeaky, abrasive vocals), the difference at first glance being that Renaldo has a more diverse instrumentation (using instruments other than synthesizers), but doesn't offer any context for the music, whearas most of the records of the Residents might be described as concept albums, as misguided as those concepts can be. The Loaf has a funny name, they have weird song titles, but the music is not especially funny or intricate. Most of it is one 4:4 rhythm. What makes the music strange is its simplicity. The middle of side 1 has some surprising moments"Dichotomy Rag"but the rest is mostly appropriate for parties: when the party has gone on too long and you wish that people would leave, play this record very loud and rant about how brilliant it is.
Scratch Acid. Berserker. 1986. Loud abrasive unintelligible punk with an artsy album cover from Austin. Moody, indulgent, sexist, and violent. Cool throughout except for one little detail: the music.
Spiegel, Laurie. The Expanding Universe. 1980. Pretentious, repetitive, minimalist pure synthesizer music. Philip Glass joins the Residents. I could see this as background music in a documentary about ants or shopping.
Sun Ra. The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra. 1966. by Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra. This vague meandering jazz is pretty cosmic. Interestingly, according to the album cover, the music was recorded in 1965 and composed and arranged in 1966. That might explain the chaotic feeling, as the band may have had trouble getting those unwritten changes right. That shows that cat Sun Ra's unconventional working process though. What's with the Esperanto on the back cover?
Walsh, Joe. You Bought it -- You Name It. 1983. If the Eagles had a good songwriter in their band, it was probably Joe Walsh. A bunch of well-fed studio musicians funk their way through often silly songs; I.L.B.T.s is a pure puerile number for you simple, sexist guys out there. I favored "The Worry Song" but, in the end, I could only stand to listen this record once. Life is short.
II. Led Zeppelin (sic). Oh, 1960's where have you gone? Before Haircut 100, UB40, and U2 there were bands content to name themselves after mere Roman numerals, and proofreading their album covers would have required too long a period of sobriety (unless the zeppelin in question was not made of lead but was being led somewhere, but let me roll up another one to ponder this heavy heavy question). II seems to have been fairly adept at playing other people's blues licks, but clearly they were destined for obscurity. (NOTE: After writing this I discovered that this same silly album title had been used by another band whose name was even more esoteric than "II": a series of symbols that makes the glyph formerly known as Prince seem pronounceable.)
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