I've just got to write a list here of great albums that have come to me from left field, with no warning. These are records where I had no advance knowledge of how wonderful they would turn out to be.
The album that provoked me to write this page is Spinning World: 13 ways of looking at a waltz by Gunnar Madsen, a name best known from the a capella group The Bobs, and next-best known for children's records. In this case it wasn't quite 100% out of left field; I heard Gunnar perform one of the waltzes on the piano shortly before I bought the record. What this is, is thirteen waltzes in quite different moods and styles, scored for a chamber ensemble. A typical waltz might be performed by a piano, a violin, a clarinet, a cello, and maybe a bass or a soprano sax or some drums. One thing about this record is that it's pretty hard to file by genre. Is it classical? Jazz? Folk? EZ listening? If you're shopping for it in a record store you may have to check several sections, or have a clerk look it up. Some stores have been known to file it in the children's section, because of his other albums there. As I said in an amazon.com review (which Gunnar asked me permission to use as a blurb!), this outside-of-genre quality does not make it a niche work, but instead makes it universal. This is music that just about anyone can like.
What makes this album wonderful, most of all, is just how sheerly beautiful it is. The tunes have a loveliness that is very rare. They also have quite a bit of freshness and originality, despite being old-fashioned in style. The existence of this album is definitely going to make my xmas shopping simpler... if I can find any copies in stores, that is; it may be a bit late for mail order, and quite a few local stores seem to be sold out.
One rock&roll album that totally knocked me back on my ass without warning was Infernal Love by Therapy?. (The question mark is part of the band's name.) This is not considered by their fans to be a top album of theirs, but most bands would believe themselves to have been directly inspired by God if they ever managed to produce something so incredible. Therapy? was a hard rock power trio at that time (they have now expanded to four), and for my money they were the best power trio we've seen since the days of Hüsker Dü. They're big in Europe (they hail from Ireland) but still somewhat obscure in the States. What we have here is all the deafening power and noise of good heavy metal with none of the stupidity or phoniness, combined with top-notch songcraft and musicianship. The songs are as dark and grim and angry as they should be to go with that style of music, and are not for the faint-hearted. But they are highly melodic, and are rooted in an authenticity and artistry that puts them in an entirely different category from the kind of childish hate fantasies that you usually find in records described as "not for the faint-hearted". I definitely need to buy some of their newer work. The one older album of theirs I've gotten, Nurse, is more harshly "industrial" and doesn't have the magic that Infernal Love has.
(Speaking of Hüsker Dü, perhaps I should mention my first exposure to them. A roommate played me a cut or two from Zen Arcade, and I went to the store and randomly came home with Warehouse: Songs and Stories. I played the first half, ending with the Grant Hart song "She Floated Away". When I heard that song, I backed up and played it again... and again... I found myself compulsively replaying that song, sometimes along with the following song "Bed of Nails", over and over -- something I normally never do. I mentioned this to the roommate, and he responded with these immortal words: "That's what happens when junkies write songs. You get addictive music.")
Some years ago, the Reed College area in Oregon produced a band called Slack. (As far as I know this name had no connection to the Church of the SubGenius.) Their album Deep Like Space is a marvelous insane bundle of rocknroll fun. They're a sextet with a saxophone, and a vocalist who is reminiscent of David Lee Roth only better. Though they often seemed to be aiming some of their style for an inebriated frat crowd, the songs were complex and imaginative and full of humor and intelligence -- and also frenetic and hyper as only middle class college kid musicians can be.
The album contains two live cuts. One is a medley that sticks "Rhinestone Cowboy" and Blue Öyster Cult's "Godzilla" into the middle of a Slack original, and the other is a cover of "Louie, Louie". Now I know what you're thinking -- playing "Louie, Louie" is what the lamest bands do. But Slack's performance of "Louie, Louie" is, quite simply, the best anyone has ever recorded. I know from "Louie, Louie" performances -- I have more than seven hours of different "Louie, Louie" versions on tape, and I've even done my own bogus version. None of them begin to compare to Slack's fast, funky sax-and-rap rendition. Unfortunately the record is long out of print and was never sold in CD form; only cassette and LP. With prices for copies running towards $50, I'd say it's ripe for a reissue.
Maybe I should contact C/Z Records and see if they mind me putting up some MP3s...
The luckiest day of my life, as far as record-shopping goes, was when Rasputin's in Berkeley had a big clearance of old used stuff, and I brought home bags of cassettes for fifty cents each, and then as the sale continued, for twenty-five cents each... and most of it was crap, a collection in which a copy of Tin Machine stood out as a prize... but one day, I brought home a bag that turned out to contain not one but two of the greatest left field albums ever. One of them was Mr. Toyhead by the Angry Babies. It was my first discovery of Eric McFadden, who is now my favorite musician in the world. I've already described that album on my Eric McFadden fan page, so I won't do so here...
The other one in that batch was Fame and Fossils by Reptile, a band from Iceland. Their real name in Icelandic is Risaeðlan. Ever since, I have maintained to anyone who will listen that Björk and/or the Sugarcubes are only the second-greatest act to come from Iceland. I have an urge to do a whole separate page about the greatness of Risaeðlan, though since they're not around any more I suppose it wouldn't be that pointful. They were fronted by Magga Stína, a singer and fiddle player who now has a solo career. Up through the time of Fame and Fossils, they also had saxophonist Dora Wonder as a second vocalist. (Full name: Halldóra Geirharðsdottir Wonder.) She apparently dropped out by the time they were working on their second album, which was never finished. The band also featured an accordion, plus the usual guitar, bass, and drums, and you might occasionally hear a trombone.
Of all the bands on this list, Risaeðlan may be the weirdest and silliest. And that's saying something, next to the Angry Babies. Their music was full of tons of energy and fun, and reminiscent of any number of bouncy European traditional folk styles. It almost sounds like a kind of Viking Klezmer. It retains that fun bouncy quality even when they're playing an angry punk song. Magga's voice is a kind of light fluffy soprano that sounds like the most harmless possible girl-next-door in a gingham dress. That and the maniacally cheerful style of music makes a pretty strange setting for songs where she sings about shooting her boyfriend or being carved up with a chainsaw. Dora's voice balances it out nicely, being much rougher.
The singers' thick accents and odd English grammar add to the charm. Nobody who speaks English natively could come up with some of the lines in these songs. "Love is like a strange pig." "I'm the greatest bluster in the world." Some songs use other languages -- in one case the lyrics are printed in Russian. And what is one to make of a mixture like "I'm so cold and he's so hoppahör"? But the line "Teik mí ná or never!" doesn't need any translating.
Their label, Smekkleysa a.k.a. Bad Taste, has released a compilation CD called Efta! which includes a bunch of songs recorded for the second album (mostly without Dora, which hurts), plus various early singles and b-sides, with most of Fame and Fossils wedged into the middle -- 22 songs all told. This is quite a deal as far as quantity goes, which helps given that it costs like eight bucks to have it shipped from Iceland. It appears to be pretty near their entire output, except for three songs not included from F&F, one of which is present in an earlier version sung in Icelandic. But F&F is much better integrated as an album, so I'm glad I have both. Also, there's only one song in English that isn't on F&F, if that's a factor in what you want to listen to.
Here is one
MP3 of a Risaeðlan song made available by Bad Taste -- a gentle
little tune from F&F called "Kindness and Love". (When
this page was first posted, that link was to a different song which wasn't
nearly as good.)
UPDATE: Speaking of Smekkleysa, the discovery of Risaeðlan led me to check out a number of other Icelandic bands on that label, and even to buy a CD or two (such as Stranger Tales by Bellatrix), and of all the quirky bands on that label, the one that struck me as the weirdest and (I thought) most un-commercial was Sigur Rós. They play slow droney tunes with no dance beat, the frontman plays electric guitar with a bow, it's sometimes hard to tell the singer's gender, and many songs (particularly in their later work) are sung in an unintelligible made-up fake language called Hopelandic. But suddenly they're the kings of cool. Imagine my surprise when this year Sigur Rós started getting wide media attention, and when they came to my town the tickets were thirty dollars. I'd wanted to see them, but not that badly. So they represent the opposite of a left-field surprise: if they become truly big names, I can brag that I knew about them years before you guys did.
The first version of this page that I put up stopped here, but of course I remembered more albums worthy of inclusion.
I ought to mention the good old Buena Vista Social Club. Who could possibly not like this album? It's pleasant right away and only grows on you with time. I have generally been getting more into Cuban music lately -- I'm digging old Tito Puente and so on -- but even if I'd never listened to it before, this one would just be an indispensable gem. Fortunately, everybody knows about this album already; it has achieved the mass popularity that so many excellent records fail to. I don't even remember my reason for buying it, unless it was just to randomly explore Cuban sounds... I had not seen the movie or heard any of the tunes before. I had, of course, heard it being widely talked about.
Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo. That name may be familiar to those who got strongly into early eighties New Wave, but outside of that category the name is probably known and appreciated mainly just by serious rock geeks. There are enough of those rock geeks, though, that used copies of the album Good Clean Fun are fetching collectors-item prices. And according to one article I read, the band got no money from the album!
I was familiar with one song on the record -- "Shelly's Boyfriend" (her first and probably her best-remembered hit) -- which she wrote while with her previous band, the Punts. (The Punts were a punk band, and this song was Not Punk, which is why she recorded the song with a new band.) That song was charming enough to get me to buy the record, but I never expected the amount of magic that this record has. First of all, its title fits: good clean fun is exactly what it offers. The song "Dum Fun" in particular, is such a joyous musical gift... it is indeed, as its own lyric says, "something to make you happy against your will." It starts out with a light and frothy pop tune about needing some dumb fun, and then at the end it suddenly mutates into a slow-tempoed bluesy instrumental with the guitar and Bonnie's organ bouncing off each other... and somehow, the combination of the two parts makes a synergy that I've never heard anywhere else: the instrumental adds depth and substance to the pop tune, and the pop tune keeps anything dark or negative from getting into the instrumental... and the result has quite literally left me helplessly grinning from ear to ear after listening to it.
There are very few rock or pop records that so strongly convey the joyous nature of getting together and making music. Yet there's nothing particularly extraordinary in the ingredients, and as far as I've managed to hear, Bonnie Hayes' later albums never bottled that magic again. Sometimes things just click in a way you can't explain or duplicate.
Update: Bonnie has recently taken up playing the guitar instead of keyboards, and says that her next album is going to return to a raw garage-y rock sound, completely opposite to the slick and forgettable stuff that came out of her foray into the commercial pop world in the late eighties and early nineties. I am looking forward to it. She is also actively looking for anyone who might have a bootleg copy of the Good Clean Fun master tape, because the record company lost it, along with the work of many other artists.
Update to the update: I bought the new guitar album, Love In The Ruins. It's fairly good, better overall than her pop records, but it's not magic.
How could I have forgotten? London Calling by The Clash. I knew it would probably be a good record, but I wasn't warned that it would be one of the great immortal works of the rock&roll canon, which is what it is. One of the hundred or so records that is indispensable to anyone serious about rock&roll.
One classical recording I can mention is the Erich Leinsdorf performance of selections from the ballet Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev, recorded "direct to disc" by Sheffield Lab. In this case, half of the reason it rocked me back on my heels was not just because of the music -- though the work remains a favorite of mine still, and raised my general opinion of Prokofiev -- but because of the incredible sound the record had. First of all, it was not recorded in a concert hall, but in a big Hollywood sound stage which contributed a lot less reverberation. This made the sound of the orchestra far more clear, up front, and immediate than is typical in classical recordings, or even in live concert halls (at least in the seats I can afford). Second, it was recorded with what was, at the time, the ultimate spare-no-expense state of the art in high fidelity, with special attention to capturing powerful transient surges that you still often don't find on modern compact discs. Third, I first heard it in a stereo store where the salesman was using it to show off some of his best equipment for sale, and the speakers were an unusual design from a company called KEF, which took the approach that high frequencies should be beamed narrowly at the listening spot, instead of allowed to scatter all over the room. Most speakers try to diffuse high frequencies as widely as possible, so that you can move around the room without the sound degrading. KEF sacrificed this flexibility in order to get the purest possible sound at one spot. The results were so stunning that nothing I've heard since has matched it. When the percussionist gave a good hard sock to the snare drum, it practically knocked a chip of bone out of my forehead... yet the overall sound was not in the least harsh on the ears. It was sound reproduction so awesome that it was actually better than a real concert hall, which sounds oxymoronic but is true in this case. It's never sounded that good at home, but this recording is still a unique treasure.
An honorable mention goes to Prokoviev's opera The Fiery Angel. I bought on the strength of a review, so I had some expectation. Lots of operas have a scene where the lead soprano "goes mad" after something awful happens to her, but this may be the only one where she starts out insane. This is about the only opera I own a copy of. It became my test disc when shopping for speakers and headphones. (I got Infinity RS5 and Sennheiser HD570, and am quite happy with them. My previous small Infinity RS2000 pair became my computer speakers. My computer sounds better than your computer, nyah nyah.)
I can also mention the performance of Handel's Messiah conducted by Colin Davis, with soloists Heather Harper, Helen Watts, John Wakefield, and John Shirley-Quirk, recorded by Philips some time in the 1970s. In an effort to "scrape off the barnacles that have grown on the work" and get away from the ponderous weightiness that had come to accompany customary performances of it, Davis put together an orchestra of only 40 players (including the organist) and a chorus of only 40 singers. This allowed him to hand pick performers of all-star quality. In this way, the choral passages get the tightest possible rendition, so that every syllable is nearly as clear as it might be with just one singer. The result is just so damn good. As far as I know it's still the most wonderful Messiah performance on record... yet when my copy got stolen, I found a replacement in the cut-out bin! I don't know that it was ever reissued on CDs, either.
And how can you go wrong when you've got a performer named "John Shirley-Quirk"? Especially when he's got a jive-ass white stripe in his hair.
(Gaah... This being the holiday season as I write this, I just pulled out the record and played it -- and discovered that the belt in my crappy old turntable has gone bad.)
Speaking of '70s classical LPs, my parents had a record of Brahms' piano works opus 118 and 119 performed by pianist Radu Lupu. As he played them, these pieces were works of marvelous sublimity. I didn't manage to get my own copy, and later, when I bought a copy of the pieces played by a different pianist, that version sucked like a top of the line 14 amp Hoover.
Finally, I'll mention a different kind of record, one that truly qualifies as what some call an "alternative classic". An alternative classic is a record (or book, or film, etc) that is not only "so bad it's good", but so so-bad-it's-good that it's truly great -- a record that stands head and shoulders above other enjoyably bad records. True alternative classics are a good deal rarer than conventional classics. I once found such a record in the local Goodwill. It was called The Sanborn Singers Sing Out For Free Enterprise.
The Sanborn Singers (led by Fred Sanborn) are an amateur vocal group consisting entirely of Amway distributors, and the front cover photo shows them all in red white and blue clothes (and plastic hair) standing in someone's front lawn in a sea of Amway products, holding up bottles of detergent. They sing mostly old fashioned popular songs that you might have heard on "Sing Along With Mitch", with no great skill, but once in a while they'll do an original number about the wonderfulness of Amway. Even when I haven't played the record in years, I can still sing you every note and every word of the song "What is Amway?". They're so cluelessly nostalic that they not only sing a tune about picking cotton, they do a "patriotic" song by Pete Seeger without even noticing the sting in its tail. They're accompanied by Jan Sanborn on piano, playing in a sprightly style not unlike that of John Ashcroft, our musical Attorney General, plus a hired rhythm section (brushed drums only, please) and one or two others on some songs. I believe they have a second album out there somewhere, too.
Copyright or no copyright, I have to share this with the world: What is Amway.mp3
I suppose I should also mention just how much I have truly enjoyed my copies of The Rhino Brothers Present The World's Worst Records, volumes 1 and 2. These are records that have real lasting value, unlike the hits of the day that are forgotten in a few years. I got the first volume just because of the name. When I spotted volume 2 in a super-hip record store in the Haight and pounced gleefully on it, the clerk remarked with a voice not exactly glowing with warm approval, "I was wondering when someone would buy that." The first Golden Throats collection is a worthwhile addition to this set as well.
As an addendum I'll mention a few times I was blown away by something I heard on the radio. Once was the first time I heard Laurie Anderson's "O Superman". Another was when I heard the Kronos Quartet perform the string quartet by Witold Lutoslawski. There was the fifth symphony of Boris Tshchenko -- which I have never been able to find a recording of anywhere, to see if it's actually as great as it seemed at first listen.
I'm mentioning radio instances because I had another such experience just a few hours ago, as I write this, hearing the klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer. My god, what that guy can do with a clarinet! I've never heard such incredible showoff playing from any clarinetist, in jazz or in any other genre. He was playing a sort of jazz-rock-fusion klezmer accompanied by accordion, electric guitar, bass and drums. I must have that album. [I did buy it; it's called A New Hot One.]
Oh, and then there was the first time I heard Rosemary Clooney singing "Come on a my house", while doing gardening work in someone's yard. That left me astonished and thrilled in rather a different way. Years later, I played another Clooney tune from that same recording session -- "Mambo Italiano" -- to a roommate, and he declared that the only possible explanation for it was ergot poisoning. But damn, that crazy weird Italian honky-tonk piano player she worked with made a record that, in its own way, remains unmatched. It has an over-the-top liveliness that just grabs the ear and makes your body move, no matter how idiotic the songs are.
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